IF YOU WANT to see Kate Askew’s brain, you’ve got to take a hard left just inside the door to Yella Dog Press. There, you’ll find a small L-shaped space, more closet than storage space, partially organized but in need of further order. Its walls are lined with unmatched open shelving and cabinets that go nearly to the ceiling, holding short stacks of paper from Post-Its to broadsheet, sorted by size and color. Though she doesn’t say as much, it’s also interesting to note that the vast majority of the paper is blank—it’s all a blank slate.
The studio itself, though—you could say that’s her brain, too, or maybe an expanded version of the original, built to scale. But while there’s some truth to that—this long rectangle of a space, housed in a building dubbed “The Bodark,” which she and her husband have rehabbed over the course of the past year, has been meticulously organized in a way that most brains aren’t—Kate’s quick to say that’s not the natural way of things.
Her collection, organized and labeled and catalogued to the point of compulsion, didn’t start out this way. And neither did she.
“This is John Horn training,” Kate says, referencing her mentor, the man who’s stoked a passion for letterpress among countless Arkansas artists.
Motioning to the L-shaped storage room, she says, “I started out that way, but you can’t do that and print. You have to have order. And you have to put everything back where it came from, or you won’t be able to find it next time. And you won’t be able to work.”
It’s about this moment that something else sinks in: You couldn’t do this without a guide. You could look through the 450 cases of type, admire the wood and metal letters that vary so widely in size and style, but you would never get the full story you can get only by chatting with someone for whom this all exceeds the stuff of passion and defines a lifetime.
There are the factoids, for instance, she drops while opening cabinets—how common sayings such as “upper case and lower case,” “mind your P’s and Q’s” and “all out of sorts” have their roots in the typesetter’s lexicon. There are the stories behind each individual font, (how Columbus and Izabella were designed in 1892, but only Izabella stood the test of time). But just as important, there are the distinctions between what you might think something is called and what it is decidedly not.
They are cases, not drawers. They are sorts, not keys, (but you could also call them letters). There’s a distinction, a difference, and it’s important. Though she notes that only, like, three people would ever know as much, or care, it’s crucial that such things are set right. After all, there aren’t many people doing this and the ones who are want to make sure the correct information is getting out there.
Which brings us to the most important aspect of the shop: Much in the same way that knowledge and education are gained for the purpose of passing it along to future generations, Kate’s perception of what she does here is one of stewardship. Around the time she got started, her career as a rare-book dealer spurring her interest in letterpress printing, finding type didn’t present the challenge that it does now. After antique dealers got ahold of type, selling individual letters so that people could spell their names, it became virtually impossible to find full sets intact. (“Never. It happens never,” she says. “It’s happened to me twice.”) With that in mind, as the years have gone by, as she’s amassed more and more type—she’ll tell you, a typesetter is only as good as how many E’s you’ve got—it’s also been done with an eye to the future.
Or if nothing else, an eye to a poster that hangs above one of the presses.
“Have you ever heard your type whisper?” it begins. “When you are setting a long passage, have you seen a shadow on your periphery & had the sensation you are not alone? Do you think a printer ever truly abandons his type? … I certainly do not mind if he sits with me for a while, rolls a cigarette and looks over my shoulder to make sure I am doing it right.”
Want to see letterpress in action? Kate’s got a nearly 20-minute video on Yella Dog Press’ YouTube page. Or better yet: See it for yourself this summer when YDP offers classes through the Arkansas Arts Center.
Editor’s note: A few days after we went to press on this issue, Kate had reached out and asked if we could add a mention of Lamarie Rutelonis, her printing partner through 10 years and four locations: “The printshop was her idea in the first place. We have just always said we share space and equipment.”