30 years of book arts and printmaking in UC Santa Cruz exhibit

The discovery of an old printing press led to 30 years of fine-press printing now celebrated in a new exhibition at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

"Interpreting the Words," an exhibit of student work created on the Cowell Press at UC Santa Cruz, will be on display at the McHenry Library from October 2 through December 20. The exhibit documents a 30-year tradition of typographic study and exploration, and also includes later work by Cowell Press alumni, including printmaker and author Tom Killion, miniature book artist Peter Thomas, and fine press artist Felicia Rice.

"The exhibit's title comes from the students' goal at the Cowell Press: to take a text and present their understanding of it, typographically," said Gregory Graalfs, a UCSC alumnus who helped organize the exhibit. "I took a class at the Cowell Press, and it opened up a world of typography and bookmaking for me." Graalfs, who graduated with an independent major in the art of the book, went on to work in commercial printing, graphic design management, and writing about the history of books and typography.

As UCSC's founding faculty and staff were preparing to open Cowell College, the first of UCSC's 10 residential colleges, they discovered an old printing press. This press, most likely a relic of the Cowell Ranch, inspired the college's 1973 purchase of a modern letterpress proof press and a metal type case with an entire family of Bembo type.

"Everything we printed was in Bembo, because that's all we had," said Peter Thomas. "The first thing I printed was a verse from the Bible, because it seemed as classic as the typeface. We would spend hours setting and justifying the individual pieces of lead type, getting everything perfect, the laying it in the bed of the press. Once it was all set up, the actual printing process, running the inking rollers and paper over the type, went pretty quickly."

The Cowell Press, as it became known, was initially housed under the Cowell College dining hall, and later moved to the garage of the Cowell Provost's residence. The press was used in a Book Arts course and for independent work by students who had completed the course. When state budget cuts forced the cancellation of the Book Arts class in the late 1970s, it was refunded through private donations. The high quality of the students' work resulted in an exhibition of their fine-press books at the University of Nebraska in 1981. The Book Arts course continues, taught by lecturer in art George Kane.

"At the Cowell Press, students work with the basic typographic tools, those used by printers since Gutenberg: metal type, a composing stick, and the letterpress," said Graalfs. "This teaches students the very principles of typography and printing in a tactile way that focuses on the essentials. From these essentials, this exhibit demonstrates how students challenge themselves and the equipment."

For exhibit hours and more information, call (831) 459-4000.