The First Year of Huskiana: Part Two
Jack Nolan and Minotaur
I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with rising senior Jack Nolan (he/him) to discuss his handmade booklet entitled Minotaur. We discussed the difficulties and surprises he encountered using the press for this unique project, and his interest in letter press and tactile creating as a Computer Science major.
Hi, I’m Jack Nolan, I use he/him pronouns. I’m a computer science major and I’m currently pursuing a minor in English, just because I usually like taking English classes and I was like oh man I’ve already got three classes done you know if I take one more that’s an English minor.
Yea might as well! So how did you first hear about the Huskiana Printing Press?
Well okay actually I brought another book with me too (in addition to his project Minotaur). This kind of black book, it’s an H.P. Lovecraft story. So I’ve been interested in letter press for a long time, and I really wanted to learn some letter press and get it under my belt. What I think allured me to it is that it’s a lot of effort. Maybe I’m a masochist or something but its like a huge amount of effort for something that you could have done with a printer. While I was on my first co-op, I actually took a letter press printing class at Mass Art. They have a great workshop there and studio. I wasn’t able to transfer any of the credits so the class was purely for my own enjoyment, and I made this little black book. This is also done with a handset type.
Oh cool! Was this the first press you were exposed to, or this was the first press you got your hands on before coming to the Northeastern studio?
Yes, so I worked at this press for a four month class. And it was at night. So that’s kind of where I learned how to set type. I don’t think I would have been able to create the Minotaur book without having a little bit of experience setting type. At Mass Art they use a different kind of press, they use a press called a Vandercook, we have something similar in the Huskiana studio, it has a really big cylinder and it rolls around. But it’s really nice because it automatically inks your type, and it prints with this super consistent pressure all the way across. It’s like the fanciest press you’ve ever seen in your life. So yea that’s where I learned how to set type, and I made a lot of my rookie mistakes there.
It’s all a learning process right?
What did you initially find interesting about the press or just like printing presses in general?
Half way through my class at Mass Art I learned that Northeastern was opening a letter press studio and I was like gah I’m such an idiot, if I just waited two months I wouldn’t have had to pay for this class! But yea I figured that I would have to learn more about Northeastern’s press and get involved. I saw online that Ryan Cordell was the professor running the press and I figured that I should just take one of his classes, get myself in.
Are you interested in the history at all of letter press or is it more like a fun activity to do with your hands?
I mean I guess I’m a little bit interested in the history but that’s not what makes me want to do it. You make something that’s so tactile and something that you couldn’t make any other way. I don’t know I think that’s what it is.
Could you give us a little background on this specific project and your ideas for it and stuff like that?
Yea so, this was for the unessay, a project for Ryan Cordell’s Technologies of Text class. This first book that I did I printed someone else’s story, but I figured for the unessay I should do my own story. So I wrote my own story about the mythological creature of the Minotaur. And the reason this came about was because I had read a book called Follow This Thread by Henry Elliot, and it’s about mazes. If you look at it the type does not go up and down, it flips around and goes sideways and curvy. I read this on the subway and I think everyone thought I was crazy because I kept having to twist and turn the book to follow the text. This is the book that was the inspiration for my project, I wanted to print the type of my book going all different kinds of directions. The framework of Henry Elliot’s book follows the Minotaur, so I thought it would be interesting to put my own spin on it.
Why did you choose to make it in the press? I realize that like that was a facet of the class, but really you could have done it in any other medium so why letter press specifically?
One of the main reasons why I really took the class was because I wanted to do some stuff in the press and I saw that it mentioned the press in the description of the class so I thought “oh this will be a really great opportunity to work in the press more.” To be honest I think that was really the main reason. I mean it also had to do that the class focused on artist books and I was wanting to make my own.
Another thing that drives me towards books and towards printing, you know I’m a computer science major, and I spend my whole life on the computer writing code. It’s really nice to be able to do something kind of mindless with my hands, very tactile, without any screens.
What difficulties or challenges did you realize working on the project with the letter press?
It was definitely time. Time was really of the essence for this book because obviously I was printing it right before finals week which of course was when every other class I was taking also had big projects going on. So I spent nearly 40 hours type setting this book. This middle page right here I probably started setting around 8am and I went home at 4 in the morning.
Yea so it was definitely a real time sink.
It’s also not in traditional paragraph format so did you run into any difficulties with the framework of the pages themselves? Trying to figure out the margins and the spacing?
The pages that took longer to set were the ones that were more creative or topsy turvy. I didn’t have any of the book planned out before hand on the computer or anything, I figured I would just do it in the studio as I went along. I had written the content of nearly every page beforehand, but some of the pages I wrote as I was setting the type because there was no other way I could plan for the words and letters to fit together correctly unless I made it right then and there.
Right. Like you wanted to make sure while you were setting it that you didn’t run into that difficulty of like “oh no I ran out of r’s” or like “this word is too long to fit here”.
Yea more the second one. Like oh no this word that I like doesn’t actually work here because it literally doesn’t fit into the frame of the type. Every word works because I put them all in at the time.
On the flipside, did anything unexpectedly surprising in a nice way occur when using the press for the project?
The interesting thing about our press, which is like a clamshell press, the Golden Pearl, is that we use these chases which are the metal forms that you have to get all your type in and apply pressure to it so that it all stays in place when you lift it up. I did this with Professor Cordell when we printed the book, this was when he was showing me how to ink up the press and how to clean it and all that sort of stuff, and we thought that we were never going to be able to get this to work. We had type going in all directions, so there was a lot of math involved to make sure that everything was at the right width and the right height, and that there were no gaps or anything in order for the pressure to work. And I honestly was not sure if I was going to be able to make it happen so I was a little bit surprised that it worked at all.
Because the form of type setting has so many limitations and is kind of constricting, did you find that it affected the words that you were writing at all? Like let’s say if you were to type it in a Word Document would that change the words that you wrote? How did it influence your creative process?
Maybe? I think mainly, especially with type setting, it really only affects you in how you can make it look on the page. I might’ve added an extra word or two here and there but it probably doesn’t affect me too much in the big picture.
So it’s kind of a balance between planning a little bit but not too much so that you drive yourself into a corner.
Kind of along the same lines, what did the medium of the press allow you to do compared to other methods? Or what did it not allow you to do? Like thinking about how you could hand write it, you could paint it, you could use a type writer or I don’t know a 3D printer or something? And I guess like what does the printing press specifically allow you to do that was interesting or useful for the project?
Well I think for me, I’ve got the worst hand writing, and I’m terrible at painting and I’m terrible at drawing, so I kind of like the printing because it is artistic and it gets my creativity juices flowing but you know I don’t feel really terrible at the end of it because I have a nice clean product at the end. It feels empowering.
Yea that makes a lot of sense. It kind of reminds me of something like knitting, a kind of habitual motion that creates a solid product at the end.
Yes exactly. It’s like a craft really.
How did working at the press influence your academic interests or personal interests, if at all?
I’m not sure if it has. I really think of it as a fun hobby. It’s definitely more of a personal interest. Hopefully I’ll be able to get in the press more now that school will be opening in the fall. I’m not sure if I’ve figure out yet how to add printing into my resume but maybe one day.
How do you see the press as a tool for people to use in the English department or in other departments? How would you like to see it utilized in classrooms? I’m interested to hear your thoughts especially as a non-English major.
I just love the process of setting type and I think that more people should go in there and give it a go. You can come out with a product or an image that you can’t create any other way which I think is really cool. If you wrote a short story or whatever and you really want it to come out nicely or come out uniquely, I think this is the best way to do it. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort.