The Job PDX
The Job PDX
31. Rory Sparks

Rory Sparks is a letterpress printer and bookbinder, taught through self-study, apprenticeship, and residency at various institutions. She founded Em Space, where artists can have access to rare equipment for their print & book art practice.

Show Notes

Recorded Tuesday, October 1st, 2013, and this is episode number 31. Follow Ray, Kandace, Dan, or Needmore on Twitter. Please rate our show on iTunes!

The Interview

Hi, Rory.
Hi Ray.
How are you?
I’m good, how are you?
Welcome to Portland.
Are you from Portland?
No, I’m from the twin cities.
Right, right, right. I basically am too, huh. We’ve talked about this before, haven’t we?
I think so, yeah.
I was born in St. Louis Park, but spend the last ten years that I lived there in St. Paul in Lowertown. I love St. Paul.
I spent a lot of time on West 7th. It’s where I had a coffee shop. It was a little rough.
You had a coffee shop there? What was the coffee shop?
Oh my gosh, I’ve been to Rudy’s.
Yeah. We’ve probably met before.
Yeah, that’s quite possible.
I mean, in a previous life.
It was still in the 90’s. I guess it carried on for a while. It was on 7th. That’s funny. We actually went back to St. Paul recently.
I saw pictures.
Oh yeah, it was rough.
Rough how?
It probably was just as rough when I was there, but I didn’t care then.
You know, I was punk.

I always loved the Pacific Northwest. I would come here on vacation all the time. I applied for residency at Oregon College of Art and Craft. They have this amazing residency program, and I got it. That brought me out here. The funny thing about that residency in particular is that about 80% of the residents wind up staying and never leaving. I was part of the 80%. I never left.

How did you end up in Portland?
I always loved the Pacific Northwest. I would come here on vacation all the time. I applied for residency at Oregon College of Art and Craft. They have this amazing residency program, and I got it. That brought me out here. The funny thing about that residency in particular is that they, I think about 80% of the residents wind up staying and never leaving. I was part of the 80%. I never left.
A secret recruitment program for … that’s funny.
When you moved here, what did you set along doing?
Is started teaching at Oregon College of Art and Craft and working there for a while. I worked at Minnesota Center for Book Arts when I was in the cities as well. I’ve been around books and letterpress for 22 years. I have always been involved in a more educational capacity as well. Whether it’s learning myself, of teaching, or being a part of educational programming.

When I came out here, I’d always heard from students. The feedback mostly is once you leave school, nobody can afford the equipment. I don’t know if you’ve seen the equipment that we need to use. It’s not being made anymore. It’s all cast iron.

I have.
It’s old and rare and beautiful and wonderful, and it still works wonderfully. But it’s difficult to come by. When you do come by it, especially now with the resurgence in letterpress over the last 10, 15 years, I wish I would have bought a press when I was in my 20s. It would have been $500 instead of $16 000, is what they’re going for these days.

It’s really difficult from a graduating letterpress printer to get their own studio up and running. I decided shortly after I moved here to start sort of a collective, open access letterpress studio, so that people who are just getting started, or even who are experienced, all levels could become a part of this studio and have access to equipment.

I gathered about four equipment owners together. We all had different things. That made a whole, entire, cohesive, well-equipped studio, and started offering access on a membership basis.

Open. This is Em-space.
Yup, this is Em-space.
There’s letterpress printers there, but nobody really owns them?
It’s not joint ownership. There are just different people that own their own equipment, and are willing and generous enough to offer it to everyone.
Really, it’s just like, when I see a letterpress machine, I think, “Holy cow. That’s a lot of iron.” They’re just giant machines.
They are.
I imagine this probably parallels to the record industry in terms of getting a lathe to cut records or magnetic tape to record. None of that … do you finance all the servicing that equipment a lot? Is it …
Yeah, they’re tanks. They’re built really well.
This happens. It’s a motion thing.
The lights just went out.
They’re built like tanks. The companies that built them never expected them to last. Some of these presses are over 100 years old, that we’re using.
Wow. Really.
They never expected them to last this long.
Like World War I era machines? That’s crazy.
I had no idea they were that old, huh. You have some of those in your studio?
Uh-huh. (Affirmative)
That’s crazy. No one builds machines to last a hundred years.
I know. They used to. They would line up – they would cast iron, and line it up facing north and south so that the magnetite in the iron would line up north to south and make a stronger cast iron. Nobody does that kind of stuff anymore.
Yeah, wow. Wow.
It’s crazy.
It’s awesome.
Yeah. Anyhow, they’re built like tanks. They do break down. There are motors involved in these, and that’s- we need to upkeep the motors and we need to make sure they’re clean, and that the gears are working and when things break, there are a couple of places in the country where you can order new machine parts for these presses. There’s enough demand that people are …
People in Portland who will fix them?
Yeah, there are a couple of press mechanics in Portland that I work with. I actually have a fair amount of knowledge just from being around them for so long, and then also leaning with a gentleman named Paul Moxon. He’s become the Vandercook maintenance guy. I’ve taken a lot of classes with him and learned from him so that I can maintain the equipment in the studio on my own.
I’m thrilled if my computer lasts three years. It’s just so bizarre to think about something that’s lasted 100 years.
I know. It’s great.

