Friday, April 6, 2012

Hatch Show Print: A history, a pilgrimage, a discussion

My family and I recently had occasion to visit Nashville. I became unreasonably animated about going to visit the world famous Hatch Show Print. To me Hatch embodies a number of things I feel deeply connected to: Letterpress printing (which I love for the craft, the process, the type, the mixture of text and the images) the rich creative culture of the Southern United States, and music. We own a number of Hatch prints and display them proudly in our home. I’m not ashamed to say my impending visit to Hatch began to take on the quality of a religious pilgrimage.

Why? Because Hatch is one of the oldest working letterpress shops in the US and the history of Hatch is inseparable from the history of the American recording industry, the history of Country Music and American broadside advertising. Founded by the Hatch Brothers in 1879, the shop has moved around Nashville 6 times. Back in the day Hatch posters were used to promote silent films, auto and boat races, rodeos, animal shows, vaudeville acts, circus, carnival and minstrel shows across the country.

The Hatch brothers were famous for proclaiming,
"Advertising without posters is like fishing without worms."

For its first hundred years of production the work Hatch made was not held as dear. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the folks at Hatch began preserving poster copies in envelopes, and even since then a few holes remain in the history. In the ‘80s, when most letterpress shops were converting to offset, current manager, curator and chief designer Jim Sherraden saw the unique aesthetic identity and it’s important history as Hatch’s greatest assets and set about to save and celebrate the singular turn-of-the-century character of the Hatch Show Print look. Hatch's great niche, dating from its first poster in 1879, was its dedication to the production of show posters. The last family manager, Will T. Hatch (1886-1952), left a particular legacy of powerful woodblock images that helped define the look of country music during the 1940s and early 1950s.

Over the years their posters have featured a host of country music performers, ranging from Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash. But they've also created designs for everyone from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to B.B. King and the Beastie Boys. One of my favorites is a double bill for the White Stripes and Loretta Lynn. They've also designed and printed work for companies such as Nike, Taylor Guitars, Jack Daniel's and created covers for magazines, CDs, and books.

Artistry and masterful composition are what make Hatch posters part of the story of American art and culture. Snappy graphics, punchy titles, humor, and irony are what make them irresistible. Hatch Show Print is still a working letterpress and design shop, creating posters today using the same letterpress methods as yesterday. About this time next year it will be moving once again, into a new space at the Country Music Hall of Fame where the new shop will be arranged similarly to how it looked when the Hatch Brothers first opened thier doors over a hundred and thirty years ago.  I was lucky. When I walked into Hatch and delivered the message, “Hello,” from a friend of mine, I was treated with incredible generosity and Southern hospitality. I was invited into the back of the shop, introduced to everyone, shown all the presses, shook hands, petted the famous Hatch shop cats, told jokes and had many of my questions answered.

What follows is a discussion in which some of my lingering Hatch questions were answered by a couple of people who should know a thing or two. I like to imagine I was able to hang out with my friends Meredith R Winer and current Hatch intern Tyler Sharpe in the Hatch studio as this casual conversation took place. Perhaps leaning across a press bed while setting type. That’s not how it happened. But let’s just pretend. 

In the discussion below my contribution to the conversation is indicated with the letter B.

Meredith (indicated with an uppercase M) fell in love with wood type and Vandercook presses while earning her MFA in Interdisciplinary Book & Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago. She has a background in ceramics (sculpture and glaze technology focus), and has taught various ceramics, alternative printmaking techniques for clay, bookbinding, and letterpress-printed poster classes. In 2010, she founded Transit Residency NFP, a non-profit artists residency program.

Tyler Sharpe’s contribution to the conversation is noted with a T. Tyler is a photographer, artist and current print intern at Hatch Show Print.

B: Let’s talk presses. What presses are currently running at Hatch? Upon which did you have the chance to print?

M: I haven't printed at Hatch since February 2011, but while I was there I printed on all three of the Vandercooks: the one at the front of the shop is where I printed re-strikes of their Elvis postcards.

