Leaving an impression: Dexterity Press’ Jeff Mueller sings the virtues of letterpress printing

“Music and art,” Jeff Mueller says, “have always been synonymous with me.” Since the early 1990s, Mueller has recorded and toured internationally with a succession of groups: the acclaimed post-punk bands Rodan, June of 44, and Shipping News. With his wife Kerri Sancomb, Mueller owns and runs Dexterity Press, a letterpress printing business based in Erector Square.

Founded in Chicago in 2001, Dexterity moved to New Haven in 2010, when Sancomb — who is originally from this area — began a job at Yale University. (Sancomb, also an artist, worked in the shop one or two days a week when they were based in Chicago but with her current fulltime job can’t spend as much time at Dexterity. Mueller says, “In the behind-the-scenes stuff and supporting the ideas and momentum of the shop, she’s 100 percent part of the studio.”) The studio is equipped with a Chandler & Price 10 inch-by-15 inch Platen Press and a Vandercook press.

The bread and butter for Dexterity is commercial work: editioning of artist’s prints, one-off inserts for vinyl records and CDs, wedding invitations, artist books, poetry chapbooks, and business letterheads and business cards. Besides the commercial work, Mueller creates his own artist prints, poetic posters that combine found and hand-drawn imagery, textures, patterns, and text that is often excerpted from his song lyrics. Yale University recently purchased a selection of artists’ books, broadsides, show bills, and other prints for a new Dexterity Press collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Music was the path that led to his involvement with letterpress printing.

“I was trying to figure out a way to integrate an aesthetic package for my music,” recalls Mueller.

Untitled-2When he and Sancomb — they met while studying art at the Kansas City Art Institute — moved to Chicago in 1995, Mueller secured an internship at Fireproof Press, which his friend John Upchurch had started in Kansas City and moved to the Windy City. Mueller had already familiarized himself with the layout, design, and pre-press aspects of letterpress for his first project.

“I called John and asked, ‘Do you need an intern who is entirely inexperienced but really wants to know how this stuff works?’ and he brought me in. I’ve been trying to work within the scope of letterpress ever since.”

There is a “sort of historic quality” intrinsic to letterpress, Mueller says, in “the way it’s prepared and made, the way it feels and its tactile quality.” Mueller is attracted to anything that “seems like it should be extinct.” He doesn’t share the widespread belief — particularly among business mavens and technology buffs — that “anything that’s old and has been improved upon, technically speaking, has no purpose other than being a route for something else.”

But it’s more than the historic resonances that appeal to Mueller. Letterpress also affords a range of aesthetic choices that are attractive.

“You can put in a lot of different images, you can throw text into things and you can layer things,” explains Mueller.

Letterpress printing is a significantly different process from commercial printing, which relies on the melding of four ink colors — cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Dexterity Press’ output has a character that commercial presses can’t touch but it doesn’t come cheap.

As Mueller tells me, “Just the materials alone — making the plates, procurement of paper, and other variables — outweigh five-fold the cost of a regular commercial job.” For a Midwest-based client who commissions prints calling attention to the “flyover states,” Dexterity recently printed a highway sign for Michigan Highway 26 that included pieces of the highway’s asphalt — ground into a fine powder — mixed into the ink.

“In letterpress, you’re creating one color at a time, a very pure and true version of that color,” says Mueller. “Another very attractive property of letterpress is the extreme range you can achieve — based on whatever you’re printing — in tonality, large fields of color, very vivid and clear and beautiful patterns and textures of all different shapes and sizes.

“Besides the properties of the ink itself and the way you compose and mix your color, it’s also the way it sits on the paper,” Mueller says. Letterpress is relief-based printing, “a process where you hit the stock and it actually leaves an impression,” known as a “debossment.”

“There’s something very final and complete about that simple act — the hit of plate against paper,” says Mueller. “I do a lot of different things where there might not be any ink in the process at all. My chop — my signature on artwork — is just a deboss. I love the way it looks because it doesn’t draw too much attention to itself but when you see it, it definitely has a presence.”

Mueller says the aesthetics of his own art prints have evolved since moving to Connecticut. The imagery and text in his prints have been a way of meditating on the fragility and impermanence of life and processing the death of his close friend and bandmate Jason Noble to cancer (as well as other friends in Mueller’s late 30s/early 40s age group). Many of these works juxtapose anatomical and medical imagery — illustrations of the human heart or the nervous system, for example — with imagery evoking transcendence and the beauty of nature — butterflies, skies, trees, and birds.

These works, Mueller says, “are about trying to capture something positive out of a sensation of loss.” In their use of visual metaphor, they allow viewers to tease out their own meanings. “The big challenge was in not making everything entirely about me,” Mueller says. “I didn’t want my journals up on the wall.”

Openness to interpretation is a characteristic that Mueller’s visual art shares with his music. He has his own ideas as to what his songs are about. But if a fan “has a private listening party with one of my songs, they should be able to sustain that rather than have me strip it away. Similarly, with my art, if somebody reads something into one of my pieces, I wouldn’t want to tell them what it’s about and remove their associations from it.”

There are other parallels between his music and visual art practice. In music, Mueller often enjoys creating a “big orchestral sound” of guitar strings playing the same or similar tones. The visual analog is his affinity for layering transparent ink — “layers and layers of the same color to create different values of the same thing, visual octaves in artwork like sonic octaves.”

And just as he often finds that “mistakes abet a stronger sense of wholeness in music.” Mueller says “this lineage of thinking transfers to my artwork.” A smudge or a little ink bleeding beyond the line doesn’t bother him. “It speaks more fully to a piece in process,” says Mueller. “It gives it a more human quality.

“If there is a message to the artwork I make, it is to try and give somebody a place to disappear into,” says Mueller.

Article by Hank Hoffman


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