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The Art of Relief Printing PDF Print E-mail
Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor   
August 2018

Tom Virgin works in the delicate form of letterpress

TArtFeature_1om Virgin believes in the power of art and how it can help create a better, more connected community. The Miami-based high school teacher and activist is also a printmaker and artist who works in woodcuts.

In addition, he’s the founder of Extra Virgin Press in Little Haiti, which makes letterpress book arts and broadsheets. Letterpress is the key to the artistic niche Virgin has carved out for himself. In the age of digital media and imagery, letterpress relief printing is an old-fashioned and labor-intensive craft.

As Virgin explains, you can see the hand involved in the finished product. You can “feel the emboss, see the grain, the human hand on the page. It is effective, efficient, and beautiful.”

Using letterpress, Virgin came up with a fascinating project, a collection of broadsheets -- single-page sheets, like the old broadsides used for disseminating news of the day -- for which he asked writers to submit extremely short poems or works of fiction.

“I asked each writer for 100 characters,” he says, “including punctuation and spaces -- flash fiction, a prose poem, poetry, a koan, a prayer.”

ArtFeature_2Local contributors to the project include authors Edwidge Danticat and John Dufresne; poets Campbell McGrath, Michael Hettich, Denise Duhamel, and Mia Leonin; and journalist Nadege Green. Virgin says he asked each person to send him “text that provides a window to your community that is also an introduction to your work.” He then combined their texts with imagery and, in the process, created artistic posters. As he quips, they’re “kind of like a literary speed-dating outlet, Tinder or Bumble for readers.”

But speed has no part in the actual process at all, says Virgin. The time to make them is what makes the printed works important. “You really have to choose what you’ll print,” he explains.

Virgin has now crafted letterpress posters for the Little Haiti Book Fair, and for artists showing at the Emerson Dorsch gallery and PAMM; he also makes book covers and artists’ books. His own artwork has been shown at galleries, libraries, and universities.

Virgin was also instrumental in the SWEAT Broadsheet Collaborative, which starting in 2008 brought together 46 visual artists and 40 writers from South Florida, and eventually resulted in 78 broadsheets made from letterpress, silkscreen, etchings, and other media. Some of them have since been shown in spaces from Portland to Minneapolis, and numerous locations from Palm Beach down to the Miami-Dade College Kendall Campus.

Virgin stresses that the collaborations he works on between artists and writers are as diverse as Miami, with artists from minority communities, a strong voice from women, and, as a teacher, involvement of the young community. “As I come to the end of almost 25 years of teaching and learning in a Title I public high school,” Virgin says of his retirement next year, “I hope to transition into offering messages and small chunks of literary content to my students through teaching letterpress, printing, and book arts.”

The new space of Extra Virgin Press opened on NW 2nd Avenue in Little Haiti after receiving a 2015 Knight Foundation arts grant. Along with some of the broadsheets and artworks, there are two presses, and it is exciting to watch physical printing in progress during a visit.

ArtFeature_3Across the street, Virgin can also observe the lively neighborhood that is rapidly being displaced by gentrification and development, something that concerns him as well. But, he says, the arts can create a conversation in this current difficult climate.

His conversation is not isolated to South Florida. A native of Detroit, Virgin spends much of the summer in the small city of Red Wing, Minnesota, at the Anderson Center at Tower View, an arts and residency center along the Mississippi River at the Tower View estate of Alexander Pierce Anderson, a botanist who created the first “puffed” rice and wheat cereals developed under the Quaker brand.

The twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, just a few hours away, have been a focal point for letterpress and printing, and the match proved perfect for Virgin. As a result of those summers, he adds, “the letterpress has become a part of my world at home in Miami.”

He says he’d now like to bring these regions together. “I have students who have never been out of Miami,” he explains. “I grew up in the Midwest and want to share that world with them.” It is just one part of the latest mission for a man who never seems to sleep.

“Along with bringing these works to my students, I’ll assemble Midwest and South Florida writers into a portfolio for placement in exhibitions and collections, featuring artists, printers, and writers,” he says. “I’m hoping to put more writers in museum collections at the intersection of ideas and image.”

He adds that Extra Virgin Press’s first portfolio, Home/s, is to be purchased by PAMM and is already in the Jaffe Center for Book Arts at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, the University of Miami Special Collections, and the Frost Museum at Florida International University.

ArtFeature_4ome/s was the first Extra Virgin Press community project, and included artworks from the paired combinations of writer Danticat and artist Laura Tan; poet McGrath and artist Pip Brant; and poet Leonin and artist Adler Guerrier, among others. They were asked to offer views on “our common home” in the form of literary broadsheets.

Although a printmaker and wood carver for 40 years, Virgin says he first dabbled in letterpress -- in Silver Springs, Maryland, in 2004 -- because he was interested in the various ways that print could be produced. He came to realize that creative and tactile text could be art.

After moving to South Florida, he developed a long relationship with the Jaffe Center, which is a hub for printing, as well as bookmaking. Founded by Arthur Jaffe, who had built a large collection of limited-edition artists’ books, the center holds workshops on book binding and paper decoration, and has several presses. Virgin found a home there for print making and a mentor as well; Jaffe, who died in 2015, had bought his first book.

Now Virgin would like to continue the tradition with workshops here in Miami, and is generally inviting the community to come see the stories that are revealed in all the prints. After all, he says, whether you’re a writer, a visual artist, or a printmaker, it’s all about the tales you tell and how they help us understand each other in creative and powerful ways.

 

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