The almost lost art of handset letterpress begins with a tiny rectangle of lead, called a sort, measured in the minuscule units of points and picas. The sort has a body, a shoulder, a foot, a nick, a groove, and carved on its face is a letter of the alphabet, a numeral, or punctuation mark.
In an act of mental gymnastics, Sarah Shebaro sets the sorts on a composing stick, upside down and backwards—a mirror image of her composition. She packs in the lead spacers to make it all snug, then the hair spacers, so-called because the tiny sheets of copper are the thickness of a hair, eliminating all wiggle-room.
Her partner in printing, Bryan Baker, rather enjoys this delicious tedium of fitting together the tiny movable sorts into an organized composition.
“Loving letterpress and silently suffering look the same,” Baker says. “I spend a lot of time hunched over these little things silently cussing to myself.”
Shebaro and Baker are teaching the very first letterpress class at their new shop, Striped Light, on a Thursday evening. Both teachers are in their mid-30s, both hold masters degrees in printmaking from the University of Tennessee. Baker sports thick sideburns and a Pringles trucker hat. Shebaro is a petite, bright-eyed woman in turquoise jewelry and a brown Carrhart jacket. They look like mechanics—stylish, artistic mechanics—which in effect, they are, the presses being temperamental industrial machines requiring heavy maintenance.
Striped Light resides in what was once a long-empty auto detailing shop just off North Central Street. In the lobby, the faux wood paneling and scuffed linoleum remains. A vintage sign, “Customer Ring Bell for Service,” now shares wall space with fine-art prints. In the corner, a large metal desk with a scattering of papers serves as a bare-bones booking office. On the desk lays a short stack of shrink-wrapped vinyl records by the local band Daddy Don’t—the first release by Knoxville’s newest record label, led by Striped Light’s third partner, Jason Boardman.
Further back, inside a spacious studio with high ceilings, concrete floors, and three roll-up garage doors, sit five vintage flatbed cylinder proof presses: a Korrex, a Challenger, and three Vandercooks. A smaller room serves as an art gallery.
The three longtime friends dreamed up this unique combination of art, commerce, and heavy machinery—brainstorming over beers when they were living in the same town, scheming over Skype when they weren’t. Baker, Boardman, and Shebaro—each a significant figure in Knoxville’s arts and music communities in the past decade—joined forces to finally see their dream realized in December: opening a community print shop/record label in their favorite city. Even more so than business success, the partners hope Striped Light will become a kind of DIY community center, a catalyst for artistic collaboration among Knoxville’s poets, philosophers, artists, and musicians.
It’s a calling that required professional risks and personal sacrifices for all three. Baker closed his own successful print shop in Detroit’s resurgent art scene. Shebaro left her job running the printmaking department at New York’s Pratt University. And Boardman, owner of low-profit enterprises Pilot Light and Hot Horse in the Old City, is stretching his limited resources even further. Baker and Shebaro say they were happy and successful in their various pursuits in Detroit and New York. But both agree something was missing: a sense of being home.
“It’s important enough to me to haul three tractor trailer loads of stuff across the country,” Baker says. “It wasn’t easy to move back to Knoxville but it was something I really wanted to do.”
Crafting a Business
The Striped Light printmakers have bought type at estate sales and salvaged equipment out of barns. No one is making letterpress equipment anymore; when a piece is destroyed, it is lost forever. The shop preserves historic equipment in well-oiled, operational condition. The oldest piece of equipment in Striped Light’s shop is a 1909 paper-cutter called a guillotine, though some of the type dates back to the 1800s. Other vintage and antique equipment includes a slug cutter, foot pedal corner-rounder, a type saw called a Hammond Glider, several small long-legged work tables, and many type cases.
For 500 years, handset letterpress was the primary method used to print words on paper. In the late 20th century, duplicating machines and computer printing rendered it obsolete. The new methods are quick and convenient, if also flat and soulless. Letterpress and relief printing are currently enjoying a niche revival in the artisanal world. Craftspeople and their customers value letterpress for the sculptural features of the textured page, distinctive typography, the control over the finished product, and its long tradition as a valued skill-set. Letterpress ephemera are usually produced in small batches, with high-quality ink and paper.
In 1998 Julie Belcher and Kevin Bradley brought letterpress to the forefront of Knoxville’s contemporary arts scene by opening Yee-Haw Industries, the famed (and now defunct) letterpress shop on Gay Street. Beyond Knoxville, Yee-Haw led a national letterpress revival, making letterpress commercially viable again with high-profile design jobs, and inspiring new shops to open around the country.
