A human tradition, written in stone

Letterpress and letter carving expert Jesse Marsolais gave a demonstration of stone carving in conjunction with the Haas Arts Library’s new exhibition “Learning from Letterforms: Past & Present.” Marsolais traced the history of the art since ancient Rome, explaining its original connection to calligraphic writing by brush and later influence on letterpress printing. Whether created in two dimensions using a brush, or in 3D using a chisel, letters are formed by heavy and thin lines in balanced proportions, he explained.

Marsolais illustrated a classic Roman letter with simple chalk, then encouraged the audience to gather around his work bench as he began carving LUX ET VERITAS into slate using a traditional chisel. Rather than applying strength to the mallet, Marsolais was light handed, explaining that carving is a delicate process that relies on subtle feelings and the sound of the tools. He said the carver should consider how light and shadow will form the letter, and “remove just enough stone to make it appear.” He then painted a series of white letters on a piece of slate and invited attendees to try their hand at carving with the chisel.

Although letterpress and carving give a feeling of permanence, both traditions are fragile and require the dedication of artisans to keep them alive, Marsolais said. A letterpress class in college was his first exposure to this “humane form of communication,” followed by 10 years of apprenticeship with master printers.

Yale students have long kept the tradition of handset metal type alive with a number of print shops within the residential colleges. Since 1931, the Yale University Library has employed The Bibliographical Press to teach students about the difficult process of creating early books and to enable them to create their own printed keepsakes. Molly Dotson, the Arts Library’s interim associate director for special collections, explained, “Words on paper or inscribed on a building are such a familiar sight that we rarely look at them as such. The Bib Press printing demos and presentations like Jesse’s prompt discussion about the meaning of these materials and practices.” She added, “In an age of clicks, swipes, and built-in obsolescence, students gain appreciation for the patience, precision, athleticism, and artistry that go into these processes.”

Marsolais travels the world in search of inspiration, and named some of his favorite carvings on Yale’s campus. He encouraged attendees to pay attention to the inscriptions that surround them as they walk around the campus, and to observe which styles bring them joy.

 “Learning from Letterforms, Past & Present” will be on view through Dec. 15. All Arts Library exhibitions are free and open to the public. 

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