I recently bought a CSA share, but I won’t get a weekly basket of fresh vegetables. I’ll get a monthly limited-edition art print by Alex Brooks of Press 817.
This isn’t community-supported agriculture; it’s community-supported art.
Brooks adopted the CSA business model for the same reason many small farmers have: It gives him a reliable stream of income so he can focus on his passion.
He earns much of his living as a letterpress printer, book binder and maker of archival storage boxes. Brooks works for many local clients, as well as several New York customers. He also creates art for prints, cards, books and posters.
Brooks said he wants to spend less time printing other people’s wedding invitations and business cards and more time creating art with the antique printing equipment that fills the two front rooms of his small home and shop (www.press817.com).
“I think of it as a way to preserve that spot on time,” said Brooks, who since launching his CSA in mid-December has sold more than 80 of the 100 shares for $60 each — $4 per print, plus postage.
Brooks figures the CSA income will free him one week a month to focus on those pieces of art, his writing and other creative endeavors.
“A lot of artists I know want to steal the idea, and that’s great,” he said.
The 21C Museum Hotel in Louisville, which tries to support the region’s contemporary artists, bought two CSA shares.
“That’s a little intimidating,” Brooks said, because the pressure is on to create outstanding work.
Brooks, 29, was a math, science and technology major at Louisville’s duPont Manual High School when a favorite teacher exposed him to creative writing. He came to the University of Kentucky as a math and English major and was selected for a Gaines Fellowship in the Humanities.
His writing led him to book binding, which led him to volunteer at UK’s King Library Press, where director Paul Holbrook taught him letterpress printing.
“I would have never guessed I would be doing this,” Brooks said. “Setting type by hand is almost meditative. It’s like reading really, really slowly.”
Lexington has a rich heritage of letterpress printing, thanks to Victor Hammer and his disciples. The Austrian printer and type designer came here in 1948 as an artist in residence at Transylvania University. His wife, Carolyn Hammer, helped found the King Library Press.
Brooks, the first in his family to graduate from college, thinks he inherited craft skills from his father, a woodworker, and mother, who knits and spins wool.
“There’s something about making things with your hands and doing it as well as you can and knowing that a book I make will last 100 years,” he said.
Press 817 was named for the address of Brooks’ former apartment. Five years ago, he bought a century-old house on North Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and set up shop there because he couldn’t find affordable downtown commercial space to rent.
Letterpress printing experienced an artistic renaissance in the 1960s, when it was replaced commercially by offset printing. Unfortunately, though, some of the best old presses ended up in scrap yards.
Brooks said a lot of old metal type is bought by gun enthusiasts, who melt it down for bullets. “I have to beat them to it,” he said.
Brooks’ equipment includes a platen press from 1887, a guillotine paper cutter from 1897 and a standing press from about 1900 that is used to form books. His newest press was made in 1961. Most of the equipment was given to him or found at estate and garage sales.
“I like old stuff,” said Brooks, who built computers as a kid. “I like that it’s not in a museum. It all works, and I use it.”
The more he got into printing, the more he wanted to explore visual arts through such techniques as woodcuts and linoleum cuts. He’s still thinking about what he wants to create for me and his other CSA customers over the next 12 months.
“I don’t really know what I’m going to do,” Brooks said. “That’s part of the fun. Everybody will find out when they get it in the mail. Hopefully, that will be exciting.”
Brooks was taught how to make conservation boxes by a woman who learned the craft at the Library of Congress. He has applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to study book conservation in England.
“But I’ll be a little conflicted if I get to go,” he admitted. Brooks wants to travel, see new places and try new things. But he has found a community with a powerful hold on him.
“I love this neighborhood; it’s the first place I’ve lived where I know all my neighbors,” he said. “A lot of my neighbors have bought my art. I like to think they like my art, but it’s also probably out of a sense of neighborliness.”
Brooks said the concept of community-supported art seemed like a natural idea. He said he tries to patronize local businesses whenever he can, such as Pat Gerhard’s Third Street Stuff Café and Steve and Kristy Matherly’s Sunrise Bakery on Main Street.
“When you think about it,” Brooks said, “there’s not much difference between me making art and Steve making bread.”
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