Back at the class, Baker inks the Korrex, the newest press, manufactured in 1977. He dabs his color of choice, red, onto the cylinder and set the rollers spinning until an even layer of ink coats the entire surface. He places the type onto the bed of the press, uses short lengths of wooden boards, called furniture, to hold the type in place and tightens the quoin with the quoin key to cinch it even tighter. Printing an image requires a linoleum block with the image carved into it or etched metal plate, which would be laid in place of the type.
Rolling a sheet of paper through the press involves the whole body.
Baker raises the grippers with a foot pedal and slips the paper under. He cranks the handle with his right hand while walking the heavy spinning cylinders down the line, catches the inked paper with his left hand, bumps the cylinders against the stoppers at the end, causing the whole top of the press to raise up, then walks the still-spinning cylinders backwards into place.
In his hand he holds a crisp sheet of fresh-pressed lettering, the ink still glossy, the words slightly denting the surface of the paper. It is a student’s personal motto: “The Secret to Success is Getting Started.”
Baker asks why the students are curious about printmaking. Parker Laubach tells Baker he is interested in using the presses to print pamphlets. Laubach and his friend Matt Young publish Black Shield, a photocopied ‘zine bound with staples, which Laubach describes as a “free anti-authoritarian small press publication.”
The Striped Light founders have a populist vision for the community shop that aligns with Laubach’s philosophy.
“We want to provide the opportunity for people to get involved with a craft that would otherwise be difficult without going to a university or buying a lot of expensive equipment,” Baker says.
U.S. News and World Report ranks UT’s printmaking program as the third-best graduate level program in the country. Among the acclaimed professors is printmaker and prankster Beauvais Lyons, known for his faux-scientific “Hokes Archive” lithographs. March 18-21, UT is hosting the SGC International Conference—the largest printmaking conference of its kind, according to the SGCI website. As part of the conference, Striped Light is hosting an open house Thursday, March 19, 6 p.m.-10 p.m.
The three-year grad program costs about $15,000 for in-state students and $30,000 for out-of-state students per year. That’s $45,000 or $90,000 all together.
When asked if he could afford this program, Laubach, who works construction in Americorps, answers, “That’s insane. Definitely not.” Laubach adds that renting studio time at Striped Light for $12 an hour makes it “actually affordable” for curious low-income people like him to try out printmaking.
Pilot Light is the locus for creative meetings in this story.
Shebaro arrived in Knoxville in 2005, drawn by UT’s printmaking department. She walked into Pilot Light her first day in town and struck up a conversation with two locals sitting at the bar: the artist and elementary school teacher Holly Briggs, and Regina Greene, who’s made a name for herself representing avant-garde musicians through her booking agency Front Porch Productions. Shebaro later deejayed at the Pilot Light under the name Mini-Tiger.
Baker had moved to Knoxville six years earlier, also for UT’s printmaking program. Right away, Knoxville felt like home, he says, more so than his actual hometown of Sidney, Ohio. Baker met Boardman in 2000 at one of the first Pilot Light shows. He quickly became part of the tight-knit Pilot Light community, playing in the band Plan’s Off. Sitting in a bar brainstorming project ideas has always been an important part of Baker and Boardman’s friendship, present venture included.
When Baker graduated from grad school in 2003 he decided to stick around Knoxville. He had no desire to live in other cities and was proud not to be a part of the brain drain. Baker soon became known for his work at Yee-Haw. Yee-Haw’s trademark prints of banjo-playing woodland creatures and woodcuts of local celebrities made the letterpress shop a celebrated Southern icon, gleefully reveling in the corn-pone whimsy of by-gone days. Many people in Knoxville became familiar with letterpress through the distinctive “Wild West” typography that marked advertisements for clients around town with that recognizable Yee-Haw flavor.
“Working at Yee-Haw, we were sort of a fixture in the art scene so I was in the mix of a lot of stuff, even if I wasn’t personally involved, there was a hum. I could be part of it just by proximity,” says Baker, who at Yee-Haw was once given the dicey task of making prints from a priceless woodblock carved by the late artist Jim Flora.
Baker worked at Yee-Haw until 2008. He says he never wanted to leave Knoxville, but he and his wife, lighting designer Carrie Walker, kept getting irresistible opportunities that pulled them away. Baker accepted a year-long teaching gig at Clarion University in Philadelphia. After a brief return to Knoxville, he followed Walker to New York City, where he lived every artist’s dream: supporting himself exclusively through his art.
