NORTH ADAMS -- Artist and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts arts professor Melanie Mowinski has an educational background in printmaking, and her dad worked in the field when he was in high school and college, but she never imagined that an opportunity to run her own letterpress printer would result in the transformation of her life and her students.
Mowinski runs the Press Gallery at 105 Main St.
In 2010, Mo w inski said, she was approached about a Van der cook letterpress printer.
Arrow Press in Pittsfield was shut ting down, and the printers were looking for a home for it. They didn't want to sell it, they didn't want it to go very far, and they wanted to retain access to it on occasion.
Mowinski happen ed to be in the right place, at the right time, and jumped at the opportunity.
At first, Mowinski approach ed MCLA for a place to keep it. She was told that there wouldn't be any space until the following November, so the letterpress ended up in her garage. Some searches on eBay turned up the same press selling for $12,000, so she realized the rarity of her opportunity. It was one she just couldn't pass up.
"I said ‘I will do this,' but I really didn't understand why," Mowinski said. "I wasn't at that point super into letterpress. My master's degree is in printmaking, and I had dabbled with letterpress. I wanted to continue to play around with it, and I like typography a lot, so I was hoping to teach
"As far as letterpresses go, this one is kind of like the Cadillac of machines. It's fully automatic. The bed raises and lowers. It has all these nuances that printers who use Vander cooks will understand, like you don't have to hand crank anything -- you just press the button and it does what it's supposed to do.
"You don't have to fiddle with this thing called packing, which creates a deeper impression or less impression on the paper. You still have to turn a wheel, but there are all these things that this machine does that a lot of these Vandercook presses don't do."
November came and went, and the press remained in Mow inski's garage. Sometime later, she took part in a round-table discussion that opened with the question, "If you had a store front, what would you do with it?"
Mowinski's immediate reply was that she would move her letterpress in and have a classroom, gallery, studio space. It was at that point she was reminded that applications were due for DownStreet the next day -- why not try that out?
"I went home and it's six o'clock and I thought, maybe I should do that," she said. "So I did, I applied for it and I'm like, ‘okay, I'm doing this.' No business plan, nothing. I sort of had a vision. If I had done a business plan, I would have crunched numbers, I would have really thought it through. I doubt I would have done it, but that's who I am. I get an idea, I think it's going to be fun and I decide to do it."
Already dealing with paperwork, Mowinski decided she might as well apply for some grants while she was at it. Her DownStreet Art space opened within two months afterward, and she received a grant from MCLA, as well as a prestigious one from the College Book Art Association.
Mowinski found that the Press Gallery was an instant success in all the areas she had sought to serve with it.
"It's this wonderful thing in that the community really likes it, and the college really likes it, and my students love it," said Mowinski. "That's the part that has been really powerful to me, people's response. I know that I have changed some of my students' lives forever by introducing them to the letterpress."
"Also just having some people reconnect with it, people who were printers, because the Berkshires has this rich printing and paper history, that kind of connection is really cool."
Reconnection was part of Mowinski's relationship with the space as well, but she had to stay conscious that the despite the huge amount of work running the gallery re quired, it didn't overtake the other portion of her life in the arts. Mowinski's other work continues -- she consciously differentiates between what happens in her home studio and what happens in Press -- though she can see that her work on letterpress has had its effect on her.
"I like taking different parts and pieces, and combining them together to create different relationships," said Mo winski. "That is partially what the machine allows me to do in experimental ways. I can take all these different matrixes that I have and put them together to create something new, so the same pieces, but they're always being moved around to create an entirely different piece."
Series like "Birds/Body/ Nest" have taken Mowinski's painting work and begun to in clude touches of letterpress, as well as other material, in the most recent pieces.
One of her most consistent works has been her Visual Diary, which is nearing 20 years. It consists of a grid that represents each day in a year of her life. Mowinski documents events through sketches, symbols and words. She began these as a way to document her time in the Peace Corps, and she has never stopped since, though she's questioned her devotion to the project over the years. Now she is at peace with the effort.
"The organizing principle of it is the grid," she said. "That's the only one. And I have some things that I've repeated, like when I go to the movies, I always use an old-fashioned movie projector, but when I watch a movie on TV, I use a little TV thing. That's one of the symbols that have stayed through out the entire run of it.
"The only thing that's organized about it is the rectangles and the underlined grid. It is kind of chaotic. It's organized chaos in a way, it's amusing."
The Visual Diaries are a collection of the small, mundane mo ments in the life, and she uses their repetition to build a picture of a whole life as a collection of these individual pieces and their recurrence.
Mowin ski sees the similarity to her other work in which, capturing rocks and trees, she seeks to isolate a moment that tells a story -- in any Visual Diary, the days of the year are moments that capture a history, much like the textures of nature.
It also has had practical purposes for Mowinski, as when a doctor suggested she track the occurrence of some debilitating headaches she had suffered from for a couple years -- she realized she already had.
Sh also spoke of the fear that the full-blown presentation of her existence might come off, to some, as chaotic and maybe even a bit unhinged.
"When I applied for a job and I showed it to the person who was hiring me, he was kind of scared," she said. "He was like, ‘Is this some crazy obsessive/compulsive person that I've hired?' I know about that as a response from people -- it scares them. Who is this person and is she crazy?"
And even though it documents her life, it does so in such a way that each moment presented is not always clear to Mowinski and taxes her own memory.
"This one person zeroed in on one place and said, ‘I want to know who Chuck was and what you were doing when you were playing croquet!' ‘Why were you mad at that person on that day?'" Mowinski said. "I don't remember. Some people, they want to know what I remember of different mo ments. I think some people shake their head and say, ‘Wow, that's crazy.' "
As Mowinski looks to her creative future, the Press Gal lery is obviously a huge consideration, and it remains her challenge to juggle the parts of her life.
The second year in existence has allowed her more planning time for programs and shows, and also a look to the gallery's future., she said.
Her hope is, within a few years, to expand the project beyond Main Street in order to offer more intensive educational possibilities with the letterpress.
"I want to teach people about let terpress," Mow inski said. "That ‘s more who I am.
"I'm not an arts manager or a gallery man ager. I'm figuring this out as I go along. That's my long-term goal."