When Nan Flynn saw her very first letterpress-printed Hatch Print Poster in 1986 she fell in love with the imperfections of the ink on paper, the sharp edges of the type, and the timeless irregularities. Today on any given night or weekend as a letterpress printer, she rolls up her sleeves and gets her hands dirty experimenting with type, shapes, and ink on her antique printing press.
Nan grew up in the small southern town of High Point, North Carolina. As a kid, she had no interest in art despite her oldest brother’s art interest or her mom being a painter in her early life. Instead, she enjoyed time in the kitchen exploring the process of baking.
“In the kitchen is where I really learned to appreciate doing things the slow way, the old fashion way. We always made our pie crust from scratch and it just seemed to taste better.”
As a kid, Nan recall’s the family making homemade kites and even homemade glue rather than buying them. She credits that idea of creating things in an old-fashioned manner as a big influence on her love of letterpress printing today.
Nan earned her BA in Psychology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Soon after she relocated to Nashville and took a job with Castner Knott in their Management Training Program. With a love for music, she found herself going to local venues to listen to live shows. Those shows often kept her connected to letterpress printing because many of the band’s show posters were made by Hatch Show Print. She became so intrigued that she began researching the process of letterpress printing and investing in the tools of the trade.
“The first time I saw a Hatch Show Print poster it stopped me in my tracks. Something about the visual aesthetic of letterpress printing made me want to learn more. As I saw more and more of their posters around town I began researching their process.”
What Is Hatch Show Print?
Hatch Show Print, is an iconic letterpress business in Nashville that became well-known in the mid-1920s-50s. During that time, William Hatch captured the essence and popularity of the country music scene through posters and billboard-size advertisements for businesses throughout the country. After Hatch’s passing in 1952, the shop’s ownership changed hands several times. In 2013, thanks to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum expansion project, Hatch was relocated to a larger space where it still operates today.
Nan’s interest in letterpress printing drove her to eventually visit Hatch Show Print in person in an effort to learn more. That visit was the catalyst to want to invest her time in learning how to create her own work. She found a beginner’s letterpress printing workshop at The University of Miami in Ohio, took a week off from work, and explored the process. Her instructor, Erin Beckloff, taught Nan the basics of good design and introduced her to the fundamentals of letterpress printing. That introduction enticed Nan’s curiosity enough to purchase her first press, 1911 Golding Pearl Platen Press No. 11 from the Platen Press Museum in Zion, Illinois.
After being laid off from work in 2016 Nan decided to use the downtime to learn more about how she could be a better letterpress printer and applied for an internship with Hatch Show Print. These internships are a big deal because they only offer five sessions per year hosting only 4 interns per session. Nan got in and for 6 weeks, without pay, she learned the process of typesetting, letterpress poster design, and other extensive print-making skills.
That internship was pivotal in her growth as an artist. She had access to a diverse collection of type and imagery while working with master printers every day. She was able to design and print custom letterpress posters for real Hatch Show Print clients. That training gave her a much deeper understanding of the letterpress process and her personal work thrived as she moved forward with her love of printing.
“I love the tedious process of setting vintage type one letter at a time, mixing the perfect color, and using my creative vision to get a message out to the world as a letterpress printer.”
Nan has since taken other workshops at Penland School of Craft in North Carolina. There she studied under master printers David Wolske, Eileen Wallace, and Brad Vetter. Those workshops helped her to gain the knowledge to create the work she does today.
Nan’s Letterpress Studio
In 2019 she built an addition to her home specifically for working as a letterpress printer. She had to add special support under the floor due to the weight of the equipment. In her studio, she has her 900 lb Golding Pearl Platen Press, a Nolan Proof Press from the 1940s, a 1910 Chandler and Price Guillotine 23″ Paper Cutter that weighs 1000 lbs, and all kinds of antique tools and types. She finds these unique antique treasures online through various forums and at conferences she often attends.
“My studio is a place where time slows down, my hands get dirty, and communities get built one letter at a time. It’s where my genuine craftsmanship thrives and in so many inventive ways, old is new again.”