“To make it in New York you have to be over the top. It was a blast, but that wasn’t my city,” Baker says.
Baker worked or taught in print shops up and down the East Coast, including Penland School of Crafts, Center for Book Arts, Robert Blackburn Studio, The Arm Letterpress, and Arrowmont. In 2011, Walker got a “fancy-pants job” in Detroit, where Baker opened Stukenborg Press, a commercial print shop, art studio, and printmaking classroom.
The whole time he was away, he couldn’t stop talking about Knoxville.
“Even though good things were happening in Detroit, it didn’t feel like the place I was meant to be. Detroit wasn’t my city,” Baker says.
The city he considers “his” is Knoxville.
“Often, living in other places, I’ve been successful and made money and was able to make a living, but I felt like I wasn’t in tune with things,” Baker says.
The sense of support Baker feels in Knoxville stands in contrast with the cutthroat competition he observed in New York and Detroit.
“It could be I’m so proud to be from Knoxville because it let me be on the team. In all the other cities, I was never on the team,” he says.
Baker’s Stukenborg Letterpress Studio was a thriving part of Detroit’s vibrant arts scene. The studio operated out of Ponyride, a socially progressive collective that also housed a woodworking and metalworking shop, and a boutique denim workshop. Stukenborg garnered rave reviews on sites like printeresting.org. The set-up seemed perfect. Why leave? For one thing, Baker and Walker have a daughter, 1-year-old Samantha, and he wants her to grow up in Knoxville.
Also, he has a sense that Knoxville needs him more that Detroit does.
“I can be something for people here,” Baker says. “I moved back to be part of Knoxville, not just in it.”
Shebaro’s reasons to move back were also not motivated by money.
“I’m not looking to be a millionaire, I just want to do what I love,” she says.
The chance to build something of her own, make her own rules, and own a business with potential for growth is a powerful motivator for Shebaro. She ran the printmaking department at Pratt from 2009 to 2014. Multiple classes used the shop every day. Hundreds of students passed through the studio, often desperate for her help on overdue assignments. She found herself rebuilding equipment and reorganizing the cases at the end of every semester, and she saw that the cyclical nature of the school year could lead to burnout.
In the summer of 2013, Shebaro and Baker both found themselves at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina; Shebaro for an assistantship, Baker teaching a class. When Baker suggested Shebaro should quit her job and open a letterpress studio in Knoxville, she thought he was joking. A few months later Baker gave her a follow up phone call, and she realized he was dead serious.
“Brian was always more set on getting back to the South,” says Shebaro, “I came to it later.”
The hectic school semester was well underway, and Shebaro found herself considering his proposal more seriously this time.
“I had so many great friends in New York, and I miss the culture, but I was given the opportunity to craft my own space, to build a shop with people I respected, and I took it,” says Shebaro. After months of planning with Baker and Boardman, she resigned from her position in December and moved back to Knoxville where Baker and Boardman had already begun setting up the Striped Light shop.
“I can’t overemphasize how my journey in education has made me appreciate every teacher I know in my life,” Shebaro says. “Everybody that truly figured out something they love to do and are doing it, it comes down to an instructor or mentor.”
One influential teacher in Shebaro’s life was her high school art teacher, the late Anita Coon. Coon made her own art and went out of her way to find topics that interested the students. Shebaro says the high school art room was a social center, and she found her place there.
“That’s why I gravitate towards printing. It’s very community based, very social, there’s a lot of sharing, collaboration, and trade of ideas. It energizes part of my brain as an artist to be teaching others,” says Shebaro.
Away from the intense workload of Pratt, Shebaro has more time to focus on her own art.
Shebaro’s prints, on display on the lobby walls of Striped Light, resemble angular quilt square patterns printed in blue and red ink. The title of her website “shapes with no names” fits the crystalline geometry of her work. Baker says Shebaro works with methodical intensity, beginning with a recognizable object, but masking its form through layers of cutting, scraping away, and fragmenting into a geometric structure.
Shebaro says the scraps of personal ephemera left in the building from the old auto trim shop—the poster of paint chips, the typed supply orders, even the wall paneling—inspire her and inform her creative flow.
