Julia Ferrari

Julia Ferrari, of Golgonooza Letter Foundry in Ashuelot, with a printer's letter drawers and one of her books containing her artwork and the prose of her late partner, Dan Carr, printed and bound at the foundry.

Art and antique machines fill the long brick building where Julia Ferrari works. Monotype keyboards. Printing presses. Casting machines. Drawers and drawers of metal letters. Chinese-English dictionaries sit on a table, near a wall adorned with verses by the Persian poet Omar Khayyam. 

“I like to say that this shop is pretty much top-of-the-line circa 1920s,” Ferrari said. 

Ferrari has been crafting books here since 1982, when she and her late partner, Dan Carr, founded the Golgonooza Letter Foundry & Press. These days, she mostly hand-sets type — arranging individual characters into lines and stanzas, the same basic method Johannes Gutenberg used more than 500 years ago.

In Gutenberg’s day, movable type made it possible to mass produce books. Today, of course, the publishing industry has moved on to far more efficient methods. Innovations in the

19th century made it easier to cast and arrange type. Then, in the latter half of the 20th century, commercial printing moved away from letterpress printing — the use of raised, inked letters to stamp impressions into paper. 

Commercial publishing “kind of dropped this technology,” Ferarri said. “But some people still like the look of it and the feel of it. Essentially, it’s like an etching or a woodcut on the page.”

Letterpress printing demands focus. Hand-setting starts with a handheld tool known as a composing stick. Ferrari arranges individual characters and spaces into lines, then slides that text onto a tray. When she has a block of text, she prints off a proof to read over. 

Once that’s been checked for errors, she moves over to a production press. She carefully places the type according to where it should appear on the page. Rectangular metal pieces known as “furniture” hold the block of type in place. An inked roller passes over it. Then a paper-wrapped cylinder rolls over the inked type, pressing the text onto the page.

“Because it’s craft, you have to pay attention,” she said — checking for broken letters and other glitches, time after time, never skipping a step.

“I think that kind of focus in the physical world, too, is something that is fairly powerful for us as human beings,” she continued. “... When you work on a skill you develop parts of yourself.” 

In letterpress, she said, “you reach certain limitations. You come up against certain restrictions or limitations in the physical world, and you have to work around them. You have to solve a problem. You have to figure out why something’s not working.” 

Craft, she said, is “a way of engaging in the world.”

Ferrari is not just a printmaker but also an artist and poet, and all three roles blend together in her work. On a recent afternoon in her workshop, she leaned over a book she created with Carr, who died in 2012.

“This is a series that we, that Dan and I did together,” she said.

The book is an elongated landscape orientation. Its cover design is a swooping abstraction, somewhat reminiscent of sand dunes. Ferrari created it using a technique she called paste paper painting. The poems are Carr’s. He also set the type by hand, using letters he sculpted himself. Ferrari set the colophon, a page at the end of the book explaining the process of its creation. 

Interspersed are Ferrari’s monotype paintings. A monotype, she explained, involves painting on a plate. The plate is pressed onto a page, transferring the paint and creating a one-of-a-kind image.  

Ferrari turned the book’s pages. “I read these poems, and of course I was around for a lot of these events,” she said. “... When I see and hear these poems, I suddenly say, ‘oh wow. I remember being at the ocean that day.’ ”

Ferrari met Carr in 1976 at a small press he was running in Boston. She started working there. It was part of the “small press movement,” she said, a time when commercial presses were shifting to new methods and selling off old machines.

“Back then, poets really couldn’t get published unless you were a big name,” she said. “… So, when this equipment went out commercially, a lot of writers, poets, actually bought equipment in order to be able to print their own and others’ work. And it actually saved a lot of equipment.”

When their building in Boston went up for sale, Carr and Ferrari needed to relocate. Friends who’d moved here from Boston showed them the 19th-century brick building on Ashuelot’s Main Street.

It was a crossroads. They sat down on the banks of the Mystic River near Boston and talked over the move, whether it felt right. They did not much care whether it made business sense.

“We didn’t do that,” she said. “We’re a couple poets.”

They moved the equipment from Boston in seven truckloads over seven days, she said, and pieced together enough business to make it work.

Today, Ferrari mostly prints her own poetry. It was a longtime goal of her and Carr’s to focus their printmaking on their own work, she said.

Another of Ferrari’s endeavors blends typography and musical improvisation. Explaining the concept, Ferrari spread out several square pieces of paper. Type of various sizes — words, almost-words, onomatopoeias (“Pataa-PaTaa”), unpronounceable strings of text — was arranged creatively on each page, sometimes spread out, sometimes intersecting or running together.

“This is kind of an abstraction using type,” she said. A group of people gets together and makes improvisational music. Then they set type inspired by the music, creating a sort of subjective “graphic score.” Rather than scripted notes, she said, “it is more of a direction for an improvisational direction that one interprets.” The group later plays music inspired by the type. 

Part of the point is to engage with an unfamiliar medium, such as a musician trying type, she said. “I think it opens doors for their creativity.”

As she continues her own work, Ferrari also teaches letterpress to students. The “book arts” have something to offer younger generations, she said.

“Young people are getting interested in handwork again, because I think the computer — as sophisticated as it is — leaves a little something to be desired,” she said. “… You can occupy the brain and the eye amazingly, but we still have our physical selves. We want to be able to make things.” 

So how long does it take to learn letterpress?

“It takes a day,” she said, “and a lifetime.”