Visiting artists complete OAC Press projects

By Colin Willard, Advocate Staff Writer
Posted 6/5/24

BELLE — Two visiting artists in residence at the Osage Arts Community (OAC) recently completed the latest projects by OAC Press.

Kyle Laws of Pueblo, Colorado, and Tony Brewer of …

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Visiting artists complete OAC Press projects


BELLE — Two visiting artists in residence at the Osage Arts Community (OAC) recently completed the latest projects by OAC Press.

Kyle Laws of Pueblo, Colorado, and Tony Brewer of Bloomington, Indiana, spent about a week in Missouri from May 25 to June 2. While here, they worked in the OAC print shop near Belle and read poetry in different towns including Belle, Rolla and St. Louis.

Laws’ trip to Belle for the print project was her second time at OAC. She previously came for a poetry reading last fall. She said that during the stay, OAC Executive Director Mark McClane encouraged her to return for a project.

The project Laws brought to Belle to complete is a book she has worked on for many years. The book, titled “Alchemy of Rooms,” combines poems along with pieces of an essay Laws had written running along the top of each page to give the book an ongoing narrative. When she came to Missouri, she brought many printed copies of the book’s text. The cover was the last piece needed before publication.

Laws took the cover of “Alchemy of Rooms” from a linotype produced by Debra McCormack, another member of the Steel City Art Works cooperative gallery in Pueblo in which she has participated for about 20 years. The cooperative gallery has hosted a poetry reading series for nearly 50 years, and Laws serves as the program’s third director. She also has a career as a certified public accountant.

The book’s cover portrays the main character at the wheel during a critical moment in her life along with an interpretation of the Pablo Picasso painting “Blue Nude,” which one of the poems references. The artists printed the cover in two steps because the title was not part of the original image.

“We put (the cover) on the press, doing one at a time, let them dry overnight, and then set the type,” Brewer said.

“The story inside is about a woman and the earlier part of her life,” Laws said. “One of the things that happened in the earlier part of her life was she was struck by lightning while driving.

“Alchemy of Rooms” is the latest work in Laws’ writing career, which spans more than 25 books. Although Laws has written both poetry and prose, she prefers the former, and it encompasses the majority of her work.

“I like the compression of it,” she said about writing poetry. “I like the fact that you don’t have to take 200 pages to say something. You can say it in a poem or two and get it all down. It’s more fun. You don’t have to be so serious and tearing your guts out.”

Laws’ new book combines the two literary forms by combining the poems with excerpts from an essay. She said the mixture of styles is something she has explored often in her work.

“I like the concept of a novel,” she said. “Except I don’t want to spend all the time it takes to do it. So I’ll do something that has, what you’d call, each poem as a chapter.”

Laws said that poems can serve as connective chapters from both a narrative and a thematic point of view. In “Alchemy of Rooms,” the poems are both. Some of the poems are based on the writer’s lived experiences. One title references receiving a vintage Cadillac as a gift.

“It was actually a true story,” Laws said. “I was struck by lightning in a vintage Cadillac.”

One experience Laws often recalls in her writing is growing up in a whaling community in New Jersey.

“I would say about 40 percent of my poetry takes place in that environment,” she said. “I would have been surprised if someone had told me that 50 years ago that would have been the case, but it’s probably the most fascinating place that I’ve lived. The growing up years are very influential to what you do.”

Laws said she could not imagine anything better than growing up along the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

“You’re so attuned to the cycle of the world,” she said. “The coming in and going out of tides. The Delaware Bay down where it goes into the Atlantic Ocean has long tide patterns. The tide may go in and out a half mile or so, so you have sandbars, and it’s just so dramatic. Even just walking across the landscape to get from the beach to where the low tide is at is an interesting experience. It just influences you. I wouldn’t have guessed that it would influence me for the rest of my life but it has.”

Laws said it took her some time away from the New Jersey shore to realize the impact of her experience growing up there. In 1988, 12 years after Laws moved to Colorado, she began writing “The Whaler’s Journal.”

“That was the grand story I had,” she said. “Most people have a grand story that drives them to be a writer, in my opinion.”

Although Laws told her grand story about the whalers, over the years she has had many more stories to share. Sometimes, writers are reluctant to give details about a work’s subject. Laws was not so elusive about “Alchemy of Rooms.”

“It’s about being struck by lightning,” she said. “It’s about living in the area where I was struck by lightning. It’s about someone’s development as a human being. That’s the broad scope. In the end, that’s what we’re all doing. That’s what we’re all writing about.”

The process of binding together a collection of writings into a singular book may differ based on the writer, the concept or some other factor. Laws said her latest book is a mix of poems she had written before thinking of the book and poems written specifically for the book.

“Once I had the idea, some things that I’d written were just ‘Oh, that’s perfect, that needs to go in the book,’” she said. “I’ve been writing some of the same stories from different points of view for 45 years. You have a tendency to go over the things that are significant in your life more than once.”

Laws’ goal for her residency was to produce about 100 copies of “Alchemy of Rooms.” Working on the book was her first experience with a manual printing press.