T:  Yes, the "Front Press" is a mid 1950s Vandercook SP-15. Given its short press bed, it’s perfect for smaller jobs such as wedding invitations, birth announcements, and small re-strikes. I think of this as the "Show-Press" because it lives in the front, retail portion of the store.

B: I understand the re-strikes or re-prints of archive images were a project that Jim Sherraden implemented in the ‘80s. Jim’s monoprint monster is impressive. I was able to see some of his work-in-progress propped around the shop. It looks like he composes new designs from archive images, in a respectful and visually compelling homage to early iconic Hatch posters. His press is the biggest Vandercook I’ve ever seen.

T: Jim's Vandercook is massive and doesn’t have working ink rollers, so Jim hand brays each block, giving another level of aesthetic control.
M: To my knowledge only Jim uses the gorgeous giant Vandercook for his monoprints.

B: What about the Miehle? It is a crazy looking contraption. It wasn’t running when I was there, just sitting, kind of cracked open in the middle.

M: During my time at Hatch only Dan ran the humungous Miehle (Brad Vetter mixes the ink for it, but no one else operates that press.)

T: The Meihle is a wonder to watch and an utter mystery to me. It is a Meihle 29 with Dexter feeder and is used for jobs over 500 in quantity. It can print up to 2,000 posters in one hour!

M: And there is the Vandercook Universal I which all sorts of famous characters (including ZZ Top) have autographed. I printed re-strikes of the Huey and Maow the cat circus-looking poster (a lino cut carved by former employee Agnes).

T: I call that the "Mid-Press." It’s an early ‘60s Vandercook Universal 1 with adjustable press bed and is the workhorse of Hatch Show Print. It is a hand-crank cylinder press with a bed size of 21.5 inches and is extremely sought after by many letterpress printers.

B: Of course all the Vandercooks are great, but the crazy contraption on the one in the back was something I had read about but never seen before. And what’s the deal with all the dusty platen presses huddled together? Will they be put back into use at the new location a year from now?

M: Ah yes: the Vandy in the far back of the shop, past the Miehle. It has tapes on a kind of tower structure. I printed a full run of a poster for Rodney Carrington on that press.

T: The "Back Press" is an early ‘60s Vandercook Universal 3. It's a semi-automatic press, making it easy to print large editions. About the other presses; hard to say what will happen with those platens. Obviously they aren't needed currently, but with the move to the Hall of Fame in a year, who knows what their status will be. It's definitely a sad thing to see any of that equipment collect dust.

B: In the hour I was in the shop it was the most active studio I have ever seen. It is part of what is so compelling about the place. Lots of ink slinging, lots of prints being made. I read Hatch does about 600 jobs a year. Is that on top of the re-strikes for the retail store and the monoprints?

M: Yes, that was my understanding. The "jobs" are the posters-to-order, and were between 500-600 jobs annually. Re-strikes, I believe, were just for retail purposes.

T: I agree that retail posters are in addition to the 600+ jobs a year. I know the shop's income is split pretty evenly between retail sales and client jobs.

B: Can you describe the process from an order coming in, to a print leaving the shop? I’m interested in the specifics of the image and letter making process. Is there a lino-type machine in use in the back? Is any polymer used for custom work? Developed on site? Are new wood letters carved still? What happens to all the type once it gets beat all to hell? And just for my own interest, how much punch do they tend to use at the shop?

T: When starting a job, the designer will look through the collection of job folder and pick one depending on both it's deadline and if it's a job that they would like to personally take on. Next is sketching, which is crucial. When the rough sketch feels right a full-scale sketch is made on a board large enough to compose on. Once a line of type is composed in the "composing stick" it is transferred directly on top of the full sketch.
Generally, we typeset for one color even if it needs to be separated later. When the design is complete, the elements are hand inked and pressed onto a sheet of tracing paper. When a press opens up, the design is locked and prepped to be "made-ready". Hatch prefers to have the type kiss the paper, considering the paper stock we use isn't as soft as others and too much impression can harm or ruin the type.
Plates are made at a place down the road. The archive of past plates is housed on the second floor and is an amazing collection. No Linotype. All hand set.