Printing Press

Printing press circa early 1800’s and Vandercook Universal III Power Test Press, circa 1974

I think it deserves some service after that. That’s crazy.

For those listeners who don’t know, what is so special about letterpress? Why don’t you just send somebody off to- I don’t know. I’m trying to make a, I can’t think of a single company that does that offset.

An offset, yeah. Letterpress, I think that the craze surrounding letterpress now, that was the industry standard before offset. That’s how all jobs were printed at that point, until up around the 70’s. Now, I think the resurgence in letterpress has so much more to do with the tactile nature of it. A lot of people associate letterpress with that really deep impression, and that smashed in- which is beautiful, but that’s not how a lot of letterpress printers like to print. It’s not traditional.
Traditionally, you wouldn’t want that. That would be undesirable. You want it to seem professional and smooth, right?
Yup, exactly. Especially if you’re printing something like a book, if you think about the page and you don’t want to see all that punched around the other side.
You don’t want your pages to be like 80-pound paper.
Right. Yeah, exactly. There’s a lot of- I don’t need to get on my little high horse about letterpress. I understand that that is what people are associating with it these days. As long as it’s not damaging your equipment, as long as you’re careful with how you do it and use a really soft, squishy paper that the paper’s taking the hit and not the press, and that you’re not damaging metal type, that you’re actually using the new technology called photopolymer plate, then I don’t have a problem with it at all. As long as you’re not hurting the equipment.
I see. Some people were trying to get the effect and actually damaging the equipment.
Yeah. It’s kind of a bummer when you see people …
When we first started this Needmore, there was a company in Canada. I can’t remember the name of the company, but they did our business cards for us. They were ridiculously relief printed. I remember showing them to a couple of places in town and saying, “We need new business cards. Can you do this?” They were like, “We won’t do that. We’re not going to do that.”
Not only that, but when you think about the history of typography, these letters, actually most of the typography that we still use today, the classic font, were designed for letterpress. The weight of the strokes and the size of the serifs and everything were designed to be printed with a [kick] impression. Once you start smashing that into really squishy paper, it distorts the typography and it casts shadows. It’s not readable, and it’s not doing justice to the designer or how it was meant to be used.

It’s not respectful to the paper, either. I’ve seen letterpress where it’s so smashed in that the paper around where it’s smashes is cracking and coming apart because there’s so much pressure. Anyhow.

Another one of your passions seems to be bookmaking, book binding.
Yeah. I’m actually more of a book binder than a letterpress printer. I do both, but …
Tell me about that.
I first learned book binding in college. I took a class right at the end, and then realized that I had spent four years studying something that wasn’t my passion; that actually, book binding was my passion. Who knows what the predisposition, where it comes from? I think it comes from really enjoying craft and precision. That’s book binding, it can be a very precise craft. It just really spoke to me.

I went to England. Finished my college in England and tried to find traditional binders there that I could study with. The teachers that I had didn’t know anything about it. It turns out, the tiny little town that I was studying in has the one of the best binding and conservation schools in the world. It was blocks away from where I was studying, and nobody knew about it. It’s kind of a drag.

I decided, instead of going to get a Masters in book art, or book binding, or printing, that would just use the money that I would have spent on a Master’s degree and travel around and study with the people that I wanted to study with and get my education that way.

Of course, like I said, I worked at Minnesota Center for Book Arts. I had access to a lot of people coming through and teaching there. I feel like I have a pretty good, well-rounded education around it. I’ve learned from so many different people. I kind of take what’s important to me from each one and build my own philosophy around what I do and how I do it.