Brewer had previous experience working with a manual press, including the 19th-century Chandler & Price press in the OAC Press shop. Last summer, he and two other Indiana poets completed a chapbook on the press. Brewer said McClane had contacted him to work in the print shop alongside Laws.

“Since I didn’t have any skills with that end, (McClane) said ‘Well, we have somebody related to our organization that does know how to do all this,’” Laws said.

The project Brewer brought for his residency was a broadside, or a single piece of paper printed on one side like a poster. Unlike Laws’ book cover, which only included a single line of text for the title, Brewer’s broadside project had many lines of print.

The antique press in the print shop is a job press, which is a model that allows a single person working small jobs to operate it. Brewer said the press was different from the types of presses that printed newspapers and books. The smaller press was used more often for printing things such as broadsides or invitations.

Brewer went through the process of preparing his project for printing. The first step is to set the type on a tray. The OAC Press shop has many size and style options. After Brewer chose the set of letters he thought suited the project, he began setting them into the chase, or frame, and filling spaces between lines with blank metal blocks. The type must lie in reverse for it to print properly. Although Brewer read through the poem several times to ensure there were no misspellings, at one point he had to restart the type-setting process because he forgot to include a line in the middle of the poem.

“I was horrified,” he said. “We read in Rolla last night, and I read the poem. We got back and I was so happy, so thrilled, so pleased with myself. And I was looking at it and I’m like ‘Wait a minute, that’s not right.’”

After completing the chase, Brewer tightened the letters and spaces into place with a quoin to ensure that the type would not move from its proper position.

“What you want is equal pressure, top and bottom, so that (the chase) when you pick it up will not move,” he said.

Once the chase was set, Brewer applied ink to the disk on the press and pumped the rollers over it to get them inked. The operator powers the press with a leg pump.

“Operating the press and pumping the thing and doing all that, it’s intimidating because it’s a big, finger-crushing machine,” Brewer said. “But once you kind of figure out the rhythm, it’s relatively (simple).”

Working the antique press is a far cry from the work Brewer typically does in book design. The tools he uses in computer programs maintain some of the same vintage vocabulary words of early printing operations, but the physical work is entirely different.

“I like the physicality of it,” he said. “I also collect manual typewriters. I’ve always liked printing. I’m still a book guy. I like the permanence of it. Once it’s printed, it’s printed. I think all authors love the end of the process when they get to hold the book in their hands. This is even more of an investment because of the sweat and the back pain.”

Despite Brewer’s appreciation for the permanence of printing, it has downsides beyond the physical toll on the body. He said artists strive for perfection, but it is often difficult to achieve when working with materials such as ink.

“There’s going to be little imperfections in there,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the general public will never notice some of the things that are going to drive me crazy because I’m used to fixing a lot of the stuff on a computer. If something’s off, you just nudge it with your mouse.

While Brewer prepared the press for printing, he talked about his work as a writer and book designer. For about 25 years, he has designed books for Indiana University Press.

“I’ve done some of this before,” he said. “Way back in the 90s when I first got started doing graphic design. All the people that I learned graphic design from did cut-and-paste, did mockups and did it old school. Not quite this old school.”

“I also did some letterpress printing the first couple of years I worked at IU Press and loved it,” he continued. “There just aren’t too many opportunities to work on a press. Mark kind of just opened this up and said ‘This is available.’”

Brewer first saw the printing press when he came to Belle to read poetry at Barb’s Books in the spring of 2022. Later that fall, he returned to work in the print shop before coming back last summer and now this year.

The poem Brewer chose to highlight with the broadside project is called “What Would Thoreau Do?” The title references transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau, who reflected on living simply in nature in his most famous work “Walden.”

Brewer attends festivals with one of his typewriters and sets up a booth for an activity he calls poetry on demand. He invites people to give him a prompt and in about 15 minutes, he writes a poem to fit their prompt. “What Would Thoreau Do?” is one of the poems he wrote by doing the exercise after someone gave him the prompt to write a poem about Walden Pond, which resides in Concord, Massachusetts, and served as the basis for “Walden.”

“I liked the poem,” Brewer said about why he selected it as the focus of his printing project. “And it’s short. I had two or three that I was looking at, and that was the one that just ticked all the boxes. The other one I was considering was a little more interior and personal. This one is a little more universal, I guess.”

“What Would Thoreau Do?” is one of many poems Brewer has set aside for a collection he plans to publish someday of poetry on demand poems that the prompter never returned to collect.

“There are about 40 or so poems in there, and that’s my favorite,” he said.

Brewer said the collaboration of the poetry on demand activity has become an important factor in how he writes.

“It’s become really important to me and an important part of my process, the whole artistic thing,” he said. “Even though it’s getting prompts from people that I don’t know and will never see again… having a little five-minute conversation about poetry and the kind of poems they want, that kind of thing, that conversation it just became a really interesting way to talk to people about poetry. It’s a little more personal because it’s their poem. I like to think of it as a short-term collaboration or patronage.”

Brewer said he would like to continue coming to the OAC Press shop for annual collaborations with other artists.

“If I were a professional, and I owned this stuff and could use it all the time, I’d get a lot better and a lot quicker at it,” he said. “But every time I come out here and do a project, I get a little better and a little faster.”