Rich Copley: Lexington exhibits celebrate printing as a craft and, even more, as an art

Herald-Leader Culture ColumnistFebruary 8, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    Gutenberg to Gratz Park: Hand Printing at the King Library Press. Exhibit of work by the King Library Press at the University of Kentucky. Through March. Hours: 9 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat. Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning, 251 W. Second St. Free. (859) 254-4175. Carnegiecenterlex.org.

    ■ The exhibit will be open 5-8 p.m. Feb. 21 for Gallery Hop, and there will be a demonstration of a tabletop press at 6 p.m.

    The Pleasure of Printing: Carolyn Reading Hammer and Her Circles of Influence. Exhibit about the life and work of Hammer, founder of King Library Press. Feb. 13-March 28. Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri. UK Margaret I. King Building, 179 Funkhouser Dr. (between Library and Patterson drives and near White Hall Classroom Building). Free. (859) 257-8812. Uky.edu/Libraries/KLP.

    ■ Artist and curator Susan E. King, and friends and colleagues of Hammer will speak at an opening event, 4 p.m. Feb. 13.

Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning director Neil Chethik is looking for a work in the center's current exhibit, George Ella Lyon's Falling Water, and he suddenly zeroes in on it from across the second-floor gallery.

The words cascade down the page, printed in 2010 by the University of Kentucky's King Library Press and framed like a piece of art.

"It says something that out of all these pieces, I could find it from this far away," Chethik says. "It speaks to how deep words can be. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes, a thousand words makes the picture, nails the picture."

To Chethik, Gutenberg to Gratz Park: Hand Printing at the King Library Press is a perfect marriage of the Carnegie Center's literary and artistic missions.

"It's like looking at two pieces of art at once," he says. "You have the writing, which is an artwork itself. And then the way they place the words on the page is another work of art."

Gutenberg to Gratz Park is one of two exhibits this winter that celebrate the King Library Press, which many consider to be one of Lexington's treasures. It is housed in the basement of UK's Margaret I King Library, which on Thursday will open Pleasure of Printing: Carolyn Reading Hammer and Her Circles of Influence, an exhibit celebrating the press's founder.

"When I came to UK Library in the 1960s, I overlapped with Carolyn for about six years, but I was low-end of the totem pole, and Ms. Hammer was someone I was just in awe of," says Gail Kennedy, arts and outreach librarian for UK Special Collections. "She was very well turned out in her tailored suits and very professional. She was something I aspired to be. But I never remember having a conversation with her. I would have been too intimidated. She was a force to be reckoned with.

"So it's really fun to remember my perception of her all those years ago to now be doing the research and finding out who she is."

Hammer, the second wife of Victor Hammer, an artist of multiple disciplines including printing, began printing at UK with the encouragement of Margaret I. King, UK's first librarian.

"She said, 'You can print on your work time, if you get all your work done,'" says artist and curator Susan King (no known relation to Margaret I. King), who helped organize the exhibit.

Kennedy says, "So they started an operation they called the High Noon Press and would print during their lunch hours."

Carolyn Reading Hammer collaborated with Amelia King Buckley to create The Bur Press, an imprint that started printing calendars of Lexington.

As a keepsake at Thursday's opening of The Pleasure of Printing, the press will be giving out a print of the first piece Hammer and Buckley printed. That comes along with a recollection of the occasion from Hammer, which says in part: "Due to its importance for us we obtained good rag paper sheets on which to print it. As I remember now, only one fairly legible sheet (about dampening paper we did not know), heavily inked, was the result before we could justify lifting our champagne glasses to drink to the launching of The Bur Press and break them against the basement's stone walls, Amelia remarking as we did so, 'What would our mothers think!'"

"One thing I think people will see in the exhibit is Carolyn's development as a printer," King says, pointing out even Hammer was critical of her early efforts. In addition to her printing, The Pleasure of Printing aims to illustrate Hammer's lasting influence through printers she apprenticed and her role in bringing people together like musician John Jacob Niles and Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

But her legacy is the King Library Press, which she founded in 1956. It is directed now by Paul Holbrook, one of many who worked with and learned the craft of printing from Hammer. The press operates almost as a working museum with numerous printers — including flatbed, desktop and cylinder presses — and drawers and trays filled with typefaces, plates and other tools of the trade. Prints from the press are prominently displayed, and Holbrook is only too happy to show off some treasured holdings, including works by Victor Hammer.

The press still does work for the community, including special-occasion prints for clients, books and items such as a 1950s Christmas card that was sold at The Morris Book Shop featuring a poodle that gets in trouble with Santa Claus.

Much of that work is now on display at the Carnegie Center, from specialty books created decades ago to recent items commemorating events such as the opening of UK's William T. Young Library, visits by distinguished speakers and the work of notable writers from Wendell Berry to William Faulkner.

The press, Chethik says, has demonstrated a lasting influence by creating a "printing culture" in Lexington. Numerous graduates enjoy printing as a hobby or profession.

"It can feel sort of tucked away in the basement of an old library," Chethik says. "But when you get it out in the light of day, it's really appreciated."

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Email: rcopley@herald-leader.com.

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