My understanding of book binding is little anemic. You’re stitching a series of magazines do you call them?
Call them signatures.
Signatures, that’s right. Close. You glue them to the- how does that …
There’s so many different ways to bind a book. There’s so many. There’s completely non-adhesive ways, there’s completely adhesive ways, like a paperback book. It’s called a perfect binding. It’s far from perfect.
It’s just a pile of paper that’s glued.
Yup. Glued at the spine.
Thick glued to the spine, okay. If you were binding a book in the 50’s or 60’s, how would you do it?
Are you talking about a commercial bindery?
Like a hard cover commercial book.
In the 50’s or 60’s , they had machines already doing it in high numbers. Back at the turn of the century, jobs were divided. There would be people, mostly women, sewing the books because they have little fingers and that’s what they do. They sew, right?
You’re saying, sewing the magazines together.
The signatures, yes.
Do you have any more of times you’re going to say that?
Sew in the signatures in these; they would a lot of times use these wooden frames. They are called sewing frames where they would be cords or tapes strung from top to bottom. You stitch your signatures around those tapes, and they become a second support in addition to the sewing. They would sew a book, and put a board in between and sew another book on top of it, and keep going and then cut the tapes all apart. You’d have several books in one frame building up, up, up, up. Somebody else would …
Your arm did that.
I know. There would be a forwarder, there would be the foil stamper, and the printers obviously, before all of that. People had very specific jobs in a bindery. They would use hide glue to line the spine and to cover the boards, meaning rabbit skin glue or fish glue, or something like that. That’s kind of how it’s still done.
I imagine when I see, especially like a probably a short run of a really nice book where it’s hardcover. You can tell that it’s made up. You can see where the signatures are. The end is really sharp, but then it’s like… or put the gold on the end like they do. People still do that that same way.
Yup, absolutely.

I decided, instead of going to get a Masters in book art, or book binding, or printing, that would just use the money that I would have spent on a Master’s degree and travel around and study with the people that I wanted to study with and get my education that way… I had access to a lot of people coming through and teaching there. I feel like I have a pretty good, well-rounded education around it. I’ve learned from so many different people. I kind of take what’s important to me from each one and build my own philosophy around what I do and how I do it.

I guess that’s like how some people still do make records. You can still buy records. I’ve recently read this about records. This is fascinating and remarkably true. The shame about records is they’re so uncommon. But if you were to somehow graph the technology of making a record, it’s the best it’s ever been. The sound of a record now is by far the best sound of any recording you could get. They’ve mastered it. A record now is really thick vinyl. That’s how I imagine a good hardcover book is now.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s interesting. Book binding has evolved. There are several practitioners who have invented new structures and have made things stronger, and have exhausted all possibilities of what a good structure, a good functioning spine is, things like that. Yes, we have definitely brought it to new levels. It evolved binding.

At the same time, people typically these days don’t have the same kind of patience that craftspeople used to have. You don’t see beautifully carved marble facades on buildings anymore. Same with book binding, it’s rare that- we have machines to do it now. It’s rare. These books that are done by hand, that this attention is actually given. You’d never be able to make your money as a binder if you weren’t doing the high end stuff. People don’t pay for books like what they’re worth anymore, you know what I mean? Because of the machinery, and the …

Except a very very small number of collectors.
Exactly. That’s what I do. My clientele, mostly work with photographers actually these days making limited edition small, self-published books. They wind up in special collections and galleries and museums, and in their collector’s collection as well.
That’s the intention of the product.
Yeah, exactly. Really low edition size, so you can really put a lot of attention to detailing into it and make a beautiful collectible piece.
Do you make Kindle editions? I had to say it, sorry.
I’m such a technophobe. What I do is completely hands on and tactile and everything. My degree is Graphic Design and I used to be really good on a computer. But, forget it. I can’t even … I just check e-mail now.
We talked a little about the letterpress that you have at Em-space. Do you have equipment for book binding too?
Yup, absolutely. It’s about half the space dedicated to the bindery. There’s foil stampers and a job backer for rounding the spines of the book and doing edge decoration and things like that, the colored edges you were talking about. We have sewing frames and we have all the small tools, the hand tools that you need for binding. We have nipping presses and board shear, and…
Foil stamper, what do you mean?
You’ve seen on the covers of books, when there’s a deep impression, a lot of times it’s gold or silver, something like that. You can get foil in any color. A lot of times, the titling on books is done with a foil stamper.
Okay, all right. It’ll say bonus or new, or something … like the title of the book. Got you. It’s just a question from the studio here. What is traditional French style leather binding? Trick question for our listeners.
It’s, again, that very- hearkening back to a long time ago when it was all done by hand. It can take you two months to make one book, because you’re treating the leather in a certain way and creating onlays and inlays of leather, and doing hand tooling. You heat up these beautiful bronze tools with letters, and put each letter down one at a time, and have to line it up exactly perfectly. The heat has to be just right. You have to design all of this and lay it out. There’s lots and lots of steps, and a little bit of waiting in between each step too for dry time or pressing, or things like that. It takes a really long time to create these- they’re called design bindings as well. I’ll show you someday, pictures of design bindings. They’re very high end. Some of the most amazing binders, their books will go for $10 000. I’m not one of those amazing binders, unfortunately.
My aunt had this book. One of the children ripped the cover off. It was very upsetting. It was Shakespeare, so mediocre content.
I can fix that for you.
The cover was leather, but it was completely relief. Shakespeare, but this art deco … anyway. How upset would you be? That is the question.
It can be repaired. I can fix that for you.
Oh, you can reattach it to the book?
Yeah, absolutely.
I’ll bring it in. That’s awesome, okay.
Yeah. I’ll have to see it first before I make any promises, but I can definitely reattach it. I promise you that.
Until that happens, I’m not going to read this Shakespeare guy. She’s drawing the line.

