February 7, 2009
Reba Rar Rar, aka Rebecca A. Rakstar, is a crafty motherfucker. She sells her letterpressed postcards and posters on Etsy, at Permanent Records, at craft fairs nationwide and at No Coast, a muli-use space and studio that has a sincere interest in building on the artistic community in Pilsen with workshops, potlucks, book and record releases and hangouts. She keeps track of her comings and goings at rarrarpress.blogspot.com. She gave me the low down on letterpress over a delicious dinner of fake sausage and shell pasta with escarole and raisins. Oh, and pinot grigio.
If I had a present to give you, which would you prefer: a ceramic breast-shaped mug, a Mercedes Benz belt and buckle or a bag of avocados?
Reba: That’s the funniest question ever. I guess a bag of avocados so I could make some guacamole.
That’s what I would have chosen too. On your Flikr pages I saw pictures of the Hamilton Type Museum. What is the Hamilton Type Museum?
It is a museum in Two Rivers, WI and they actually produced a majority of the wood type that came out back in the day and now it’s a museum. They have the equipment to make type and they still do cut type, it’s pretty pricey, though, and then they just have cases and cases of type. They have a huge warehouse of stuff they haven’t even gone through yet. I went there with Columbia for a weekend. We took an area and went through the boxes, figured out what was there, and put some stuff into drawers
Can you explain what letterpress means and the process?
Reba: Letterpress is basically just individual letters that are put into sentences, put together. They are metal, sometimes lead or wood. So let’s say you have a paragraph of type that you want to print, you hand set all the letters. Each drawer of type, it’s called a California case, has a basic set-up. The letters are always in the same place. There were lots of different case designs, and they tried to figure out the one that made it go the fastest because the newspaper was completely in letterpress. So they figured out to write the, which is such a common word, those letters are all in a line with each other. And the i and s are right next to each other for is, and a and r are right next to each other for are, you know, ar is kind of a typical combination. And then you lock it into the press and you have to use pieces of wood, which are called furniture to make a solid block to hold it all in place tightly. And then there are inks and rollers. I use Vandercooks mostly, which are actually more of a proof press.
What is a proof press?
Reba: A proof press is [used] to do a test run, make sure that there’s no spelling errors, and then you put [the type] on a larger machine. You know, because letterpress evolved and there was a mechanical mechanism that came into it where paper would feed and it would run more on its own, instead of doing it manually.
Which is what they had for newspapers?
Reba: Yeah. Actually for a while there was a system almost like a typewriter that would cast a whole line of text at once. And that metal would get melted back down and made into the new type the next day. It was called linotype. And then after that they started doing more photo processed and that’s when offset press came into the picture. My big complaint with letterpress now is that you can easily design something on the computer and then have a plate made – send someone a file and they’ll make a zinc-based plate, so zinc mounted on wood, of what you want to print, which you do a lot for images. Or you can do linoleum cuts and print them on the press but they’re not as crisp. And then there’s also photopolymer, which is another process, this plastic plate kind of thing. A lot of people do that now. I don’t know; I kind of have a hatred for that. I think it’s cheating.
So what do you love about the letterpress type that you do? Is it that sense of history?
Reba: It’s the history and I think that it’s also like I’m touching the letters. I feel certain type speaks a certain way and has a certain kind of thing to it. I love the fact that I can touch everything and I’m putting it in place. There’s a lot of care that goes into it.
Yeah, it’s very immediate.
Reba: Yeah, I’ve done a couple postcards with the photopolymer, but I try for the most part to hand set everything because I feel that it’s more sincere, more of a craft. Because anyone can just throw a plate on the press and print it. But also there’s the fact that a lot of stuff nowadays is over punched, you know that punch that you can sort of feel the letters on the page, that’s overprinting. If you were using real type, especially metal type, you would destroy the type by over punching it. But I think because these people are just making plates that can just be thrown out they don’t care; they just punch it as hard as they can. So that really bums me out. Because when letterpress first started, you know, with the Guttenberg Bible, they wanted to just have it be on the page. If you touched it you wouldn’t feel that it was letterpress, it seemed like someone just hand wrote it.
How do you work: do you set deadlines for yourself so you can work on a schedule or do you make things as you’re inspired?
