The Curious Caribou Letterpress

lives at Tuktu Studio in Whitehorse

After twelve years under wraps, The Curious Caribou pops up its’ head up in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

This is the story of how a Universal lll Vandercook Letterpress finds a home, powered by the sun in the northwest corner of Canada. It seems ironic to be writing this on my laptop, but is indicative of how my life and art practice weaves between the use of and absence from technology.  I built my studio, named Tuktu (which is Inuvialuit for Caribou) on a rural property just outside the city limits of Whitehorse in 2004. I live in a log cabin, and until a year ago, was hauling my drinking water in blue jugs and using an outhouse. Last year I built an addition to the cabin and as of December 2017,  I have hot running water and an inside flushing toilet. It is still a novelty and I still measure my usage in blue jugs. In May 2018, I had solar systems installed in both buildings and am proud to be feeding electricity into the Yukon Grid.

In 2006, Peter Braune, (well known Master Printer and proprietor of New Leaf Editions on Granville Island, Vancouver), took note of my letterpress-less state, said that I would be saving him the cost of storage as he generously donated his “spare” Vandercook to me— as long as I paid the shipping to Whitehorse.  The press took the long journey from Vancouver up the Alaska highway to downtown Whitehorse. Upon arrival it was reloaded onto a flat bed tow truck and hauled a further 20 minutes in the drizzle to my studio door. A bit of nifty finagling by a guy with a dolly got the nearly 2 ton press into its present place, large and impressive in the corner of my studio.

Peter drove up later that summer to help teach one of four printmaking master classes I had offered that summer. He stayed to strip, clean and repaint the Vandy (now shiny black) and his final generous contribution to my endeavour was to take the two inking rollers with him back to Vancouver to be recovered. We used the Vandercook briefly for one of the classes and then I wrapped it under plastic and a blanket and it became another surface to pile things onto as my visual art career bloomed and took me in several other directions.

The major driver for resurrecting the Vandercook this year is the Frankfurt Book Fair. Each year a country is invited to host the Fair and In 2020, Canada is the host. Although I use a variety of artistic media, my passions lead me to all things involving print, paper and book. I’ve harboured the desire to bring together the papermakers, artists, writers and book binders of the Yukon for a long time and saw this as a catalyst to do so. My goal is to print at least one “something” with The Curious Caribou Press and get it to Germany in 2020.

This takes me from 2006 to this May in 2018 when I invited Paul Moxon, a well known letterpress technician from Mobile, Alabama, to my studio. I’d taken an introduction to Letterpress class at Barbarian Press in 2006 (it was at Barbarian that I named my press The Curious Caribou). Everything about the course was fantastic but it had been 12 years and frankly I was a little nervous about turning the press on after it had been sitting for so long.
Paul agreed to come up to assess, clean and troubleshoot should the press need repairs. He also agreed to conduct two workshops of 2 days each. We delved into an intensive day of what my father would have termed “shaking hands” with the press. Under Paul’s guidance we dismantled most of the presses working parts, learning to clean and either grease or add graphite. I slowly grew to understand the workings of the beast, gaining a facility with its moving parts and sounds. As Paul noted, it is an old machine and although it is in excellent working condition, he pointed out the parts to keep an eye on.  He made note of our collective “handiness” stating that as a group, we’d probably troubleshoot whatever went wrong. Paul told me that he gained his knowledge of how letterpresses work in exactly the same manner, by taking things apart and figuring things out for himself. Just to be sure, he generously left the last copy of his Vandercook reference book with me.

The workshops attracted a diverse and multi-talented group of individuals, some of whom I will create projects with in the future. Each participant set a line of type which was collectively set into the chase and printed. The first group in effect were the guinea pigs, helping to sort and organize type and drawers as we learned the skills of setting and placing type. The second group launched from this organized space,  further modifying and experimenting with layout. Running these classes provided the impetus to reorganize the studio. Now, the devil is in the details and I’ve been compiling a list of what I need to purchase, what can be fabricated here, and what I can do without for the time being.

One thing that I have always loved about living in the Yukon is its’ solid community of problem solvers and innovators. I am delighted that a few folks with avid interest in the workings of the press have continued to show up- brainstorming ideas for press projects, sorting type and helping me print. I seem to have attracted people who can fluidly move between using technology and fussing with old cranky machines. One is investigating the C&C router as a tool to make new wood type and another has shown me how to use a laser printer to cut fine images into linoleum blocks.  Another artist and I figured out how the paper tapes work and I have replaced the missing bar that holds the tapes in place on the drum with a strip of copper. Although they aren’t crucial to the running of the press, they serve to redeliver larger sheets of paper to the feed bed.
Together we are finding ways to make this print studio a working reality.

I’ve recently read Gutenberg’s Fingerprint and am grateful to Merilyn Simonds for writing her book, a valuable resource that has opened the eyes of many people to the world of letterpress. The promise I made to myself to visit St Armand Paper has resurfaced and now I want to design some printers marks for the press! My partner gifted a copy of the Paradise Project to me for my birthday, a lifelong treasure and inspiration. Thank you.

The Curious Caribou has launched a series of cards.  The “Sage advice from Yukon Pioneers” Series will be released in late November, with a new set of 4 cards each year.
In addition I’ve been printing a selection of cards using random bits of incomplete typefaces and my selection of ornaments. Who doesn’t love ornaments? Throughout this entire process, we are all learning, exploring ways to incorporate new technologies to fill in where we lack in the original tools and press materials. I’ve inherited an interesting mix of typefaces and fonts and have yet to fully print everything. As you know it is a huge time commitment and sometimes it is easier and more fun to take a more artistic, less traditional direction. I’m most interested in developing books that are multiple and mixed media using the letterpress as much as possible. I dream of making a pop-up animal book….and the list goes on. I fear I will never fall into the category of Literary Letterpress.  The Curious Caribou will be what it is, curious and unconventional, North of 60.