DETROIT – Dipping her brush into a raw box of jet black ink, Karen Moeller begins to make thick strokes on a worn metal surface. Attached to a crank, a giant rolling pin distributes the substance evenly, while smearing bold metallic letters with ink.
With a tabloid-sized poster sheet lined up above the print roller, the crank begins to spin and the paper catches. It curls up and thick black letters are pressed into the paper, lining the rainbow face of Mavis Staples standing into a microphone.
One less, 99 to go.
“What we are doing is not effective,” Moeller said. “But it has its own beauty. I mean even the space – don’t you feel it?
What Moeller, her husband, and Jim Cain, who is spearheading plans for a Staples-titled benefit concert, “do” are print posters, 1950s-style. For this trio, the tangible elements of the process, the small adjustments that come from this 20th century game of trial and error amplify the meaning of each draw.
The shiny new page of art may be freshly printed, but everything about its creation is dripping with nostalgia. Despite the growing digitization of the world, this archaic process has seen something of a revival in recent years.
Wooden type that printers place on typographic presses.
“I think a lot of people want to work with their hands,” said Lynne Avadenka, director of Signal Return. “They’re fed up with the computer. You definitely see that when university students come here. They’re very attracted to the fact that they’re not sitting in front of a screen.”
Instead, students, freelance artists and would-be printer classes are faced with a printing press – a clumsy metal contraption that spans the length of a dining table.
Five of these manual machines can be found in a small corner of Detroit’s Eastern Market. After being retired from service at major print shops, these printing presses have found a new home at Signal Return, a print shop that caters to local designers looking for a closer connection to their work.
Karen Moeller presents the design of a poster announcing a concert.
When Signal Return was founded, it was done with two goals in mind: to bring what Hatch Show Print had grown in Nashville to Detroit, and to build a community that could be shared among local artists. Instead of building a shared space for food or drinks, this piece would help hobbyists hone their craft.
“You have to come here and share material, you’re not working alone in your studio,” Avadenka said. “So there is a common sense to a printing press.”
However, it is not cheap equipment. Ten-year-old printing presses are in high demand. The same goes for the types used when printing. The non-profit organization receives its supplies through various means; sometimes through donations, sometimes by bidding on refurbished machines.
To give people an idea, the nonprofit’s wood type is worth thousands of dollars. One of their new presses cost $12,500.
On the revenue side, Signal Return shares its profits with local artists every time a piece is sold in the store. Poster costs go up to $200, but his cards cost as little as $5.
Cain, who helps run a local concert promoter called Acoustic Routes, plans to sell some of their best copies to the Michigan Theater when Staples performs. All proceeds will go to The Breakfast at St. Andrew’s, a local soup kitchen in Ann Arbor.
If you want to know more about the concert or how to buy tickets, click here.
You can also learn more about Signal Return here.
Jack Nissen is a reporter for FOX 2 Detroit. You can contact him at (248) 552-5269 or at [email protected]