This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on July 10, 2014.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Kayleigh Phillips is happy to live in the past.
Her East End apartment is decorated with vintage furniture and lamps and a wooden cuckoo clock. Her old, metal government-surplus desk came from a divorce court in McDowell County.
Phillips, 24, definitely likes old things. But she also likes making things that look old.
She’s a letterpress artist and uses vintage printing presses, antique metal type and hand-carved blocks to produce posters and prints that look like they came straight out of the 1940s or ‘50s.
Her artwork is inspired by old cartoons like Felix the Cat and the work of counter-cultural cartoonist Robert Crumb.
The process is so low-tech, Phillips could be zapped 100 years into the past and not have to change a thing. Except maybe her dependence on electric lights.
She creates all her designs by hand, sketching them on a piece of graph paper before transferring the design to a linoleum block using carbon paper.
Next, she cuts the design into the linoleum with carving tools and Xacto knives. This is the most involved part of the process, as Phillips must carve away everything that will not appear in her final image.
Although she can see her progress on the block, she said she never knows how the print will really look until it is coated with ink.
“It’s always really fun to spend hours carving a block and then you start inking it and see what it looks like,” she said. “It’s a gamble.”
She often has to go back and do a little more carving after the block’s first run on the printing press.
“That happens almost every time.”
There are easier — and quicker — ways to make posters, of course.
Today’s graphic designers have computer programs that are infinitely more powerful than any letterpress machine — and they don’t run the risk of gouging themselves with an Xacto blade or getting a big ink stain on their new chinos.
Phillips does plenty of computer-based design at her day job at Ryan Strategies, but said she loves the tactile experience of letterpress printing: carving the blocks, inking them with a brayer, setting them in the press and then finally pulling the roller to create a print.
“It’s an obsession. I’ll stay up all hours of the night,” she said. “There’s no middle man between the designer and the person who makes the final product.”
Phillips discovered letterpress printing while studying graphic design at Concord University.
One of her professors found an old hand-driven printing press in the basement, once used to print the campus newspaper.
The press was broken, but Phillips took it home to Chapmanville over spring break and had her dad fix it. When she graduated, the college let Phillips take the printing press with her.
Phillips also got some hands-on experience studying with older letterpress artists.
The summer before her senior year in 2011, Phillips interned at a small graphic design firm in Pittsburgh.
While there, she snagged a second internship with Pittsburgh artist Lisa Delu Vavrick’s Ella Studio.
Phillips spent her time with Vavrick helping print and package products for customers, but she also learned how to use the shop’s big motorized Heidelberg press.
That fall, after returning to West Virginia, Phillips began working with Diane Radford, who runs Dog and Pony Press in Beckley.
She met Radford through Jack Last Graphics, a Beckley screen printing shop where both Radford and Phillips’ boyfriend worked.
Phillips started hanging out in Radford’s studio, learning how to work her big Chandler & Price letterpress. The two began working on designs together, including a poster to commemorate the 30th anniversary of West Virginia Public Radio’s “Mountain Stage.”
Phillips now has her own motorized Chandler & Price press, a 1899 model former newspaper press she found outside Columbus, Ohio.
It’s a little too heavy to fit in her second story apartment — the thing weighs about 2,000 pounds — so the press is in safe keeping at her parents’ house until Phillips can find it a permanent home.
In the meantime, Phillips is working to set up a website to exhibit her work and hopes to start doing art shows in the next several months.
To see some of her letterpress art, visit her Instagram account at www.instagram.com/payleigh. To contact her, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.