Keegan Meegan – Letterpress
The building that houses Keegan Meegan’s letterpress operation has me dreaming of vault heists and train robberies. The tracks out front—now paved over with road, save a few lines of steel track poking through and shining bright in the sun—were once trafficked by freight trains picking up cargo from this paper warehouse. Inside the building, Keegan takes me into a tall, narrow room that once held the company’s employee wages; the vault door is gone and leaves a naked entry, but a generous two-foot concrete wall remains and now keeps safe printing inks and stacks of specialty paper. He then points out two over-sized roll-up loading doors that once allowed workers to load two train cars of cargo simultaneously. It’s proper, I think, that Katy Meegan and Keegan Wenkman house their 10 tons of metal letterpress machines in this building, erected during a time when locomotives and expansive warehouse buildings first lorded over SE waterfront. We continue on, weaving between concrete pillars and past rows of printing presses, coming finally to a Vandercook Universal I Hand Test Press, set against a daylight window, where Keegan begins to mix ink.
Today, his print, a poster for comedian Patton Oswalt, begins with a reductive linocut process. On a sheet of linoleum, he carves a relief surface; the carved areas result in white space and the untouched, raised surface becomes coated with ink and transfers pigment to the paper. Keegan first sketches the design on paper, then carves for 5-8 hours to complete the linoleum cut. After the first color is printed, Keegan again takes his chisel to the linoleum, cutting away a second portion of raised area. This is the ‘reductive’ part of the process. This second layer of ink, usually black, will only cover the original color in places that he has left raised, giving the poster a cascade of tones. If the second color is black, then a 3-tone poster is created with the white space acting as highlights and background, the mid-tone is red or blue or green, and the final black layer provides shadows to complete a deep contrast.
The ‘reductive’ process empowers Keegan to counteract the stigma of mass production. Once he carves away that second layer of linoeum, no more originals may be printed except those for which were originally planned, and the possibility of future print runs is conceded. It’s that suspension of original intention—of the breadth of the project and the original intended quantity—that amplifies each print’s efficaciousness. Those limited posters are sent out into the world with the power of few big waves instead of a thousand little ripples; or maybe they’re more like a few small ripples demanding our attention because we know there will never be any more.
Katy joins Keegan to assess a test poster, bringing an even-more heightened analysis of the color combination. The earnest, oftentimes non-verbal exchanges between Keegan and Katy range from light critique to sympathetic reassurances, all of which underline how much of an asset they are to one another as artists and commercial printers working in the same space.
While Keegan finishes up his prints, Katy returns to her table where she prepares two inks, an orange and a foggy silver intended for her own poster, printed with large wood type that she hand rolls with ink. After some more time printing, we head outside to enjoy the hot day, where Keegan tells me about his next project: a 44×34 inch steamroller print, which sounds ambitious for its size alone. Their dog Roxy follows behind us as we pass one of those big cargo doors, and we exchange plans of trips to the river and coast during these last few days of summer.
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