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Artisan of Michigan: Printing, the art preservative of all other arts

Mar 3, 2017

Fritz Swanson setting type for a poem by Keith Taylor.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Fritz Swanson is a writer. But he says even when he was little, writing alone just wasn’t the end of it. It had to be printed. It had to be a book.

“Writing the story and then making the way that it’s communicated seemed essential to me, seemed all to be part of the same game,” he explained.

When his dad took him along to help a friend fix a tractor, he found something that changed his life.

“There was a printing press in the garage. And it had a great big flywheel. Actually it was the exact same printing press on the other side of the shop. And I just loved the machine,” Swanson said.

Today he teaches in the University of Michigan’s English Department, and that love of the printing press has led him – with the help of some grants – to establish Wolverine Press, a letterpress studio, part of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program. It’s housed in a space managed by the university library.

Swanson says he loves to really soak in literature, and there’s no better way to do that than typesetting, as he was doing at the time with a Keith Taylor poem, "Acolytes in the Bird-While."

FS:  “'We have lingered in that space.’ That’s one line of a 16-line poem. But, I’m going to spend the next 10 or 15 minutes with that line. And just the act of drawing out the letters, you know, capital ‘W.’”

LG: “Looking at it in reverse.”

FS: “Well, yeah. The letters themselves are upside down and backwards. That’s how the relief printing process works. You get to a point where you can read this way.”

One of the presses with various images used in printing.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Swanson says Ben Franklin used to fill up blank spaces in his newspaper by directly composing with typeset until the physical space was filled.

He says basically the technological space creates the intellectual space. Got two column inches to fill? What’s your two column inch idea, and how can you express it in the literal space the type setting allows?

Swanson says the idea of only sitting at a computer limits how your mind works. That’s why he loves working with the printing presses. He says it reminds him of something John Ruskin wrote.

“Workers should do the work of thought and thinkers should do the work of their hands so that they could ennoble each other,” Swanson said, adding that the distance between the two diminishes both. That explains how he as the writer and the printer feels fulfilled.

Setting the type, choosing the paper, listening to how the ink rolls onto the platen, using more of his senses all combine to make him feel more whole.

Various publications printed by Wolverine Printing.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Most of the equipment he’s using is decades old. Some of it is around a century old. That connection of hand to type, pressing ink to paper, making something to be read, is a centuries-old endeavor.

“The old printers said that printing was the art preservative of all other arts. Things are kind of backwards now, because printing is dying. But it’s the basis of modern civilization, and holding on to it means holding on to 500 years of us,” Fritz Swanson said.

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