Unlike Yee-Haw’s iconic images, neither of the artists’ work displayed at Striped Light is imagery-based. Despite the old-fashioned process of manual printmaking, the craftsmanship of Baker and Shebaro’s prints reveal an experimental, contemporary aesthetic.
Baker likes to print with unusual objects: dice, spaghetti, and once, toast. He appreciates the immediacy of the printmaking experience, the honesty in the way materials reveal themselves through the process. The toast-shaped ink mark on the paper—it’s clear even to a layperson how that was made.
In 2011, a profile of Baker appeared in The New York Times Magazine featuring his signature dice prints—fine-art pieces made in blue and red ink with ordinary six-sided dice. The author of the piece, Naomi Reis, wrote, “His prints remind us that off the digital grid, there’s magic to be found in the everyday: that through the gamble of trial and error, basic analog tools can create things that are once utterly simple and utterly beguiling.”
Keeper of the Flame
Jason Boardman, 41, has remained an important fixture in Knoxville’s underground music scene since 2000 when he, a friend, and many volunteers opened Pilot Light, a venue that serves as a clubhouse for many of Knoxville’s musicians, artists, and writers. Pilot Light is a reliable place for local bands to play, no matter how small or informal, and is a destination for unconventional musicians from out of town. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Chain and the Gang, and Kid Congo have all played fiery shows to packed houses of electrified fans.
Boardman is tall, lanky, and mild-mannered. His nonchalant persona belies a passionate commitment to supporting music he finds fresh and exciting. With the Striped Light record label, he wants to blow the secret of Knoxville’s underground music scene wide open, and he is in a trusted position to do so.
“The local scene here is the most uniquely creative I’ve ever experienced, and one of the least documented,” Board says. “Bands from out of town are amazed at the people they might be playing with [at the Pilot Light.] Often local bands don’t have a record to send out of town. My hope is that the label can be formalized to get great Knoxville music outside the city.”
Boardman says it’s an exciting time to be in Knoxville right now.
“Knoxville’s big enough to have creative critical mass and the infrastructure to support it, but there’s a lot of work to be done here,” Boardman says. “It inspires a pioneer spirit in all of the people opening up creative businesses in town. There’s plenty of things to build on here and build up.”
So far, Daddy Don’t’s self-titled vinyl LP is Striped Light’s only release. Daddy Don’t consists of Maggie Brannon on drums and Charice Starr on guitar. Sometimes Brad Fowler joins them on-stage to blow soap bubbles over the audience. The album’s seventh track, ‘Charice and Maggie Show,’ addresses the friendly dynamic of the two principle players, showcasing their trademark lo-fi sound, simple chords and rhythms, and fresh untrained voices. Lyrics are sung with a lighthearted rough-and-tumble bravado: “breaking hearts and arms at parties.” The chorus claims, “It’s easy as it seems, to be free.”
Striped Light’s second release will be by White Gregg, recorded by sound engineer Scott Minor. Boardman plays drums in this band, so it’s hard for him to talk about the music in an unbiased way. He says interest in White Gregg is due to guitarist Eric Lee, “one of the most creative musicians that I’ve ever known in this town or anywhere else.”
The third release, due in May, is by Shriek Operator, fronted by “the creative volcano that is Alan Bajandas,” Boardman says. Alan’s sister, Joanna Bajandas, sings and Josh Wright plays up-right bass.
“Shriek Operator is very simple live, but has an amazing intensity,” Boardman says. “On this record there are lots of different instruments and it’s very multifaceted. It sort of gives you an idea of all the music going on in Alan’s head.”
Can documenting a scene change it?
“I know it’s a motivator, to have this physical thing you can get behind,” Boardman says. “Perhaps if we can build something around these bands that exist for such a short period of time, it’ll give people some glue, a reason to put a couple of tours together if just to get rid of their albums.”
Boardman hopes having a Striped Light record out will encourage these part-time musicians—most of them his friends who hold a day jobs as baristas and servers—to use the talent he sees in them, to continue to make the sounds he loves to hear.
“Maybe documenting it makes it that much more—maybe even to the minds of the people doing it—real,” he says.
Boardman grew up in a musical family, and remembers being intrigued by instruments and interesting sounds from an early age. In high school, he heard for the first time experimental musicians like German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten and British punk band The Fall. He says he became fascinated with “bands that were doing things that challenged the idea of what music was supposed to sound like.”
“Growing up in Athens, Tenn., when you find a nugget like that it’s really something because it was difficult to come by pre-Internet. It made you hunt down any of the people they thanked, anyone they listed as an influence on the jacket sleeve,” says Boardman.
