The Power of the Press — A Look at Pacific Lutheran University’s Elliott Press

Elliott Press Manager, Mare Blocker, inserting a chase (a frame that holds set type) into one of the presses.

In an increasingly digital world, there’s a perhaps surprising letterpress renaissance going on. Search in any major city and you’ll likely find at least one letterpress printer, if not more. Letterpress printing is real. It’s solid. It’s manual. With every letter and character set by hand, there’s effort and care put into each page. The final product has a little touch of charm that laser printing just can’t duplicate.

The South Sound is filled with arts and crafts galore, including letterpress shops and artists. Case and point: Elliott Press at Pacific Lutheran University — a small, private letterpress that’s part of PLU’s School of Arts and Communication. Yet despite the private nature of the press, book arts aficionados can find student work and influence at work in the South Sound and even get to know more about letterpress printing.

Elliott Press at PLU
Two of the letterpresses at Elliott Press – both clamshell presses and fondly called Beijing and Gutenberg. Photo credit: Kristin Kendle.

Established in 1982, the Elliott Press doubles as both a classroom for a variety of classes and a working letterpress where students learn design, typesetting, bookbinding and printing techniques. It’s named for T. Leslie Elliott, an editor, bookseller and former PLU professor who donated the first piece of press equipment to the university in the 1970s. The press also functions as a core part of the university’s Publishing and Printing Arts minor, a unique degree that teaches students physical bookbinding as well as editing skills.

The press is home to two platen letterpresses dating from the early 1900s, appropriately nicknamed Beijing and Gutenberg (Beijing is where Chinese moveable type was born and Gutenberg is known as the man who brought printing to Europe), as well as a Vandercook proof press from the 1960s. Where Beijing and Gutenberg stand about four-and-a-half feet tall, Elliott Press also has a much smaller tabletop press, fondly nicknamed Baby Elliott, that barely stands more than a foot high. Just recently, yet another donation brought in five to six more tabletop presses.

Old-style presses require manually set type, and Elliott Press has plenty of that too — more than 300 cases of different type and special characters in all different sizes. The press serves as a teaching tool, but also a haven where this treasured-yet-obsolete equipment is protected, maintained and — most importantly — allowed to remain relevant.

Moveable type pieces
Moveable type pieces — in this case, a set of special characters. Photo credit: Kristin Kendle.

“It’s very rare for a liberal arts college this size to have this kind of program,” said Elliott Press Manager, Mare Blocker. “That’s something that’s highly unusual for PLU and it’s highly unusual for Western Washington. Evergreen has a letterpress and Whitman has a letterpress, but our program is a little bit more focused on letterpress, especially with the publishing component.”

While Elliott Press does not currently allow members of the public to enter the press to view or use the equipment, students, faculty and alumni of the press are active in the local arts scene. The public can view exhibits at the University Gallery, a gallery located in the Ingram building on the PLU campus. The gallery is used for more than just book arts, but check the School of Arts and Communications website to see if a book arts or student display is taking place. The press has brought in exhibitions from groups such as the Book Arts Guild in Seattle, of which Mare Blocker is president, and occasionally student work as well. Toward the end of spring semester, senior capstone projects are often on display and these can and do include book and printing arts.

But one of the best places to see the Elliott Press in action is at the annual Wayzgoose held at King’s Books in downtown Tacoma. Wayzgoose is the traditional name for a printer’s party and is often expanded to encompass everything book arts. Tacoma’s Wayzgoose includes tables where artists display and sell work as well as prints made with the help of a steamroller — a surefire way to make printing pretty dynamic to watch.

Former student Caitlin Harris setting type at the Elliott Press. Harris went on to found Wheelhouse Press in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy: PLU School of Arts and Communication.
Former student Caitlin Harris setting type at the Elliott Press. Harris went on to found Wheelhouse Press in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy: PLU School of Arts and Communication.

“We do the Wayzgoose every year at King’s Books,” says Blocker. “Last year we carved a block and did a steamroller print. This year is our off year for that. Last year we also had a table where students could sell and show their work, which is awesome. This year there we’ll have a table again at the Wayzgoose and we may help with silk screening.”

The Elliott Press also has a fair number of alumni active in the local community and beyond. An alum is currently working at Tacoma’s Arts and Crafts Press, while others have gone farther afoot. A few alumni have found work or set up shop in Portland, Oregon. Wheelhouse Press in Portland was founded by Caitlin Harris, an Elliott Press alum.

“I like to say that book arts are kind of like a Trojan horse,” adds Blocker. “Everyone knows what a book is and many people have a great relationship with books, and so it gives them an accessible way to express themselves. Also, book arts tend to be a great entrance point to the arts for people with historically marginalized voices, as a way for them to come into the arts in a form that’s accessible. You can make books on your kitchen table. So in some ways, it’s a more inclusive craft. We happen to have a lot of equipment, but you don’t have to have a lot.”

Student broadsides
Student broadsides — single pages printed on letter presses. Photo credit: Kristin Kendle.

To keep up with events at PLU featuring book arts students or see where there are book arts displays at the gallery, check the School of Arts and Communication website for updates. To learn more about book arts or letterpress artists in Tacoma overall, check out Arts and Crafts Press, Springtide Press headed up by Jessica Spring (the Elliott Press manager who came before Mare Blocker) or Beautiful Angle.