M: The job I did was via fax -- and was distributed by Brad Vetter in a big manilla envelope. Instructions were given, the details (who, where, when, number of prints needed, colors, etc) and info like "traditional Ryman style" on mine, which Brad explained meant "old-timey Ol' Opry" traditional Hatch style, rather than the more contemporary-style ones he (Brad) or others sometimes do. Brad was directing/overseeing me, because Hatch had done OTHER posters for this client (my client was Durham Center for the Performing Arts, in NC.
So, then I went to the computer in the back of the shop and researched.  I did some sketches of ideas, and showed them to Brad, who told me which he thought were the strongest. One of the employees told me Carrington's "hit" song was called "Letter to my Penis" but since Hatch has no phallic cuts, I found a terrific cowboy-silhouette (holding a guitar) that was very reminiscent of the imagery on Rodney Carrington's website. I gathered up the wood type I wanted to use for the text, complying with the order form, and then Brad came and gave me some advice on changes (centering, size, etc). Once it was finalized I used an inked brayer and a sheet of vellum/tracing paper to take an imprint of the whole thing, and sprinkled it with white powder (normally used for offset-ink setting, I believe). Then Brad and I walked over to Kinkos a block away and "shrunk" the print to a 8.5 X11" and faxed it to the client.
We got back an "OK" the next day. So I locked up the type in the Vandercook in the back of the shop (the automatic one with the tapes) and started printing. I had it a little easy because Dan had run a bagillion ochre-colored flats for the background of BB King's tour posters (5000+), so I didn't even have to print that run. The NEXT day, I boxed/wrapped up all the prints for shipment and then Kathy or Jennifer shipped them out to the client. Viola!
To my knowledge, they do not use a linotype machine, just the wood and metal in the shop. Definitely NO POLYMER. While I was there, Laura carved a panda for a Bright Eyes poster, and a cabin for a Prairie Home Companion poster; I got to carve a pair of "star bars". These cuts were added to the archive. To my knowledge, type NEVER gets "beat to hell" -- treating it carefully is a HUGE big deal there. They've got wood type that's been in use since 1800s for goodness sake! I saw no new wood type. All imagery that I saw was either wood or linoleum. With punch, Brad said it was okay but not so much as to risk damaging the type. My guidance was that I shouldn't see the punch from the backside of the paper. But feeling it on the front was totally fine.

B: I was impressed with the print culture in Nashville. It seems that Hatch casts a long shadow and has defined the look of Nashville print. What are your impressions on this?

T: I definitely agree that Hatch is somewhat of the big man on campus. Jim Sherraden can be credited for refining and championing the Hatch aesthetic. Letterpress is a hand-made, personal, intimate process. The same can be said for Country Music and Nashville itself. I believe there is a homegrown, Southern symbiosis between place, process and content with Hatch that makes it completely unique.

M: Definitely. The Ryman (previously called Ol' Opry) and Nashville's music scene is THE Nashville identity, as I saw it from my perspective (a mere 2 weeks there); Hatch Show Print has been THE identity of posters for Ol' Opry and the Ryman that whole time.

B: Lastly, do you know specifically when Hatch will move to the CM hall of fame? What size is the new space? Jim said the layout would be similar to the original Hatch Brother’s shop. Any other cool insider info on the new space?

T: Wish I had more to say about the future location. Roughly a year, and yes, the interior will be modeled after the original shop.

M: When I was there, the second or third meeting between the Hatch staff and the CM Hall of Fame staff occurred (I got to work the retail at Hatch while everyone went there) so things were still being worked out. That said, when I visited the CM Hall of Fame museum, it was very cool and I loved the displays; and from what I've heard from Jim Sherraden and Brad Vetter, the museum really wants to preserve the collection and make it more visible to visitors. 

1 comment:

  1. if you're in the other part of the state, check out yee-haw in knoxville


This is not about Raymond Carver

Please don't read this post with any expectation that the various elements will somehow weave themselves into a pleasingly whole. That ...