Sarah Hoskins

Sarah Hoskins is a documentary photographer with photographs included in over 100 exhibitions. For more information: sarahhoskins.com

Arts

Studio Visit: Gray and the Larkspur Press

It arrives via media mail, in a meticulously packed box. First the newspaper, then the cardboard, perfectly taped brown paper, a light plastic slipcover which I am sure was some sort of archival special something. I handle the book. It feels good in my hands. This is not a book that you dog-ear pages or highlight with a bright yellow marker. The book is a work of art, just like everything that comes from Gray Zeitz’s Larkspur Press.

Book: Gray sent me this book prior to my visit to him. Written by Gabrielle Fox.

It was a gift as well as my homework, as I jokingly referred to it. Gray told me via phone that I could gain insight by reading Larkspur Press: Forty Years of Making Letter Press Books in a Rural Kentucky Community, 1974-2014 by Gabrielle Fox. The book contained information about Gray’s life and letterpress and beautifully crafted pieces and quotes about Gray by everybody in the Kentucky literary circles. The likes of Wendell Berry. I will admit that writing anything after reading this has left me more than a bit intimidated.

I call Gray to set up a time to head over to interview and photograph him. I ask if he will share something that nobody knows about him; he laughs. “Everything has already been written about me,” lest I forget the recent visit by CBS Sunday Morning, who did a fantastic segment on him. You can find it on the internet, but you won’t find Gray himself, as he is not connected with the internet but with the art of traditional letterpress.

The last time I saw Gray, I watched him receive the Inaugural Kentucky Literary Impact Award at the Kentucky Theater in February 2020, before the world shut down. Before that, I had been attempting to get to his annual holiday sale the weekend after Thanksgiving with no luck.

To get to Gray’s there are some obstacles. The first GPS often directs you to the right fork instead of the left, the second Sawdridge Creek might stop you in your tracks if the rain has come or is on its way. One day for a visit, my daughter, who was with me, took a photo of the creek and sent it to her physics teacher and asked, “I think this is a hydraulic jump.” His response was immediate; he said, “Yes it is, get out of there.” If the creek is running fast, so should you.

The road over the Sawdridge Creek To Gray’s

There have been days I have certainly wanted to visit Gray and been turned away by that creek, but not today. It is a glorious spring day in early May. I cross the creek and head down “the road” and listen to the stillnessThe loudest thing out here might be the purple color of Gray’s house. His studio sits back and out to the side. The door is open, and Gray greets me. His height holds almost as much of a presence as his beard. I walk into the crafted beamed space as the sun warms the wood, but the true warmth comes from Gray and his love and care for his work. The art of letterpress.

I look to the presses and see the work in production; it is something different today. There is a mouse, not a live one but a beautifully printed etching of one.

What are you working on today?

“I’m working on Mr. Poof’s Discovery. My friend Wesley Bates is doing 18 wood engravings for it. It’s an old tale that Rena and John Jacob Niles put down, and my teacher Carolyn Hammer and the Bur Press published in 1947. A friend of mine in Lexington has tried to talk me into doing this for years, so he and I are partnering to do this book, and it’s good. His mother had read it to him when he was a child.

We call it spotting in photography
Gray is doing a bit of that on the etchings.

He has been very helpful with the illustrations, what they should be, and the feel they should be. And I am doing another children’s book with Sena Jeter Naslund, who is a Louisville writer, and Joan Press is doing nine wood engravings for that.”

How many children’s books have you done?

“These are the first two.”

Are the grandchildren any influence?

“I can’t tell you why I’m doing it.”

Are you enjoying the children’s books?

“Yea, I am. They’re fun to do.”

Gray was born in Mobile, Alabama, and raised in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Two years of community college and then on to UK, where he met and discovered letterpress printing under the mentorship of Carolyn Hammer.

Gray is not just a printer of the old letterpress ways. He is also a poet.

Do you feel the poetry or printing is more of your art form?

“I’m a much better printer than I am poet, I think.

A lot of poets write every day, I don’t write every day, but I print. But you know poets throw away a lot of poems and photographers throw away a lot of pictures. There is a big argument about whether printing is an art form or a craft and I just don’t care!”

Gray is printing and etching and feeds the paper into the printer. The noise of the press is the loudest sound around; the repetitiveness of the sound is somehow calming. When he finishes, he takes out a small brush, and dipping it in a spot of ink, begins hand spotting – filling in any tiny places that the printer might have missed. Letterpress is a time-consuming labor of love. He currently has four books in the works, with no completion date in sight.

Gray in the upstairs of his studio at his annual holiday sale held the first weekend after Thanksgiving.

Are there struggles when working with the authors? Are there any battles?

“I’ve never had a battle! I work with the authors, and the illustrator works with the author, knock on wood, I have never had that kind of experience.

I haven’t had any arguments with anyone. Rarely have I had an author ask for something that I didn’t really want to do because of the aesthetics of the printing and everything. I’ve always been able to talk them out of it. I can explain the reasons why I’m doing things.