Where are you teaching these days?

I teach at Oregon College of Art and Craft and their Continuing Education. I teach at Pacific Northwest College of Art in their CEM. I’m going to be teaching a letterpress class there starting next week. I travel around to teach as well, at conferences and colleges and things like that. I’ve done a lot of teaching at a place called Penland School of Craft. A lot of people just call it Penland. It’s in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It’s nestled into this gorgeous, gorgeous place. It’s magical.
Tell me more about that. What is that?
It was founded in the 20’s by Lucy Morgan. She was a schoolteacher. She started teaching weaving to women in the mountains for an additional income for their families. Then in 1929, I believe, she established it as a formal school. Volunteers helped build the structure for their original house for the school. By the 50’s, it had become this really amazing craft school that started offering classes in all sorts of different crafts.

It’s not a degree program. There isn’t a full-time teaching faculty there either. It’s visiting instructors only. People from all over the world come to teach there for a different amount of time. They do one week classes, and two weeks, and two months at a time, concentrations. I was there this last winter for two months as the lead printer for their winter print residency, which was incredible to be there in the winter and the snow. It’s so gorgeous. The print studio there …

I’m so jealous. Maybe I can teach web design there or something?
Not yet.

The print studio has these gorgeous, giant windows that you just look over this beautiful meadow. It’s just so inspiring and serene and wonderful to be there. Everybody’s so happy and excited to be there that it’s inspiring. Everybody’s beautiful. Yeah, I’m exaggerating a little bit.

It seems like you really like teaching. What is it about teaching that’s so appealing?
I love teaching. I think that’s another predisposition. When I was a little girl, that’s all I could dream of was to be a teacher. I really love sharing knowledge, I guess. I’m so grateful to my teachers. Why would I not pass on what I know when I benefited so greatly from it? I don’t know.

It’s funny, because I’m a terrible public speaker. I can’t get up in front of a crowd. But if I’m teaching, it’s still a crowd, kind of. I have no problems with it.

The same thing.
Yeah. I don’t know. I love interacting with people and learning from them. It’s totally symbiotic. Every time I teach, I learn something and make new friends and excellent connections. I like teaching in Continuing Ed, because it’s people who are really excited to be there, not just for billing a credit or something.
Yeah, it’s discretionary.
Yeah, exactly. And the shorter classes, so you don’t have to create giant syllabi. I’m so much more skilled at teaching technique than I am concepts, so it’s great to teach in Continuing Ed. Usually, what it entails is teaching technique and structure, things like that. I love it.

Penland School

Penland School of Crafts (aerial view) and The Penland Craft House, built in 1935
Photo credit: Penland School of Crafts

