These days, there aren’t many professions that don’t rely on digital technology. As our fast-paced society has come to increasingly depend on screen time, traditional crafts such as letterpress printing have become nostalgia-inducing novelties. But for Beth Noel, director of marketing at Middlesex Community College, which has campuses in Bedford and Lowell, the letterpress is a vehicle for creating more than just handcrafted stationery.
Noel was a teenager when she fell in love with the tactile experience of using a printing press. “Since my high school job as a paste-up artist for a local newspaper, I knew that printing and I would be lifelong friends,” Noel says. “The smell of ink, the feel of a cold press sheet in my hands, and the rhythmic ‘ka-chunk’ keep me coming back for more.” The process inspired her career in graphic design, which eventually led to her current role.
In 2010, Noel and her husband gifted each other a letterpress printing course for Valentine’s Day. “On the ride home, I turned to my husband and said, ‘I think I’m going to get a press,’ ” Noel recalls. Two years later she secured a space at Western Avenue Studios in Lowell, and KERNgirl Design Studio & Print Shop was born.
At KERNgirl, Noel’s letterpress printshop and design studio, she creates printed material such as greeting cards, coasters, custom invitations and stationery, among other products. According to Noel, a self-described “crafter and maker at heart,” letterpress printing is an artistic outlet that helps keep her sane.
While her day job relies on computer design and her small business involves a manual process, Noel says the two play off of each other in unique ways.
“I think all of [my experience] informs who I am as an artist and craftsman,” Noel says. “I like to bring everything to bear whenever I’m working, whether it’s printing things in my shop or working at Middlesex.” According to Noel, graphic design and printing both require good communication skills. “You have to clearly invite someone to a wedding, or clearly share important information, so I find [both of my jobs] challenging and fun.”
Of the many printing presses she has used over the years, Noel’s favorite is the manually powered Damon & Peets 6×10 treadle press. “It’s my hand or my that leg runs it, and every single piece that I’m printing, I am touching at least twice,” Noel says. “I am very connected to whatever it is that I’m making.”
That connection to the things she makes means even more to Noel when she finds herself educating others on the history of the printing press. “What I truly love is being able to share the history, the process and the experience with others,” Noel says. She reflects on her open studio nights, when she lets visitors try out the letterpress, and people come in to browse her work. “Being able to teach and share historical printing in an age where everything is on a smartphone is fantastic,” Noel says.
Noel recently moved her printing studio from Western Avenue to NOVA Art Studios in North Chelmsford, where she finds inspiration in the surrounding creative community. “There’s something about that creative community that’s so important to me,” Noel says. “I’m always interested in getting feedback and other points of view from those around me. In a creative community, that happens almost organically.”
As Noel continues to share the products she creates at local art shows, a new portable printing press will allow passersby to witness the care and craftsmanship she puts into her work.
The printing press and the beautiful handmade items Noel produces with it help to preserve an important cultural legacy for future generations. “I’m excited to continue to share this amazing craft that really did revolutionize the world,” she says.
KERNgirl Design Studio & Print Shop
North Chelmsford, Mass.