See a slideshow of photos from the Cowell Press

An hour away from Silicon Valley and a 10-minute walk from researchers studying cancer and cosmology, UC Santa Cruz anthropology major Ruebi Jimenez is toiling over a centuries-old art.

She runs her fingertips over lines of raised metal letters as she ponders spacing issues, typeface problems, and the slight menace of the finger-snagging Vandercook printing press in front of her. She doesn't want to make a mistake.

"This makes me slow down and be engaged with type and literature and poetry in a workshop setting," says Jimenez, who is part of a decades-old program on campus: the Cowell Press. "That's why it is so attractive to me."

Taught by poet and master printer Gary Young, and housed in what was once a two-car garage at the Cowell College Provost's House, the Cowell Press feels like a step back in time. Old letterpress machines sigh. Wooden type drawers clack gently. A long blade cuts thick paper with a hiss.

"It's one of the few places where you can still use your hands," says Young, as he surveys a shoulder-to-shoulder mix of students setting type, carving linoleum blocks and working presses that look close to antiques. "We're using muscle memory as a tool for aesthetic choices and, in this world, we don't get to do that too often."

According to a 2005 oral history, the Cowell Press had its start in the experimental teaching environment that was early UC Santa Cruz. A student named Peter Manston discovered an abandoned platen press in an old Cowell Ranch outbuilding and, in 1973, led a student-taught seminar on letterpress printing.

The next year, respected San Francisco typographer Jack Stauffacher was given a Regents professorship and began to teach typography at Cowell College. Later, he was joined on campus by poet, printer and former Dominican monk William Everson, who established the Lime Kiln Press. Typography and printing as a creative medium became part of the UCSC experience.

Today, students from a wide array of majors — from environmental science to psychology to anthropology — create whimsical posters, assemble one-of-a-kind books, set words to paper, and indulge in a kind of hands-on creativity they say they don't find in lectures and labs.

"It harkens back to those early days of experimentation at UCSC," says Young, who oversees the press with a poet's eye and a craftsman's skills — both necessary to keep the program and the thumping old presses running.

Young, who graduated from UCSC in 1973 and began teaching on campus in 2005, sees himself as a facilitator and enthusiast for the creative appetites of those in his class. He describes how students discover a poem's "heft" by setting it in type, of their fascination with an old-fashioned art, of the life skills the class teaches.

 "Students pull proofs, redesign, pull proofs, redesign again," he says as he stands in front of a bank of windows that fills the room with light. "They have to make choices. It is one of the fundamental questions of morality. You make choices and the choices matter. You have to live with them."

That idea is one of the things that appeals to Megan Barrett, a senior art history major from Porter College.

"I've learned a lot of patience," she says. "I've gained more awareness of what I'm doing. You have to take things more seriously because you recognize that if you don't do it right, you have to do it all over again."

As Barrett works, Young weaves his way over the ink-stained concrete floor, pausing to troubleshoot a project that isn't printing clearly, to examine type that may need to be rehabilitated at his own studio in Bonny Doon.

"Beautiful," he says of an accordion-style, fine-art book being finished by recent graduate Nicole Albuquerque, an environmental studies major from Cowell College.

Albuquerque smiles. "I didn't know about the press until my senior year," she says. "But when I found it, it was magical."

Keep the presses rolling

Cowell Press and the courses in the book arts are supported entirely by donated funds. In a first step toward securing the future of the press, Cowell College is kicking off a fundraising effort to create an endowment. Establishing an endowment requires initial funding of $25,000. The ultimate goal is to have an endowment of $1.5 million, which would provide adequate funds for the college to keep the presses rolling, according to Cowell College Provost Faye Crosby.

"Now, as UCSC approaches its 50th year of existence, is the time for us to celebrate our glorious past and turn to the task of securing the same benefits for generations to come," said Crosby.

Checks may be made out to the UC Santa Cruz Foundation and sent with a note on the memo line saying "Cowell Press." Mail to Kathy Rouhier, University Relations, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz CA 95064. To give online, go to giving.ucsc.edu and search for "Cowell Press."