Documenting a scene makes it look important, perhaps even glamorous. It builds a legacy and a reference point. It extends into the future a time when creative forces collided, a certain group of musicians made some good sounds, even a handful of stellar songs, before the band fell apart. Maybe it was all worth something if they record one small nugget for a kid to discover in a box someday.
Pilot Light has never made money. Boardman has always subsidized the club with his day job as a software engineer for McKay’s. He also owns Hot Horse, the record/vintage shop next door to the Pilot Light.
“Music and creative performance seem to be really important to me,” Boardman says. “I find myself asking as I get older, ‘Why are you still…?’ It’s a lot of sacrifice to put your future into something like this. I could be saving money or traveling. I sacrifice all of that for [the Pilot Light,] and hopefully, [Striped Light] is something that will start to pay for itself sooner.”
If it doesn’t?
“It seems like something I don’t want to let go of. It’s something that’s seemed important enough for me to hang on to it despite how difficult it’s been all these years. It’s certainly been on the brink, in my reality and in my heart, many times, and I’ve so far not been able to let go of it. I don’t know if that’s folly. With most of this stuff I’m following my instincts,” he says, “I don’t know why.”
In Pilot Light, Boardman keeps a small flame alive. It may light a wildfire if the right material passes through it. With AC Entertainment’s annual avant-garde Big Ears Festival making national headlines, Knoxville is earning a reputation as a destination, if not a source, for genre-defying experiential music. This March, all the Striped Light bands will be playing Hello City, the scrappy little sister of Big Ears’ music festival.
It may be that music is less inhibited in the shadows, away from the bright lights of the big cities. Talented, one-of-a-kind musicians walk among us unexposed. Their magic is invisible to us as they bus our tables and stock our groceries. Maybe Striped Light won’t have the wattage to hit them with the brilliant spotlight Boardman thinks they deserve. A vinyl LP on this small label may, at best, cast a dappled light, illuminating them only to those willing to seek them out. The situation is reflected in the enigmatic Captain Beefheart song lyrics where Boardman found the label’s name: the obscure musician emerges from the shadows to play in the flickering exposure of striped light.
Expanding the Neighborhood
Striped Light sits at the southern edge of the North Central/Happy Holler district, where new locally-owned
bars and restaurants such as Holly’s Corner, which opened in 2013, and Hops and Hollers, which opened in 2014, continue to spread areas of revitalization outside of downtown. John McGilvray Woodworks and Preston Farrabow’s Aespyre Design Haus form the metal and wood-working Ironwood Studios, just around the corner on Jennings Avenue.
Happy Holler, located in an actual hollow along North Central Street, has a long-established foundation of unique business. Stalwarts like the biker-themed Time Warp Tea Room, gay nightspot Club XYZ, and oddball ice cream kiosk Original Freezo still thrive there. For years, other stretches of North Central maintained working-class institutions like Knox Tenn Rental, Brown Appliances, and Dixie Kitchen Distributors, along with a reputation as a hangout for prostitutes and the homeless.
The influx of consumer-oriented new businesses started in 2008 with the city’s road and sidewalk improvements, and developer Dan Schuh’s renovation of a block of blighted buildings in the heart of Happy Holler.
Shebaro, Baker, and Boardman often cite Knoxville’s mid-size status as a positive factor.
“Knoxville is big enough that there is lots of diversity, small enough that everyone knows each other. There’s this creative accountability—people are looking at what each other are doing. Like, ‘This person’s doing this, why can’t I do it?’” Shebaro says.
Right now, custom commercial printing—business cards, wedding invitations, work for art galleries—
is paying the printmakers’ salaries, and they hope the classes will soon pay the rent.
“If we closed the doors to the public and only did Striped Light ourselves, I think we could be successful. But I can imagine getting majorly burned out if I’m just making things for other people that I’m not invested in emotionally,” Baker says.
Striped Light’s fairly eccentric identity fits with the neighborhood. It’s part of a niche artisanal scene like the craft beer taproom. Print makers in smudged Carhartts performing manual labor keep alive the area’s blue-collar history. Paired with Ironwood Studios, Striped Light’s presences hints at the beginnings of a nascent arts district.
“The empty buildings, these abandoned spaces, are part of why I loved Knoxville,” Shebaro says. “Part of why we’re excited is we took one of those spaces, the lights were off for six years, and we are bringing it back
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