S

tanding in a small art studio surrounded by the aroma of ink, a woman carefully loads carved and metal plates into an antique-looking machine. Beautiful prints emerge, and she handles them with care to add to the colorful display in the studio.

Three years ago Suzanne Powney, an assistant professor in the Mississippi State art department, brought the oldest method of printing to the university—the letterpress, a relief surface that is inked, then printed onto paper.

“In today’s society anyone can make a smooth print from the computer,” said Powney. “The letterpress is a learned process to make tactile designs directly with skill and dedication.”

At Mississippi State, the letterpress is specific to the graphic design program. Letterpresses are used to print textured designs, generally on invitations or posters, and these kinds of prints were common throughout the country until the 1960s when society moved to offset printing.

However, a few artists around the country saved letterpresses because of their ability to produce unique, tactile images.

Its materials are extremely rare and expensive, due to their near extinction in the 1960s, but Mississippi State is one of two universities in the state with a letterpress. Many of the wood type, metal type, linoleum carving and photopolymer plates used for the letterpress at MSU were donated by the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson. Powney allows students to develop prints using her personal collection of letterpress plates.

During the fall and spring semesters, only graphic design students may use the letterpress, but a class on letterpress techniques is offered to all students during the summer sessions. Powney also allows former students to continue using the letterpress and its plates whenever they like.

At Mississippi State, the letterpress is used for more than just grades in a classroom. This past summer, students submitted their work to a local business, The Biscuit Shop, to be used as design decorations on the walls. Students also make work to sell to the public.

“It takes creativity, patience and diligence to produce a work of art through the plates of the letterpress by combining three art processes to make a final product,” said Powney.

The art of letterpress takes time to do each process perfectly, but the skill developed and the final outcome makes it all worthwhile. Powney said that the quote in the letterpress room by non-fiction writer Scott Adams is the key to being successful with letterpress—“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

By Victoria Russell, Photography by Megan Bean