Proofs of book

I don’t like to put things in the middle of the page; I like starting at the top of the page. I can express my desires of that to the authors. It’s a good question. I haven’t had any arguments with anyone.”

We walk over to look at the letters he uses, small letter-type pieces that will be “set.”

Do you have a specific type you like?

“I’ve got several faces, and sometimes the book says it would be better with this face or that face. We mainly use 14 point. It doesn’t matter what font you’re setting. They are all set about the same. We also have 10 point and 12 point, and sometimes with the 10 point, I’ll need tweezers now, to get them out of the smaller compartments.”

“IT’S A LOT EASIER TO READ IT THAN IT IS TO SET IT”

Gray Feeding the Press to add the etchings to the words.

I saw you on television on Sunday Morning. It was an excellent piece.

“I had been interviewed by Noah Adams on NPR, and I didn’t know when it would be aired. It had been bumped a few times because of all the breaking news. I had been at my daughter’s in Lexington for Thanksgiving, and I was driving home listening to NPR, and I thought WOW, this is going to be a good interesting piece, and they said Monterey, and I said, ‘this is it!’ (laughing) and it was a good piece!”

“Then before Christmas, this lady from CBS calls me up, and she always listens to whatever Noah Adams on NPR does, and so she says let’s do a piece.”

Gray in his Studio with his largest press the 12×18 Chandler and Price printer from 1918

I remind him at the end of our visit to tell me what people should know about him.

“I’m a good guy.”

Everyone who meets Gray already knows that. I am handed bookmarks he has made and poems he has written as gifts. I leave with not just mere words on paper. I leave with the art of the letterpress, the dedication of Gray to it, and the artists whose books he makes come alive.

All Photo Credits: Sarah Hoskins

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Arts

Studio Visit: Whitesburg’s Lacy Hale

On the corner of Main and Railroad Street in Whitesburg, Kentucky, stands Roundabout Records. This may seem like a roundabout way to begin an art studio visit; however, in this case, it makes perfect sense. The artist Lacy Hale and her husband Benjamin Spangler are the owners of Roundabout Records, just a stone’s throw away from Appalshop, where both she and her husband have been involved for years.

(Photo by Sarah Hoskins)

Lacy and I pretend-hug in this new world of COVID. I follow her back to her studio space, passing by records, speakers and a few guitars along the way. As we continue through the store, the art form changes from music to wood cuts and screens, as Lacy and her art take center stage.

“I always knew I wanted to be an artist. Both of my parents were creative – my dad played guitar (really, anything that had strings) and my mom, who is still living, loves arts and crafts. We grew up extremely poor and she was always making things. I remember one year for Easter she made us all (my three siblings and me) terry cloth bunny dolls. After my dad passed away in 2008 she made us art quilts out of his clothing.

I like to try my hand at a little bit of everything, just because it’s hard to make it as an artist here. You have to be an entrepreneur.”

(Photo by Sarah Hoskins)

You can see that Lacy is indeed an entrepreneur. There are stacks of cards, T-shirts, and linoleum and wood cuts throughout. This might be a small space, but it is full of big ideas. A beautiful new print of Frida Kahlo is tacked to the wall. Lacy tells me it was recently included in an exhibit in New York where she once attended the prestigious Pratt Institute School of Art.

What was it like to transition from Eastern Kentucky to Manhattan and one of the world’s leading private art institutes?

“Pratt was an opportunity that I never thought that I would have. I only made it there because my community in Knott County rallied around me and helped raise money to send me there. My parents worked so hard to pay for it but it was just too much and I came home after my second year.

The culture shock wasn’t that intense – or at least I played it off like it wasn’t. I had obviously seen movies and shows with NYC in them. There were new things to learn, but the first time I stepped foot into the Met, I bawled my eyes out. Stendhal Syndrome is real.

I loved the subway! I had never been able to go anywhere I wanted for $1.50 or whatever it was at the time. In rural Eastern Kentucky, you must have a car. My family could only really afford the one my dad used to drive to work, so the subway was a whole new and exciting experience. Also, though, as soon as I opened my mouth people would assume I was stupid because of my accent. I dealt a lot with that.”

(Photo by Sarah Hoskins)

Yet, she embraces her mountain accent with humor, pulling out a new screen recently completed.

“This is a design my husband and I came up with. It’s Dracula, but around here people would call him “Draculer.” He is wearing a Beechnut Tobacco hat and he’s got an RC Cola in his hand. I just did the screen yesterday. Not all of my work has a sense of humor, but some of it does. I think art should be enjoyed and it can be beautiful and funny and meaningful and blah, blah, blah.”

I ask Lacy about #nohateinmyholler, her phrase and hashtag with a voice of its own.

“I don’t know if I’ve told you how that came about. The neo-Nazis were going to march in Pikeville in 2017 to try and recruit. What better way to try and protest then to make a piece of art that could be put on a sign or a shirt? People saw it and just really took to it. I’ve seen it all over this county and all over the world. I just sent one each to Japan and Germany. Holler transplants, I guess.”

(Photo by Sarah Hoskins)

I ask: Do you feel you have always been a socially conscious artist?

