I wrote a story about the Signal-Return letterpress for Printmaking Today, a beautiful British magazine. Perhaps pointedly, the magazine does not have a web presence, so on the off chance you don't subscribe and won't be soon wandering into the printshop in Detroit's Eastern Market (where I took the above photo of their display of the article), I'm sharing my whole story here.
And in the spirit of transparency, since this qualifier didn't make it into my piece, Signal-Return has been an extraordinary host of events for my group, Literary Detroit. I also serve on the board of Write A House, an organization co-founded by novelist Toby Barlow, who also is the founder of Signal-Return.
Here's the story:
Signal-Return is a letterpress studio and gallery in Detroit’s Eastern Market, a neighborhood that is a thriving nexus of creativity and community in a city in the midst of its own re-making. It was founded in 2011 after Toby Barlow, a Detroit novelist, visited Hatch Show Print in Nashville, one of the oldest working letterpresses in the United States. Barlow came away thinking, “Why doesn’t Detroit have something like this?” After bringing together a team of printers, designers, educators, and artists, Detroit does.
The letterpress produces material for local businesses, festivals, and nonprofits, and offers its most beautiful specialty prints for sale in its gallery. It embodies the city’s do-it-yourself spirit with a vibrant workshop series and open studio time. “We’re not doing wedding invitations, but we’re teaching people to do them themselves,” said Lynne Avadenka, a board member and Signal-Return’s creative director. Workshops are tailored to both beginning and advanced printing skills, teaching, for example, how to make two-color lino prints or business cards. There’s an annual holiday card jam, and a “laptop to letterpress” two-day workshop, where participants take a design from the computer to the plate for production. Often, workshops are presented in collaboration with Detroit institutions. Through a partnership with the College for Creative Studies, Signal-Return presented “Working with Choice and Chance,” taking printmaking inspiration from avant-garde composer John Cage. The letterpress has also facilitated free workshops for young people at the Ruth Ellis Center, a nonprofit working with LGBT youth. Workshops are kept small, typically with eight participants, to ensure each person has substantive time on the presses. Whatever their age, those who participate in at least two Signal-Return workshops can sign up for open studio time, making what they will with eight good workhouse presses. None of the presses are new; all have been retooled and refurbished.
Innovation comes not only from old presses but from old type. A woman recently donated thousands of dollars of type, in beautiful condition, that she inherited from her printer father, who in turn had it passed on to him. Joel Grothaus, a Detroit artist who works at Signal-Return, said the type dates back to Abraham Lincoln’s presidency in the 1860s. “It amazing that we’re using the same stuff people were making ‘Wanted’ posters with.”
Graphic designers are among those who welcome Signal-Return’s studio. Avadenka said they enjoy learning about the physical origins of the work they do on computers—shaving real physical type to adjust kerning, for example. “People are used to just using the setting on the computer, and using printers by hitting ‘print,’” she added. “This is a very physical way to connect where we are now (in graphic design) to the basis of graphic design practice.”
Signal-Return also makes a point of sharing its colorful space with the literary community. Book parties and poetry readings have invited Detroiters into the studio who might not otherwise have known about it.
Signal-Return’s wide-ranging activities hinge on four principles: to Teach, to Connect, to Serve, and to Learn. These principles are evident in its physical space. Before the letterpress opened, it was a waning gallery with little sunlight and a plywood façade. It was often used for raves. In the build-out, the Signal-Return team created a storefront full of windows, making it inviting to walking traffic—particularly on Saturdays, when as many as 45,000 people flock to Eastern Market to visit America’s oldest continuously operated farmer’s market. “People stick their nose up to glass,” Avadenka said. “It happens all the time.” With a board of directors and a small staff—a director and two-part-time employees—Signal-Return is open to the browsing public three days a week.
Purposefully, the studio is a continuous ground-floor space. The gallery and the production studio are not divided by walls or staircases, ensuring visitors and passerby encounter the inky working life of the letterpress—and not just its appealing results.
Grothaus said one of the most meaningful contributions the letterpress offers is the lesson that “no art is bad.” Whether emerging or established artists use the space, the hope is that they will “just learn something new… A lot of people think you have to be an artist or designer to come here, but proportionally, more non-artists than artists are using our open studio,” Grothaus said.
Looking at the future, Signal-Return wants to explore the possibilities of print: it produces primarily flat pieces, but would like to try more varied dimensions. It also intends to formalize its community by creating a membership structure for supporters. As an artist, Grothaus said that this is an exciting time to be in Detroit, producing quality work with other designers at Signal-Return. “More and more art production is coming out of (Detroit),” he said. While the letterpress is city-focused, he suspects it’s due for notice. “It’s the natural life of artwork—if it’s interesting, people, will recognize it.”