Pressing Imperfections

Talking shop with Brian Stuparyk of Steam Whistle Letterpress

click to enlarge Brian Stuparyk operates a vintage letterpress out of his Over-the-Rhine print shop
Brian Stuparyk operates a vintage letterpress out of his Over-the-Rhine print shop

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rian Stuparyk is the owner of Steam Whistle Letterpress, a shop located in historic Over-the-Rhine that’s been pumping out hand-pressed cards, posters, flyers and more since opening in 2011. The shop uses a vintage letterpress, a type of relief printing machine that was used from its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century until around the mid-20th century, when it was replaced by modern printing techniques.

Steam Whistle is now selling its main card line nationally after receiving a great reception at New York’s National Stationery Show, and Stuparyk also was a runner-up in ArtWorks’ Big Pitch competition. He previously lectured on printmaking at Northern Kentucky University.

CityBeat:

How did you originally become interested in letterpress?

Brian Stuparyk:

I was originally a photographer and, as I saw everything becoming digital, I became less interested in that and wanted to do something more authentic. I studied print media in graduate school, and I was interested in things like letterpress because it’s actually a print, rather than a print-out. I bought my first letterpress about 15 years ago.

CB:

Do you remember the first print you made?

BS:

I remember being at the supermarket right around the time I had bought that letterpress and I overheard these two older ladies talking about dissecting bull’s eyeballs in high school. One of them was sort of obsessed with the shiny blue stuff on the inside of the eyeball and said she had always just wanted a bathing suit like that. It was in my head when I got back home and so I made a print about it.

CB:

So you can only print one card at once?

BS:

Not only that, but I can only print one color on one card at once, and most of my cards have at least three colors. It’s a pretty labor-intensive process. That’s why it costs more than a Hallmark card printed in China.

CB:

Sounds repetitive. How does it feel to go through the process? Is it meditative at times?

BS:

Yeah, it can be meditative in a lot of ways. It’s run by foot, so standing on one leg like a flamingo all day is a little hard on the hips. But I’m only printing a couple hundred cards at a time right now, so it goes pretty quick. At maximum speed I can print about 600 in an hour, but that’s exhausting.

CB:

You told ArtWorks that you love letterpress for the imperfections. Why is that and how does that relate to artistic value?

BS:

Oh I don’t know that it adds any artistic merit, but the flaws give it character that doesn’t come out of a machine. Being handmade, each card is unique. It definitely adds a certain authenticity to it because, you know, the color can even shift a little between prints.

CB:

The medium is simply paper, ink and a press. How would you compare this to other forms of media like painting?

BS:

It is very different. You might spend months working on a painting and then you only have one and it’s so precious, whereas with a print I make hundreds at a time. Maybe all together they’d be worth the same as a painting but individually they’re that much more accessible. Not only one person can own it and it isn’t so precious that it needs to have this high price tag on it.

CB:

Why did you choose Over-the-Rhine to open shop?

BS:

If I’d moved to Seattle, Portland, Ore., or New York, I would just be another letterpress guy doing more letterpress. But here in Cincinnati I’m the letterpress guy, and there’s a lot going on here.

CB:

Many people say Warhol killed art by revolutionizing mass produced art via prints. Do you agree with that criticism?

BS:

In terms of art, I don’t think so. Print has always been the democratic medium, something people should be able to afford. The reason etchings were made was to make reproductions of paintings people couldn’t afford, so it was always like that. I don’t know that he ruined something that wasn’t already stinking at the time. 

CB:

Since you were originally a photographer, do you think you might ever get into doing prints of your photography?

BS:

Everyone’s a photographer now; everyone in the world has a cellphone. The world doesn’t need any more photographers. I think what’s charming about what I do is it’s authentic from the source. I’m not trying to take modern technology and shoehorn it into a letterpress the way a lot of people do now. 

CB:

Do you have a particular interest in vintage things beyond just letterpress?

BS:

I definitely have an appreciation for well-made things, things that were built to last. When I get something, even in the modern age, I have a hard time not wanting it to last forever. The oldest press I’ve had was built in 1891, and if it’s well cared for it will literally last forever, and I think that’s what interests me.

CB:

You just released a Cincinnati activity book after Thanksgiving. What was the inspiration for that?

BS:

I’ve always loved activity books, and Steam Whistle has produced a number of Cincinnati-centric products over the years. Lately I’ve been contracting out some design work to one of my former students Ashley Kroninger. Ashley also really likes to draw and a few weeks ago the topic of coloring books came up. She and I wrote the activities together and Ashley did all of the drawings. She has a really fun style and it turned out great.

CB:

Is there any part that you are most excited about or enjoyed creating the most?

BS:

I really like the “fill-in-the-blank” pages, like the tailgating football fans. They invite you to really use your imagination. My favorite part is how quickly it all came together. We wrote the activities in one afternoon and then Ashley worked really hard, completing the illustrations in just a few weeks. 

CB:

Now that it’s completed, have you sat down with some crayons or colored pencils and whiled away your time coloring your own book in?

BS:

I wish I had time to color! Now that this book is out I’m on to the next big project. ©


Steam Whistle Letterpress’ CINCINNATI BOOK-O-FUN can be purchased at Rock Paper Scissors in Over-the-Rhine or steamwhistlepress.com.


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