Finding beauty in the old ways
● By J. Chambless
Lindsay Schmittle with some of the antique printing equipment in her Landenberg garage studio.
By John Chambless
Schmittle clearly remembers the moment she fell in love with the
old-fashioned way of putting words into print.
She was a visual communications major at the University of Delaware, and one day, she walked into the mostly abandoned print studio. “It was a big studio, with a ton of type in cases, and the first thing that overwhelmed me was the smell,” she recalled. “The ink, and the musty smell. I wondered, 'How does this all work?'”
While her fellow students were devoted to producing type and graphics projects on their computers, Schmittle was fascinated with how the individual metal letters could be lined up, how the hands-on nature of letterpress put her in touch with the design itself, and with how muscle power entered into the process of making art. She also thought of all the ways the metal letters had been used in decades – or centuries – past.
Graduating in 2013, she moved her studio into the garage of her parents' home in Landenberg, opening Gingerly Press, named both for her ginger-colored hair and the painstaking way she works.
“My mom's a computer science professor at the University of Delaware, my dad is a chemistry teacher at Wilmington Friends,” she said. “My mom does all sorts of crafts, though, and my dad has done photography and woodworking, so they both have a creative side to them. My sister is a dietitian, and my brother is going into robotics. I'm kind of the oddball artist in a family of scientists.”
Today, Gingerly Press occupies half a garage, outfitted with hulking cast-iron presses and other equipment from around the turn of the century. In the room, and nearby in what used to be a rec room at her parents' house, are tray after tray brimming with meticulously arranged metal type and graphic elements. Once a vital part of publishing everything from broadsides to newspapers to official documents, the equipment became surplus junk as typesetting modernized, but has found a niche among people like Schmittle, who are drawn to its tactile nature.
“It's a slow process, but there's a market for it,” she said. “It's kind of like building a sculpture and taking a print of it. I loved Legos when I was a kid, putting things together. There's math to it as well, because of all the point sizes and the spacing. It's like a big puzzle for me, which is fun.”
The first of what Schmittle calls her “old man friends” was a former pressman, Henry Morris of Newtown Square, who was working as a printer of specialty books and ended up selling Schmittle some of his old printing equipment. Old presses like the ones at Gingerly Press were once sold for scrap, and replacement parts are a do-it-yourself affair.
“The motor for this press burned out,” she said, pointing to one of the more recent pieces of equipment. “It took about six months to fix. There is no replacement motor anymore. I had to get friendly with the mechanic to put on another motor and pulley system. We basically adapted a motor to fit it.
“I try to save this equipment as a way of continuing this tradition,” she said. “This piece of equipment was orange with rust. It took three days to clean with steel wool and mineral spirits to make it useable again. But if you do that once, and you take care of it, you don't have to do that again.”
Schmittle has an encyclopedic knowledge of the names of obscure typefaces, including some that have been lost to time. “A lot of faces are not computerized,” she said, so she scours online forums and blogs to find designs she likes. There are companies that will cast new letters for her, she said, but some collectors hoard the only examples of the molds for vanished typefaces to keep them rare and out of circulation.
And then there are the simple ravages of time, resulting in a white corrosion that coats old letters that have not been properly cared for, eventually dissolving them.
Given the antique nature of her materials, Schmittle's designs are up-to-the-second fresh and dynamic, reflecting her keen eye for what makes an attractive design. Clean, modern and distinctive, her printed projects and art prints are shining examples of melding old and new.
With a loyal group of friends and customers, Schmittle has launched her biggest project to date, “The Printed Walk: Georgia to Maine.” Beginning on March 24, she has been walking the whole 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail, beginning in Georgia and aiming for completion in late August or early September. For each 100 miles she walks, she is creating a print documenting her experiences. A Kickstarter campaign she opened last year reached its goal early and raised almost $17,000 to fund the project. Donors will get a range of gifts in return, from small, hand-printed notebooks to sets of art prints.
Schmittle has plans for a touring exhibition of the whole series of 22 prints, which she estimates will fill about 25 feet of gallery wall somewhere. But first she has to complete the grueling hike, with no plans to return home along the way. She has plenty of experience.
