Artist Michael Mullen creates captivating prints using an antique letterpress that he restored
Most college students, looking toward the future and dreaming about their first home, might imagine a dwelling with a two-car, finished garage. Or a state-of-the-art kitchen. Or a high-tech entertainment center. Or a yard big enough for dogs.
But years ago, when Grosse Ile artist Michael Mullen — fresh out of community college and ready to choose a university and a degree program — pictured his future home, the only thing he truly wanted was an old-time printer’s letterpress.
Mullen says while he was making decisions about college, his art teacher from high school suggested he talk with Tom Woodward, who was then a professor of fine arts at Wayne State University. Woodward said he would give Mullen a 30-minute appointment, and invited Mullen to meet him at his home.
“After three hours,” Mullen chuckles, “I’d had a private art lesson, decided to attend WSU and major in fine art and drawing, and had fallen in love with the two Victorian letterpresses Professor Woodward had in his living room.”
Years later, with a career as an art director and graphic designer, Mullen has in his new home-away-from home — a studio in Wyandotte’s Downriver Council for the Arts building — his own antique, manual letterpress, which he bought in 2011 and spent six months meticulously restoring.
Built in 1891 by Chandler & Price in Cleveland, this type of machine is also called a ”jobber press.”
“Most printing presses at that time were huge, and costs for small jobs were prohibitive,” explains Mullen, “so this press was developed and used for smaller jobs like business cards or flyers.”
READY TO ROLL Grosse Ile artist Michael Mullen purchased this antique letterpress in 2011 and spent six months meticulously restoring it. Built in 1891 by Chandler & Price in Cleveland, the machine now turns out unique artwork that starts with an original line drawing by Mullen.
According to Mullen, restoring and using these presses has become quite popular. Mullen says he is one of only a few using it strictly for fine art.
The artist enjoys explaining the process he uses to create his art, called the relief process, which is what letterpress printing is based on. Letterpress is the oldest of printing press techniques and the one Gutenberg used to print the Bible.
He starts by creating an original line drawing; his drawings can be from his imagination or based on photos he has taken. He then traces this drawing onto a block using carbon paper. Mullen prefers linoleum block because “it’s a very consistent surface to carve. Unlike wood, there’s no grain,” he says.
Using carving tools — and sometimes an adapted utility knife for extra-fine details — Mullen carves away anything he doesn’t want to be printed. Whatever is left “in relief” (on the surface) gets the ink, he explains.
The block is then placed on the letterpress and, with Mullen treadling the foot pedal, the press comes to vibrant life: Rollers distribute the ink and a mighty metal platen closes like a giant clamshell, putting ink to paper.
“People appreciate the ‘bite’ and texture that such a press adds to paper,” Mullen says.
Mullen can produce copies, called “multiples,” of the original print, and each multiple — signed and numbered — is an original work of art.
“Fine art prints make buying original art affordable,” Mullen says. “The size my platen allows is generally smaller (8 by 12 inches or less), and the prints lend themselves well to groupings.” Mullen does his own matting and framing, using archival papers and inks, acid-free mattes, and Plexiglass.
Mullen is also a musician who plays guitar, mountain dulcimer, and Celtic harp. One of his most popular print collections is “Tuned to Tradition,” four remarkably detailed images (banjo, fiddle, acoustic guitar, mandolin) that can be purchased individually or as sets, and that celebrate traditional American music.
A longtime fan of the Detroit Tigers and Tiger Stadium, Mullen’s most famous work is “Long Gone,” a six-color fine art print he created during Tiger Stadium’s final season as a tribute to that landmark, to Ernie Harwell’s years of announcing “long-gone” home runs, and to the memories of games he’d attended with his father.
“It was definitely an intense labor of love,” Mullen says. Today, patrons with “Long Gone” hanging on their wall can still experience the emerald field, the sun’s shadows in the stands, the fun and freedom of a day at that ballpark.
Mullen is now working on several concepts for his next series of prints, which includes classic cars created in Detroit, “and I’m taking letterpress art to another level by incorporating words and poetry onto a series of ‘Colors of Michigan’ tree prints,” he says.
“With all the technology on our bodies and wrists, our phones and computers, letterpress printing — used in Europe more than 600 years ago and in China over 1,000 years ago — speaks to people, because the work begins with a carving done by hand.”
For more information on Michael Mullen’s work, visit michaelmullencollection.com
About the Down-river Council for the Arts
Mike Mullen’s studio is located at the Downriver Council for the Arts. The council, located in downtown Wyandotte at 81 Chestnut, is housed in a splendid 1911 brick building constructed by the Independent Order of Oddfellows. It serves 21 area communities with classes for students and seniors, art and gift galleries, a theater, and artist studios. More information, including dates for performances and presentations, can be found at downriverarts.org, or by calling 734-720-0671.