Writers celebrate 40 years of Kentucky’s unique Larkspur Press

June 4, 2013


The University of Kentucky honored Gray Zeitz, center, last Friday on the 40th anniversary of his Larkspur Press in Monterey, which publishes hand-crafted books by  Kentucky writers. Before the ceremony at Margaret I. King Library, Zeitz, center, talked with Gay Reading, left, whose aunt, Carolyn Reading Hammer, taught Zeitz the art of printing at the King Library Press at UK. At right is Zeitz’s wife, Jean.  Photos by Tom Eblen 


Richard Taylor recalled that when Gray Zeitz was establishing his Larkspur Press in the mid-1970s, he received a printing commission from the Kentucky Arts Council. Anxious state officials asked for a deadline, but Zeitz would not be rushed.

He replied to them with a metaphor drawn from his love for Kentucky’s native plants: “Who knows when the phlox will flower?”

Taylor, a former Kentucky poet laureate, told that story last Friday evening as more than 130 writers, artists, friends and fans gathered at the University of Kentucky’s Margaret I. King Library to honor Zeitz for four decades of continuous flowering.

Zeitz was lauded by Taylor and eight other writers and artists whose work the small press in rural Owen County has published over the years: Wesley Bates, Gabrielle Fox, Nana Lampton, Ed McClanahan, Maurice Manning, Maureen Morehead, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall and Jeff Worley.

The ceremony opened an exhibit of pieces produced by Larkspur Press, which has published more than 100 handmade books and countless broadsides since 1974. The free exhibit will be up through August. The library at 179 Funkhouser Dr. is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.

Larkspur Press, on Sawdridge Creek Road near Monterey, has a public open house each November, on the Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Last Saturday, Zeitz led a letterpress printing workshop at the King Library Press on UK’s campus. That was where he learned his art and trade, first as a student and then as an apprentice to director Carolyn Reading Hammer.

In the 1950s, Hammer and her husband, Austrian artist Victor Hammer, began a Kentucky tradition of fine letterpress printing using hand-operated presses, hand-set type and woodblock engravings.

130531GrayZeitz-TE0043Zeitz, 63, is one of their most successful protégés. Using century-old presses and thick, creamy paper, he prints elegant books that are hand-stitched and bound, in both fancy collector’s editions and affordable paperbacks.

“Gray is stubbornly and endearingly independent,” Taylor explained in his remarks. “He has steadfastly refused to become ensnared by the Internet. One of his friends designed a web page (larkspurpress.com) that Gray has no means or desire to see.”

But, as the writers and artists explained, Zeitz is much more than a printer. A poet himself, he carefully selects the writers, artists and works he wants to publish. Most are from Kentucky.

In addition to those who spoke Friday, they have included Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, Silas House, Erik Reece, Gurney Norman, Frederick Smock and the late Guy Davenport and James Baker Hall.

Bates, a Canadian wood engraver, said he first encountered Larkspur Press nearly two decades ago and was impressed by the quality of the printing, the large volume of books produced and Zeitz’s curatorial skill in choosing work to publish.

“It was above and beyond the idea of book as art,” Bates said. “It was book as communication, as preservation of culture.”

As for Zeitz, a burly man with a long beard who always wears blue jeans and suspenders, Bates said, “I thought he looked like he was part of the band ZZ Top.”

Taylor-Hall talked about how Zeitz consults with writers about how their books should look, down to such things as the color of ink. Worley joked that even if readers hate his poetry, they won’t throw away his Larkspur Press editions because the books themselves are too beautiful.

Several others remarked on Zeitz’s craftsmanship, exacting standards and placid demeanor. “Every time I see him, he seems filled with joy,” Manning said.

When it finally came time for Zeitz to speak Friday, he was, as always, a man of few words. He introduced two longtime collaborators, Carolyn Whitesel and Leslie Shane, and thanked audience members for writing and illustrating his books, buying and reading his books and even helping him on occasion move heavy, iron presses.

Then, Zeitz read a poem he had written, which the King Library Press printed as a broadside to give those in attendance:

Printer’s Note

Sweet rain yesterday.

We have put your book on the press.

My hands do not tremble

because I’m unsure,

but shake in the finalizing of page

as a foal, newborn,

begins to stand.

It should be said

there will be absolutely no deadline.

Who knows when the phlox will flower? 

Lexington printer creates community-supported art

January 25, 2010

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.”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo: