The Printing Press Is Hot in Oakland

Nondigital printing finds popularity in Oakland rooted in a Mills College book art program that may fall by the wayside.


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Beck Levy, who perfected book art skills at Mills College, lives and works in West Oakland’s Astropress and likes printing the old-fashioned way.

Photo by Lori Eanes

Who are the popular artists in Oakland? Would you believe Albrecht Durer and Aldus Manutius?

In a city populated with digital denizens and hacker hangouts where people use computers to control everything from vehicles to fire, a printing press is not something you’d expect to find in the basement of a technologically sophisticated nonprofit collective. And yet, in the bowels of the Omni Commons, an Oakland collective and “community center” of sustainable living advocates inside the husk of the old Omni, patrons of the Material Print Machine coat their hands in black ink and oil almost every weekend with a bindery dedicated to print, publishing, and book art in a space full of print, bookmaking, and zine resources.

Meanwhile in West Oakland, Beck Levy lives and works at Astropress, her foray into letterpress prints, book art, and “total social transformation.” Levy is a graduate of the prestigious Mills College book art program, where women (and few men who are master’s students) are taught the ancient art of the press.

The printing press is experiencing a resurgence of interest in Oakland, as the practitioners of this decidedly nondigital art form crank out letterpress work for art shows, personal use, and just regular old wall decorations.

Levy was interested in printing, before she moved to Oakland to attend Mills. “I learned how to do letterpress at the Pyramid Atlantic Center for the Arts in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 2008,” Levy said. “I had a background in amature screen printing and was learning a lot more about typography on my own.”

She came to Mills because of its academic rigor and printing programs. “I had been trying to find a way to merge my academic interests with my love of printmaking. I had been pursuing those two separately in D.C. Where those converge for me is trying to maintain the connection between radical social justice and printmaking,” Levy said.

For Denise Dekker, a 45-year-old computer science student at Mills, the printing press is a retreat from the digital hustle bustle. “I spent two years at community college, then transferred here into the computer science program because it’s small,” she said. “I wanted to take a typography class, and I was interested in doing something hands-on. This provides a good balance between sitting hunched over a computer all day: to be doing something with my hands and studying art forms and language in a different way.”

Because she’s a computer science major, you’d think she’d just whip up her work in Photoshop, then copy it onto the press. But it doesn’t quite work that way, Dekker said.

“It’s a lot more interesting to learn how everything works and the original form of doing it,” she said. “There’s a lot of craftswomanship. I like the neatness of it; the ardor. It’s kind of a self-contained art form. It straddles art and crafts in a great way, the highbrow design aspects and the actual mechanism of it working. It attracts me, the combination of both things.”

For Levy, the draw of the press is the ability to share her work. She frequently collaborates with other Oakland artists, like Jessalyn Aaland, screenprinter Paul Morgan, her friend and writer E. Conner, and her partner, printer and furniture maker, Ben Saperstein

 “I love editions,” Levy said. “I love that with printmaking, you get to make more than one. It’s not precious that way, and your art can be accessible. You can spend a lot of time making something, and you can give it to everyone you know.”

Unfortunately, the program that produced Levy and other competent Bay Area printers is under direct threat from a Mills budgeting crisis. The college is considering removing certain majors, such as philosophy, but allowing classes within certain disciplines to remain. However, the book art program is being threatened with wholesale closure.

Kathleen Walkup is the program’s director and characterizes it as vibrant and filled with life, fueled by a growth in interest from the artistic community. Undergraduate classes are full. Students display their work on campus and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Bay Area has twice hosted the CODEX Book Fair, perhaps the world’s largest book art conference and expo. Mills students frequently receive commissions and requests for work from attendees at the show.

Mills offers a unique MFA in book art and creative writing at a time when the school is pushing interdisciplinary degrees. “There is no other degree like that,” Walkup said. “I think that the strength of this degree is that it is obviously an innovative, highly interdisciplinary degree.”

The work done by book art students, Walkup said, fits right in with Mill’s history of pushing the envelope in experimental arts, such as dance and music. “Book arts fits very seamlessly into that ethos that has developed over the decades of being a school that is willing to try new things and innovate in the arts. The difficulty I see now is that while they’re talking about trying to make Mills a 21st-century school, the interpretation of that idea is very narrow.

“We have been talking in department heads’ meetings for months about wanting to develop innovative, interdisciplinary programs with international reputations, but now [Mills] wants to close the one program it already has that fits that criteria,” Walkup said.

From the outside, printing, bookbinding, and book arts may seem to be dying mediums, thanks to the prevalence of desktop publishing. Yet they are thriving as a space for new artists seeking to reinterpret a medium. Books, it seems, are just starting to open up to art at a time when there are few internationally recognized educational resources for the craft like the Mills program.

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