“I’ve always been socially conscious. My parents instilled in me that all people are equal, and to stand up if you see an injustice. I did some work through the years with groups concerning social justice ideals, but when I knew that white supremacists were coming to a town an hour from me, under the guise of helping poor families in eastern Kentucky, I was infuriated. And so were some of the kids where I was working. At the time I was working with the Appalshop Media Institute, their youth media program. One of the youths asked if we could have an ‘Art in Response’ day to make protest signs and things. We thought it was an incredible idea! I had taught many of them to do block printing and we took a day and made posters and things.

The phrase ‘No Hate in My Holler’ came to me the night before and I carved it that day surrounded by a lot of local kids and adults who were also making protest pieces. It was so encouraging then and the response to ‘No Hate in My Holler’ has been incredibly encouraging ever since.”

Lacy pulls out the screen for #nohateinmyholler. This is actually her second screen. The first one wore out after she printed over 500 t-shirts in June and July.

(Photo by Sarah Hoskins)

After George Floyd’s murder and the breaking news of the police shooting of Breonna Taylor, she felt a need to take action. She made a post saying she was going to donate 75 percent of all funds raised selling the t-shirts to Black Visions Collective and the Louisville Bail Fund. The orders came pouring in. She has raised over $5,000 for these important causes.

Lacy demonstrates how to make a split fountain, a process of screen printing and printmaking, placing more than one ink color on the same screen to achieve an ombré or rainbow effect. The paint blends on the screen as you use a squeegee to push the ink through the screen onto the medium. It’s a method used to place multiple colors on a print without using a different screen for each color. The paint colors line up on one side as Lacy begins to pull them through. The colors repeat and pull through again as the paint finds its path – not unlike Lacy finding her path back here and home.

(Photo by Sarah Hoskins)

It seems as though Lacy’s work is everywhere in Whitesburg. We leave the record store and walk over to the Boone Motor Building also known as AMI (Appalshop Media Institute), where she has created some of her murals. Her next mural was supposed to be a community collaboration, but in this new COVID age it will now be a solo piece.

We took a drive up to Jenkins, where she tells me about her mural there, commissioned by Appalshop.

“The community wanted to move away from coal. They didn’t want it to be about coal. It could respect the history, but they wanted to move forward.”

The mural shows a miner’s head lamp pointing its way to the future, leaving the black and white world of coal behind and peering into a new, colorful age. I particularly love the young girl with a dulcimer and an iPhone on the ground next to her.

(Photo by Sarah Hoskins)

“I designed it like a paint-by-number and the community painted it. The age range was 7-87 years old and there were 60 community members.

I view a lot of public art as community outreach. Working outside as people walk by gives an artist the chance to answer questions and talk to folks that may never set foot in a museum. For most of my murals, I have worked with organizations and we always get the community to give us feedback, as well. Sometimes they’re involved in the design process. It’s important for the community to have some buy-in instead of forcing a piece of artwork on them.”

Her Possum and Pokeweed mural brought about a lot of discussion. Lacy appreciated the possum for its resilience, but she learned that others were not so affectionate toward them. In the end, the piece was embraced by the community and can be seen in Harlan.

(Photo by Sarah Hoskins)

How does place influence your work?

“I am the 5th or 6th generation of Hales to be raised on the property where I grew up. I grew up running wild through the mountains and the creeks, working the garden with my dad, wandering the family cemetery looking at my ancestors’ headstones. I think eastern Kentucky gets into your bones and blood. The mountains will always feel like home, no matter where else you may live. I think I really settled into my artistic voice when I began doing pieces about the place I love. I’ll always be searching for and refining that voice but it feels right and I feel good about the work I produce. My identity is so entwined with this place. Making the decision to move back here, live here, make a way here, and make my work here was a very conscious one.”

Did you ever feel bad having to leave Pratt?

“At the time I had to go, it felt like it was time to go. I was a holler girl in New York City which was awesome – I learned a lot and I met a lot of really cool people, ate a lot of different food I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise, but it also made me realize how much I missed this place. I was lucky to be there for the time I was, but I was ready to come home.”

I think home is glad to have her back.

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Arts

Photo Essay: The Wall Says ‘Take a Knee’

There is a quiet protest going on in Louisville. Actions that speak volumes, and in the language of the visual.  Everyone who is anyone is there: from Oprah to Obama and Beshear to Biden.

Thomas English had planned to create a mural honoring the Negro League’s 100th anniversary. The site: under the viaduct on Broadway near 35th Street in Louisville. But his plan quickly changed in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. And so began the “Take a Knee” project.

If you visit and you’re lucky enough, Thomas will offer you a brush and ask you to contribute – as he did one Saturday morning for a group of children and passersby from Atlanta.

Artist Cheryl Johnson has painted here for years. You will find her here almost every day, painting portraits of those she feels should be recognized. It’s an honor to be surrounded by those Thomas and Cheryl revere.

Do yourself a favor and head over to Broadway in Louisville to take a look and take a knee. In the meantime, go there through my lens. Enjoy the scroll!

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