“My dad is a Boy Scout leader, and he is an Eagle Scout, and my brother is also an Eagle Scout, and most of our family vacations were to national parks, where we'd go hiking for most of the time,” Schmittle said. “We've gone to the Caribbean for vacations, too, but we stay in town with the locals and then go hike the trails. ... Three years ago, I got the idea for the Appalachian Trail. My family was on vacation in Yosemite National Park and we did a lot of hiking. I was reading the book 'Wild,' which is kind of about what not to do,” she said, laughing. “But it did give me the idea of through-hiking and controlling my own schedule every day. I started making a list of the gear and what I'd need.”
In the summer of 2015, she and her brother had a practice through-hike of Vermont's Long Trail for 19 days as a test run for the Appalachian Trail. On the trail, “you hit a town every three to four days,” she said. “Some towns you hike right through, some you have to hitch a ride to get to, or walk a mile or so to get there. I'll probably stop in a town at least once a week to shower and stock up on food.”
While she has all the necessary equipment and the mental fortitude for the trek, Schmittle said that she decided to do the trip now because she doesn't have the expense of a home or studio rental, and is young enough to take the months required.
“All the books I read have said it's 99 percent mental and 1 percent physical,” she said. “You're waking up every day and doing nearly the same thing, hiking 15 to 20 miles. You go through rain in the springtime. There were definitely some low points on the Long Trail in Vermont with my brother, when we would just be hiking through rainstorms, crying while hiking. But the lows make the highs that much higher. When you're at camp and you've got dry socks and a pot of mac-and-cheese in front of you, you're on top of the world.”
Schmittle has documented her other hikes in her art, with designs that function both as abstracts and as exquisite graphics that distill the experiences. Slanting blocks of color become the mountainsides, and tiny triangles serve as pine trees or tents. Circular designs suggest the sun. On the back of the prints she will be designing during the Appalachian Trail hike, she will note her exact location and include some well-chosen words about the experience at each point in the trip. The combination of art and technical information will appeal to both art lovers and hiking enthusiasts. “Over the last year, I've been trying to make my brand more outdoors-based,” she said. “This project hopefully will draw more attention from like-minded, outdoorsy people.”
While on the trail, Schmittle said it will “be a blessing, in some ways” to be out of touch with the political turmoil that's consuming the daily news feed. She also hopes to bring attention to the outdoors and the importance of national parks, which have been under fire from the Trump administration.
On a previous trip, she picked up a piece of fallen bark in the forest and carried it in her backpack for 200 miles, eventually making prints from the piece in her artwork. “I really like that it could be just an abstract, or people could see the wood grain, or see the tents or the trees,” she said.
Since setting metal type means that each letter has to be inserted into a composing stick upside down, Schmittle has learned to read that way. She also has color synesthesia, “which means that every letter and number in your head is innately colored,” she said. “So the letter J, for instance, is yellowy-orange. That's just the color I see J as. It really helped with memorization back in college. I remember one day my roommate asked me what my favorite number was, and I said 3. She asked why, and I said, 'Because of the color. It's like a gingery orange color.' I just assumed everybody had their own color sets for things.”
That visual ability gives her graphics a distinctive look that is immediately appealing. “When I'm out on hikes in the winter, everybody describes it as gray and gloomy, whereas I'm looking at the tiny bits of mushrooms and grass and those bright pops of color,” she said. “I see different colors in things like bark – it has purples and golds in it. I think the way I see things is colors within colors.”
After the hike, Schmittle will be consumed by months of printing and creating the 22 trail designs to present to backers, as well as her gallery show. She is also looking forward to using the hike as a springboard to move out of her parents' garage and hopefully set up her own studio and shop front in Asheville, N.C., which has a thriving arts community.
“There's a great music scene, but the mountains are what drew me there,” she said. “I wanted to be on the East Coast because I'm really close to my family, so I wanted to be able to come back after a day's drive. But I'd like to get out of the garage,” she said, laughing.
For more information, or updates on Schmittle's trek, visit www.gingerlypress.com, and follow @gingerlypress on Instagram.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.