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Hot off the Steamroller

"Tugboat Thea" steamroller print by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

Since my gallery talk on Sunday was limited to a local audience, I thought I’d highlight a few of the pieces in my To the Letter show. (Besides, in a blog post I don’t have to worry about any public-speaking nerves, or hear myself say “Uh” or “um” twenty-nine times a minute.)

The only wall piece in the exhibit is Tugboat Thea, a piece I did with Jessica. The print is an unofficial member of our Dead Feminists series because of its size, and let me tell you, that sucker is huge. (Four feet tall!)

And why is it so enormous? Why, it was printed with a steamroller, of course!

Tacoma Wayzgoose photo by Chandler O'Leary

Yes, you read that right. The folks at King’s Books asked us to be a part of their fifth annual Wayzgoose* celebration on the first of March, and steamroller printing was the main event. Thanks to a grant from the Tacoma Arts Commission (seriously, thank you!), each artist or artist-team was given a four-foot slab of linoleum to carve as they saw fit. Jessica and I decided to pay tribute to Tacoma’s own Thea Foss—business pioneer, Waterway namesake, feminist extraordinaire, and inspiration for the Tugboat Annie stories and films.

The trouble was, our Feminist Broadside format relies on a quote by the subject, and we were having an awful time finding anything attributed to Thea herself. Luckily we discovered Finding Thea, the excellent documentary film by Nancy Bourne Haley and Lucy Ostrander—which, by the way, also provided great reference material for sketches.

Linoleum block for "Tugboat Thea" steamroller print by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

This should give a rough idea of the scale we were working with. To transfer our image onto the linoleum (backwards, so it’ll print correctly), we photocopied my design drawing at 600% size, placed the copy face-down onto the linoleum, sprinkled it with mineral spirits, and ran a hot iron over the wet paper. The heated solvent transferred the copy toner onto the linoleum exactly the way we wanted it. Then we just had to spend a week carving it!

Linoleum block for "Tugboat Thea" steamroller print by Chandler O'Leary and Jessica Spring

Here’s the finished block, all inked up and ready to print.

Tacoma Wayzgoose photo by Chandler O'Leary

And here’s the print, hot off the press. Nancy, the director of the documentary, even jumped in to help!

Tacoma Wayzgoose photo by Chandler O'Leary

Despite weather that absolutely refused to cooperate and ink turned soupy by the rain, the Wayzgoose was a huge success. We had over 500 people in attendance, and every steamroller artist knocked out at least a few prints.

Since the prints are so unwieldy, and since we can only print a handful of them at an event like Wayzgoose, we’ve decided to retool the design of Tugboat Thea. We’ll print a (smaller!) letterpress edition as the next in the Dead Feminists series. Look for it here soon!

I have to say, though, I’m grateful we were able to find a genuine Thea quote—it was either that or this nugget from the old Tugboat Annie stories:

“O.K., ye ol’ gafoozler,” she replied quietly and stood up.

Alright, I admit it: anything using the word “gafoozler” is going to be a major temptation.

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* Wayzgoose (origin obscure): a celebration given by a master printer to his workmen each year to mark the traditional end of summer and usher in the season of working by candlelight. Generally held as an annual celebration of letterpress and the book arts today.