What Is Letterpress Printing?
Letterpress printing is the oldest form of printing technique dating back to the 15th century. Also referred to as relief printing, it is a form of commercial or typographic printing where copies of an image are made using movable type. Individual metal or wooden letters or images are arranged on an inked raised press surface with an individual ink color applied. Once placed, the letterpress uses rollers to apply the ink uniformly as they are pressed against paper to create an inked impression. Smaller presses require individual pieces of paper to be hand-placed while larger commercial presses require large rolls of paper.
Letterpress printing was the first and fastest way to mass-produce printing to a broad audience and is the oldest of traditional printing techniques. The oldest known printed text was a Buddhist book called The Diamond Sutra. The manual process used wood, then clay, and was referred to as block printing. It is said to have originated during the first millennium around 868 A.D. in China.
In 1450 goldsmith and inventor Johannes Gutenberg perfected the process in France by having a press made to be used commercially. Borrowing money from his friend, Johann Fust they began creating books, pamphlets, calendars, and other memorabilia. This new process allowed people to spread knowledge and grow literacy starting a printing revolution.
Nan thrives most on the hand-setting metal and wood types. She enjoys the manual process and the time that it takes reminding her of her connection to old fashion history. She feels a deep connection to the overlapping of colors, textures, and shapes with type. She considers herself a Luddite, someone who rejects technology and feels letterpress printing is a perfect example of that thinking.
“Any time I am working with my tools it’s like I am shaking hands with history. I find myself wondering who used this E or A before me and what were they saying to the world in their printed piece?”
Nan admits that she wishes she had started letterpress printing earlier but loves how easy it is to find and learn more about her craft. The letterpress community is so open and giving of their knowledge and her advice to those interested is to reach out and ask questions.
“There are no letterpress secrets out there. We would much rather see these letterpress tools and presses be used. Its preservation through using them and we want to keep the art form alive!”
Nan loves the process of imperfection that letterpress printing offers and the excitement of proofing or what is called “makeready” in the print world. She admits that all of those “happy accidents” often turn out to be very beautiful pieces of work. She feels that the ability to slow down and work with her hands is therapeutic. The process of feeling each letter one at a time is very contemplative for her and the reason she loves doing the work. Her inspiration comes from the connection of the past to the present with the tools she uses to create something that is never perfect.
Although Nan doesn’t do letterpress printing full time, she makes time outside of her job at Montgomery Bell Academy on nights and weekends to create her art. Nan also does hand-stitched bookbinding and collects vintage stamps. She finds joy in creating and admits it helps her to stay grounded.
“Creativity to me is an expression of yourself. It comes forward when you get off of your computer or phone and are tactile and intentional about your work with your hands.
Nan’s New Endeavor
Today Nan is ready to finally share the work she has been passionately creating with the public. Working with a local Nashville design firm, she just launched her new Nanotype website. She is publically unveiling her work as a letterpress printer, showcasing her new “Nanotype brand,” and her lovely stationery, cards, and posters for purchase. While her marketing efforts will be centered around the local Nashville market through word of mouth and on social media, having a website will allow her work to be seen and purchased globally as well. She also offers custom orders and sells at occasional markets around Nashville.
The Creative Push Vlog on YouTube
You can see the interview I did with Nan in this video.
The Creative Push Podcast
You can find more about Nan in The Creative Push podcast!
Visit Nan at Nanotype or on Instagram.
Thank you to Karen and Peter Cronin at Cronin Creative for recommending that Nan reach out to me for shooting photos for her new website. If you need a logo, website, or any kind of design work created they are absolutely wonderful. To see some of the images we worked on for Nan’s site visit my Sheri Oneal Photography blog page.
Be sure to check out the other businesses and folks mentioned in this story if you are looking for resources to learn more about letterpress printing, taking courses, or want to purchase some beautiful letterpress printed work. These amazing resources are highlighted below.
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To see my photography visit Sheri ONeal Photography!
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