Reba: It’s weird now. I think I’ve set it up now that there’s a period during the holidays or even a little before that, probably September to December, that I just have to be doing the finishing touches: sending out orders, going to craft fairs, maybe have books, the covers printed and then me just sitting around and binding them. And right now I’m going to start, every Tuesday, to print something and get my stock back up. And then do another set of craft fairs!
Do you travel regularly to Seattle and New York?
Reba: I did Seattle this year. Me and my friend, actually my only friend from undergrad, she makes shadow puppets and we’ve sort of teamed up because we both do paper work. But that’s kind of funny because her work is kinda kid-friendly and my work says Fuck everywhere. There’s a weekend where there’s a bazillion craft fairs going on, and she really wanted to go to Seattle and visit a friend – that’s the good thing about craft fairs, it’s kind of an excuse to visit friends and pen pals and old friends and get paid in the process. So she went to Seattle and visited a friend and took both of our stuff, and I took both of our stuff to Minneapolis and visited my friend there. I want to start to not have to travel as much. In the last year I’ve done the most traveling for craft fairs that I’ve ever done and I’m really busy still right now. I thought I’d be really dead right now and have no orders and have time to work on stuff, but I sent out stuff [two days ago] and I have ten orders already to send out tomorrow.
Awesome! Is that from Etsy?
Reba: From Etsy. I sell pretty much on Etsy. I do have a couple stores but I’m really bad at contacting stores and getting my stuff in their stores, you know. I’m not very professional. I don’t have a product list. It’s just really weird. I’m an artist, but I’m not into treating my art as a business and I’m more in the craft world. I do a craft fair that’s actually called Art v. Craft in Milwaukee and it’s sort of funny. It is that sort of like “yeah, this is my artwork,” but it’s sort of crafty.
How do you see that difference? Is craft a lot more commodified, to you?
Reba: Letterpress is a craft; it’s just something you have to do to print the newspaper, you know, there’s machinery involved. But because I’m doing a conceptual spin on it that sort of makes it artwork.
You are heavily involved in keeping No Coast going. How does your work foster this sense of community or do you find that it’s more the philosophy behind the art that fosters that community?
Reba: Because I have a very strong d.i.y. background and am very involved in the punk scene, you know, moved to Indiana, started working on this anarchist bookstore space that had shows, started booking shows there, made zines. I’ve been doing things myself for a really long time. And I like to be involved in the community. I like the idea of No Coast because it’s more of a community vessel. It’s a community space that I could teach bookbinding at, that I could teach people how to screenprint at and I’ve actually started to screenprint myself again; I’ve started making t-shirts with a lot of my postcard designs. So that’s really exciting to be back into that and feel like I’m finally involved in the Chicago art community.
Do you have neighborhood people come in to No Coast for these workshops or are most of your attendees from the community you come from?
Reba: Yeah, there’s a kid that lives a couple blocks away that just kept walking by the space, and was just like “aw, fuck it! I’m going to go in,” I think he’s a design student. But then he came to the lock-in and he came to the bookbinding class I had. He’s a musician, too, so he got really into trying to pick my brain at like how he could make some alternative packaging for his cd. I like being able to help people figure out their projects. I mean, now that I have a Master’s Degree I could work at a University, but I don’t want to. I just want to help smaller groups of people figure it out. You know: “I can use my skills to help you make this cool thing, help you out!”
Do you think it’s working? Do you feel that community at No Coast?
Reba: Yeah, there’s people that always come out for stuff. And we have a lot of bands that come through, and we help them produce their merchandise. These Are Powers came and made their t-shirts there. Like Bird Names- we printed their LP covers. It’s cool helping the music community, too, make stuff themselves.
One of my favorite designs that I’ve seen of yours is “My Bike is my Benz.” Does your bike have a name?
Reba: No. It’s funny. All of my work involves little sayings. I do say some funny shit sometimes, and my friends say some funny shit sometimes, or I hear stuff in a hip hop song or some pop radio song and I think that’s hilarious. I think “my bike is my Benz” came from a conversation with someone about our bikes, and they were a big fixed gear kind of kid, always pimpin’ their bike. Yeah, your bike is kind of like your Benz.