Are there writers, authors, who had a big influence on you?
That’s a good question. No. Yeah, I do. The thing is, most of the books that I bind are very visual. I have bound books with text, obviously, but more what I do for myself, my own books that I make, I have this really weird relationship with language where I have a hard time …
So it’s more like the people that influenced you are probably photographers or artists.
Yeah, absolutely. My own books that I make are completely just letterpress print work, visual print work. Imagery and very little text.
What did they call them, that- now while I have you here, I can ask trivia questions about books. You know in the old books where it would be like paper, paper, then this glossy thing, it’s photo. It was like a treat. I remember as a kid, I would go to my grandparents’ house. They have all these old books, and I’m going to look, words, words, and you get to the one where it’s a glossy page. What do you call that?
It’s a coated paper. They’re typically coated with clay. They were, but nowadays it’s different. The reason that they did that in older books- I’m assuming that this is a letterpress printed book you’re talking about.
It almost certainly is.
The reason that you would print on a glossy paper is because when you’re working with a half tone or a photographic imagery, letterpress is either black or white, on or off. You can’t create- it’s a relief printing process. You can’t create tonal differences.
Yeah, photographic …
Exactly. It’s a dot pattern that you’re printing. In order to get the highest amount of detail with the tiniest amount of dots, you’ll get the most crisp image on a really smooth coated paper. If you’re printing on a textured paper with a lot of tooth, the ink wants to bleed and squish around and things like that. Your image is clogged and not as beautiful.
Yeah, you can almost look at the book from the side and see that there’s …
Little chunks, yeah.
There’s four of those. There’s four in this book.
Yeah, they still do that with offset, too. You see that a lot. Text pages are printed on a nice, warm paper, and the imagery is printed on something glossy and flashy.
Right. You’ve been traveling a lot with your publisher. Tell me about that.
I work with a publisher that’s based in New York. It’s called Silas Finch Foundation. Kevin Messina is the publisher. He’s incredible. He’s really generous with his time and his knowledge and his expertise. He helps photographers, mostly who are getting started, to publish their first works. It’s the direction he’s going. He’s very involved- very enamored with evidence of the hand and the hand-made, and keeping it here in the states and all that.

We started working together, and we work really well together. It’s been a really great relationship. I worked on, now, five books with him. The one that he just most recently published, I haven’t actually had my hands on as much. It’s called Grays the Mountain Sends by Bryan Schutmaat. It’s a gorgeous book. It’s sold out, and we haven’t even made them yet. It’s exciting to be a part of this bigger enterprise that he’s …

What do you do when you’re traveling?
This last time, I was just in New York for the New York Art Book Fair. I was there to meet Bryan. I hadn’t met him yet. He was awarded a prize for the actual photographs. The book hadn’t been released yet. It was for the work. There was a show showing that work. I went to see the show and to troubleshoot the rest of the book binding process and work on our special edition a little bit, make some decisions about our special edition. Also, attend the New York Art Book Fair and bring the books there to be sold.

There’s a book shop in town called. Myles Haselhorst and his wife own and run that shop. They represented the book at their booth, at the Art Book Fair. You should go there. It’s a beautiful shop.

I will. When you say that book sold out, how many are you making?
Six hundred. Yeah. Well, there’s 550, and then 45, 42 of the special edition, the upper end one.
A couple of it are going to be screwed up, you’re just assuming that kind of thing?
Yeah, definitely. You always have to build in your over … yeah. It’s fun. We get to work with a woodworker here in town. Rob is his name. He’s very talented. We’re building these beautiful wooden boxes with wood that was on a barn where Al Capone kept his horses. It’s gorgeous. It’s this weathered looking wood. We’re making these beautiful boxes to house the …
I don’t care if he actually hid his horses there. I love that story. I think everything should have a story like that. That’s awesome.
I agree.
A couple of… horses. Every time someone shows that book, they’ll be like, “Oh, by the way, this wood …”
Yup, selling point.
That’s funny. Someone did an experiment, a study. They listed a bunch of crap on E-bay. They split it into two groups. They were just thrift sale, just junk. One group, they just listed and described the item. The other group, they had a bunch of students come in and write a story. The story isn’t necessarily anything to do with the item. It was a completely random story. On average, they fetched 10 times as much, 20 times a much because it had a story. People love stories.
I guess I should put that in there then, huh?
You definitely should. This question was also submitted by a listener. I think I might already know the answer. I was going to say, “What is your favorite place on earth?”
Oh, gosh. I want to hear what you think the answer is first.
I think it’s that school that you teach at.
I’m curious to what the actual answer is.
Gosh, that might be it. But I also really like France. I love to eat and I love to drink good wine. That’s where all the best of it comes from, right?
Kind of amazing. Books there? I don’t know.
Yeah, they do. Beautiful. My favorite book binding store is there, supplier.
Okay. Wrong, but it’s okay.
No, you’re not. I think Portland comes in just slightly before France.
Okay. That is terrific, taking that one for me. Just to bring this back to Portland, what’s your favorite restaurant in Portland?
Oh gosh. You can’t ask me to answer that, because if…
You got a top 10?
Hang on.
This week.
I live across the street from the Woodsman. I go there a lot. I really enjoy it. I can go eat oysters whenever.
It’s kind of amazing.
It is. I like Ned Ludd, that’s a fantastic little place. I’m really sad that — closed. They weren’t a restaurant per se, but they had beautiful food.
It was nice and cozy, and… that, too.
Yeah, I loved that place. I don’t know.
If you’re going to pick those two, that’s great.
Cool. Well, thanks for coming to talk to me, Rory.
You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.