The Complete Works of Workhorse Printmakers

Making an Powerful Impression

Steven Hempel. Art direction Michelle AviƱa. Photography Jenny Antill.
Posted:
October 18, 2013

Workhorse Printmakers takes a classic, old-fashioned approach to printmaking. Working intimately with their machinery, they coax century-old letterpresses to create impressions on paper in a task that is often more art than science. Gears turn, wheels spin, oil drips, and the operator takes part in the choreography. “There is a sense of magic in working with letterpress,” says John Earles, co-founder and pressman at Workhorse. “The cool part of what we do is about the effort and work. We bleed with our machines.”

Founded in 2009 by partners John Earles and Jennifer Blanco, Workhorse Printmakers is one of the few letterpress print shops in Houston. The couple returned home after working in New York City for a number of years, with a desire to combine their talents as artists and create projects on their own terms. The result of their collaboration was Workhorse Printmakers and in-house graphic design shop Spindletop Design. In an intimate space tucked away in the Rice Military neighborhood, they use turn-of-the-century machinery (their oldest press was made in the 1890s) often sourced from old print shops, to create invitations, announcements and posters in small runs of 250 to 1,000.

Letterpress, which is often confused with engraving, is a form of relief printing that was the dominant form of creating paper collateral until the early 1960s, when it was replaced commercially by offset printing, which is faster and easier to setup and can reproduce photography more effectively. Unlike digitally created work, letterpress creates a true, natural impression in the paper upon which it is printed. The impression comes from the process itself, which involves passing a printing plate through a press with a tremendous amount of force. The final product is almost impossible to produce using modern printing techniques and makes each work feel distinctly handmade. 

While the firm has only been on the Houston stage for a brief time, Workhorse has quickly imbedded itself within the design community, fostering relationships with Brazos Bookstore, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Museum of Printing History and AIGA Houston, among others. Workhorse’s collaboration with CAMH for Museum Experience Day took place in conjunction with the current exhibition “Graphic Design: Now in Production” (through September 29); they set up two letterpress machines onsite for the production of a poster and postcards given to museum attendees. They have also produced work for Cite, the quarterly architectural publication of the Rice Design Alliance, and collaborated with Brazos Bookstore to print a series of four broadsides for the “Banned Books” exhibition, which championed the importance of literary freedom.

As Workhorse continues to grow, the challenge is to stay committed to the details that make their work so appealing while refining a process that requires a great deal of time and effort but yields rewards for both the client and the maker. Though the process can be tiring and the hours long, the unique works and the sense of community they have fostered makes it all well worth the effort.

Workhorse Printmakers can be found online at workhorseprints.com.

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