Indoor kids, rejoice! Community letterpress studio Signal-Return breaks up the dog days of August with a series of youth workshops designed to introduce participants aged 7-17 to the underlying concepts of relief printing. While some kids want fun in the sun or endless visits to the pool, the seven budding artists hard at work on their own creations seemed equally as enthusiastic about rolling up their sleeves and creating their own original prints when I dropped in on the first workshop of the month. I witnessed personalized “thank-you” and “Happy Birthday” cards in progress, two separate sunset designs, and a handful of abstract works. 

SR8The Youth Workshop in progress, with teacher Ronica Dahr“He’s our ringer,” said teacher and Signal-Return part-timer Ronica Dahr, referring to the sole young man in the class, seriously contemplating a tricky four-color cut foam relief composition. “He could teach the class at this point.” 

The workshop series is overseen by Dahr, who spent 15 years as an English teacher and embraces the opportunity to work with young people again in a less structured context. Dahr, who identifies writing as her primary form of creative expression—her debut novel, Bijou Roy, deals with issues of contemporary Indian-American identity and womanhood—discovered her love of letterpress after moving to Detroit from Brooklyn.

“I moved here two years ago,” said Dhar, who has an MFA from the University of Michigan. “I came to take a private lesson and I haven’t left since.” 

Yes, never fear, Signal-Return offers opportunities to learn and engage with letterpress to indoor kids who are all grown up as well. 

SR2Printer-in-Residence Lee MarchalonisI spoke with Lee Marchalonis, who has been the Printer-in-Residence at Signal-Return for more than a year. In addition to working on her own projects, Marchalonis is available for private consultation and facilitation of projects with anyone interested in using Signal-Return to produce personalized materials. 

Most often, said Marchalonis, people like to work on wedding invitations and holiday cards. Creating a type-heavy piece, such as a wedding invitation, is a very time-intensive process that can take months for someone new to the process. It is astonishing to think that this painstaking process of hand-setting type was once the major mechanism for all printed material. She notes that today, most people like to reserve their efforts in letterpress for very meaningful printed matter. 

SR5A postcard for Detroit Kung-Fu Academy, mirroring the design created for the poster by Marchalonis.People also come to Marchalonis to tap her expertise beyond mere letterpress arrangements. Marchalonis showed me a few examples of collaborative works, including the poster for the neighboring Detroit Kung-Fu Academy and a book project that is in progress. The contents of the book are printed photographs rather than letterpress, but the creator came to consult with her about creating a cover and binding strategy for the work, which chronicles an unfolding relationship in one long, zig-zagging page. The Kung-Fu Academy poster, as well as a couple of other works by Marchelonis, are part of the group show, The Printer’s Devil, running at the Scarab Club through August 27th. The show, features some of the area’s most-loved print artists, including Signal-Return’s Artistic Director, Lynne Avadenka. 

Avadenka mentioned several upcoming events at Signal-Return, which offer great opportunities to get to know the shop, find beautiful original printed cards and posters, or sign up to make your own. On Friday, October 7, the shop will celebrate its 5th anniversary with the third annual installment of Type-Oh-Rama—a fundraiser and general hoedown in honor of all things letterpress. To celebrate the 5-year milestone, there will be $5 letterpress activities, $5 beer and wine, and an entirely free raffle for some of Signal-Return’s signature goodies. On the horizon for early 2017 is the Power of the Press Festival—a four-day collaborative and interactive festival of the printing, visual and literary arts, and celebration of print arts in Detroit. Power of the Press will take place from April 6-9, 2017, and Avadenka is already busy with the planning and grant-writing to support the project. 

However, I catch her taking a break to lay out a poem on paper. “I’ve filled out every grant application I possibly can,” she said. It’s clear that for everyone around Signal-Return that day, from the staff to the youth busily engaged in their own projects, the real draw is the love of printing. Paul Simon’s Graceland plays quietly in the background, and as I make my exit, I can see the shop falling back into the sanctified rhythm of artists focused and at one with their work. Signal-Return offers many opportunities to get a taste for letterpress printing, but beware—from what I can see, it is an addictive practice that thrives on replication. 

SR4Posters created by Signal Return members

All photos courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp

Signal-Return is located in Detroit's Eastern Market neighborhood at 1345 Division Street, #102. For hours and more information, click here

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