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Whorls Without End

The Darwin Martin House by Richard Kegler.
The Guaranty Building by Chris Fritton.
Buffalo City Hall by Richard Kegler

Buffalo’s signature architecture rendered in letterpress at Western New York Book Arts Center

The Western New York Book Arts Center basement is chock-full of old letterpress elements, donated items mostly, related to the printing process that was standard from the era of Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the process in the 15th century, until the early and mid 20th century, when it was gradually replaced by more modern processes, such as photo offset.

My cub reporter first newspaper job was on a paper that was printed by the letterpress method. Every line of type was cast in hot lead, the lead slug was allowed to cool sufficiently that you could touch it, handle it, and then positioned in a page-size heavy metal frame, called a chase, together with graphic items, basically engravings of drawings or photos, and any of a zillion little filler and decorative items—straight lines and squiggles and coils and meanders, imitations of some old artistic or architectural device, and original motifs—which were little engravings, too, that would be used usually to make borders to set off a particular story or page area, sometimes in a way so as hardly to be noticeable, other times to be noted in passing. For example, the front-page Christmas message from the publisher would usually be surrounded by a border of little holly leaves and berries.

WNYBAC seems to have all zillion of these little letterpress extras in its collection, along with a vast array of typefaces and sizes, and assorted graphic items.

Some very cool stuff. That of course you can print with. But also make art with, as a pair of WNYBAC resident artists, Chris Fritton and Rich Kegler, demonstrate in a current exhibit at the center, called ArchiTypes. Print depictions of Buffalo architectural icons, composed entirely of letterpress items, and mainly filler and decorative elements.

Handsome representations of the likes of the monumental H. H. Richardson insane asylum building, grain elevators, and Central Terminal building, and elegant Frank Lloyd Wright Darwin Martin House, with a subtle sense of humor, when you look closely and see that the elegance and monumentality is made up of squiggles and fillers. Or letters, such as a majestic upside-down V’s, in a type size that would have served—maybe did serve—for the banner headline for V-E Day, used to depict the peaked twin towers of the Richardson building.

The most humorous instance—kind of an in-joke, but a good one—is in the case of the grain elevators, rows of gargantuan cylinder forms, each cylinder capped with a large single parenthesis—one half of a parentheses—oriented horizontal. So that the row of elevator cylinders becomes a row of books, spines up, on a bookshelf.

Some letterpress engravings, such as of photos, which are produced as thin metal plates, are backed with an inch-or-so-thick wood block. For a change, among the works on show, sometimes the printing is done off this wood backing, producing a blank printed surface, basically, but on close inspection, reproducing the faint grain of the cut wood. In the Kleinhans Music Hall print, the grain in whorls, like some vestige image of seashell, an artifact of the circular saw cut used to create the wood block. Very beautiful.

Other architectural examples include Buffalo City Hall, the Prudential Building, the Statler building, the Avant (the former Dulski Federal Office Building), and the Buffalo Water Intake Crib in the middle of the Niagara River (or maybe still Lake Erie).

With letterpress, separate printing iterations are required for different colors, and in the present works, also for overprinting of details, which involved altering the printing matrix between iterations. A display case illustrates the Darwin Martin House iterations from original hand-sketch conceptuals to finished product in three colors. Another display case shows the matrix set-up—the actual letterpress elements in place in the matrix—for the Richardson building print.

This is an art exhibit that never had an opening (for some complicated logistical reasons), but a closing reception is scheduled for February 22 at 6 pm at the Book Arts Center. Tom Yots of Preservation Buffalo Niagara will speak on preservation, and Chris Fritton will speak on the making of the artworks.

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