It could easily be said that Michael Hepher has an affinity for the niche arts. The self-defined artisan printer, who also has a background as a blacksmith, owns and operates Clawhammer Press, located on 2nd Avenue, and creates unique print art through the historic craft of the printing press.
“How I got into it was as a graphic artist. I was working on a computer, and I decided to explore the history of that trade and far enough back, there were no graphic artists, there were just printers,” said Hepher. “In the early 1900s and the late 1800s, type design and book design and poster design were all done by a specific part of the printing process. When I found the process and got a chance to do it, I realized that I liked the hands on part of it way more than designing on a computer.”
Hepher was living in Cranbrook and working at a print shop, Rocky Mountain Print Solutions, when he got the chance to first work with a press. His boss had an old press in the shop, gave it to Hepher, and lent him the necessary equipment to begin experimenting. Hepher acquired an old apprentice manual from the 1950s, and taught himself the technical side of the craft.
“Eventually, I found some mentors in the West Kootenay who were a professor emeritus from the U of A who taught graphic design but also included printing in his work,” he said. “But their mentoring was more about design and creative ideation and printing, rather than just technical aspects.”
Hepher said he did have to alter his artist and creative styles to match the limitations of a printing press, but that was part of the fun of it. Trained in illustration, there were a lot of skills that parlayed well into designing for a press, but some limitations to work around.
“Most of my illustration work before was pen and ink because that was the medium I had available,” he said. “On the press, it’s all wood block or wooden carving, those are the processes I use, which are reductive rather than additive, so it’s more akin to sculpture than it is to drawing, because you are actually carving away the bits that you don’t want printed.”
Hepher said another alteration with working on a press is the number and types of fonts available to complement the art and design of the work.
“We live in a world where you can spend an afternoon on the computer, trying to find the right font for your project,” Hepher said. “The process of choosing type for a hand printed project is often narrowing it down to two potential options very quickly because it needs to be about this size and these are the words that need to fit on the page, so I got these two that will work, which one is going to work the best and how can I arrange it to maximize all the characteristics of that font.”
In 2011, Hepher and his family moved to Fernie and opened Clawhammer Press, which celebrated its fourth birthday on Nov. 4. At the time, he was running his own freelance graphic design firm, and building websites for a variety of clients, and he had a desire to return to more of a hands-on craft, and he saw the opportunity to start his own print shop. Now, he creates all types of art that can be printed on a variety of things, including coasters, journals, posters, CD covers and wedding invitations, among other things. Hepher also uses the retail space as a small gallery and hosts performances in the space as well.
“When you’re printing paper, it doesn’t take up much space,” he said. “This space suited the best from a number of perspectives. All the things we wanted to do worked out well here.”
Hepher is participating in Hearth 5, a holiday craft fair hosted by potter Sarah Pike in early December. He and his work can be found at Clawhammer Press or by visiting Clawhammer.ca.