I recently had the opportunity to speak with and interview Chris Fritton, Studio Director of the WNY Book Arts Center. The following is a Q&A from the informative conversation:
Bethany: What are your main responsibilities as the printing studio director?
Chris: Studio Director is a catch-all term – at the WNY Book Arts Center, I wear many hats. My primary duty is keeping the Letterpress and Screenprinting studio organized, as well as teaching all of the letterpress workshops. I also teach most of the educational outreach programs, whether we’re working with students on-site or off-site. In addition to the studio and educational duties, I also design, print, and coordinate all of the gig posters, cards, event posters, and art prints that we create at the Center.
Chris: One of the greatest things about my job is the amount of creative freedom – when it comes to designing and printing things, there are really no restrictions on what I can make. It allows me to work through prototypes for more complex ideas. One of the most difficult things about working in the studio at WNYBAC, however, is the fact that it’s a shared studio space with an educational focus – that means not everything is always where it should be, and things can become very disorganized very quickly. Just keeping things in line is a full-time job.
Chris: Educating people of different age groups can be challenging – in a single day, I can go from teaching 3rd or 4th grade students who have no idea what letterpress is to senior graphic designers with printmaking experience. You have to be flexible and approach these disparate teaching situations in very different ways.
Chris: I started printing over ten years ago, as a way to improve the quality of my own books. I began as a writer, and had no background at all in studio art or printmaking. As I worked on my own books, I had a lot of help from older master printers as other mentors in the field. WNYBAC was founded by my friend Richard Kegler. When he brought the project together in 2008, I spent a lot of time (over 2 years) volunteering, as did Rich, and developed the position of Studio Director myself. It was a bootstrap operation.
Bethany: What steps would you recommend I take to prepare to enter this field, or the career-oriented world in general?’
Chris: I think it’s important to keep in mind that hard work goes a long way, but that work has to be of a very high quality. Take time to develop your craft, no matter what it is – quality will always trump quantity. I also advocate for thinking of a career as a series of interconnected skills – often those skills need to extend far beyond your primary focus, i.e.: you can be the best printer that ever lived, but if you have difficulty networking with people, you’re going to have a difficult time building a business, a following, or a career.
Chris: Normally someone in my position would have extensive training in fine arts, with a focus in printmaking. I was lucky enough to take an alternative path to where I am now, but I had a lot of help and advice from more experienced artists. My background as a writer has really helped me focus on the text and typographic elements of what I do, whereas other designers would often focus on palette, composition, or arrangement; my unique proclivities tend to produce unique results.
Chris: Meticulousness, above all. Sloppiness really produces poor work in printmaking, and it’s often a side-effect of laziness. Good printers, designers, and bookmakers are more attentive to detail than most humans – it’s something that take pride in and find very satisfying.
Chris: Get involved. The printmaking world is small, and it’s a very niche field. Normally the best way to find a job is work with people, a lot of people, in a number of different studios. The more people you know, the better your chance of finding an opportunity when it arises.
Chris: Make sure it’s what you really want to do. It requires an inordinate amount of dedication to succeed in niche fields like letterpress and screen printing, and it takes a very long time to succeed. You don’t want to get a year in and realize you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.
Chris: I think we’ll see more letterpress and printmaking in the future, as people move away from the digital and toward the handmade. The Maker movement is also going to grow, as people use their varied skill sets to produce and invent unique items.
Chris: There used to be a typical career path, where a printer would attend a vocational school and join a union, but things have changed. Most printers now don’t follow that path, and the union jobs are all but gone. The advancement potential is unlimited, but it’s based on your own ability to design, create, and market what you’re doing.
Chris: Book arts is unusual because it has a foot in both worlds – it’s a very traditional art, with traditional ways of doing things, but there is so much potential for alternative methods of binding and printing. I can’t really predict, but I know it’s only limited by the participants imaginations.
Chris: Don’t be afraid to sweep, take out the trash, or do the grunt work necessary in making a business (or your own career) work. It’s all a necessary part of life, and a necessary part of succeeding.