In the Independent Film Channel show "Portlandia," Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live fame said anything can be art if you just "put a bird on it." He was referring to art in that other Portland, my hometown, that "alternative universe" somewhere north of California where "young people go to retire" (thank you again, "Portlandia").
Kyle Durrie '02, however, did not move to Portland, Ore., to retire, nor did she go to print birds.
But, as the proprietor of letterpress studio Power and Light Press, she does sell a greeting card with a finely-detailed print of a handlebar mustache that reads, "PUT A MUSTACHE ON IT: people will sh-- themselves." You might have seen the suspicious white truck—a refurbished 1982 linen delivery van dubbed "Sweetheart of the Road"—parked outside the VAC on Wednesday afternoon. With its sage green trim and sliding side windows, it is more food cart than bike-thief getaway van. A few of Durrie's colorful letterpress prints decorate the outside, proclaiming phrases from "You're My Typo" to "A Woman's Work."
Durrie's current project is called "Moveable Type: Cross-Country Adventures in Printing." I did not notice the pun until halfway through her presentation in the VAC, at which point I was already sold on her wit.
The basis of Durrie's project is simple: Her truck holds one twin-sized bunk, one camping stove, two antique printing presses, and many cabinets full of thick paper, bright inks, and rows and rows of different letter and character blocks.
Putting her Portland studio on hiatus, Durrie followed in the tracks of Civil War printers with their canvas tents and hit the road.
After countless hours feeding client demand for greeting cards, music posters, business cards, packaging for records and CDs, and marriage invitations—which she called "the only way a printer can make money these days"—Durrie said she needed the road to reinvigorate her perspective on her work.
Three and a half months since leaving Portlandia—months spent weaving through the West, Midwest and Canada, giving demonstrations at libraries, galleries, street fairs, and schools—Durrie pulled up into Brunswick.
During Wednesday's slideshow, she displayed a picture of her posing on the Bowdoin Museum steps, wrapped in a light blue toga that is simultaneously draped around two young men, her hand outstretched. She told us that she graduated with a visual arts degree in 2002 and dabbled in theater; I imagine she also nailed it at Epicuria.
Running your finger over one of her letterpress prints, the indented letters create topographies of text. Each character becomes more than a stand-in signifier for its sound. I am aware of the literal architecture of the alphabet's shapes and their cultural power as hieroglyphics to relay ideas.
Durrie said the idea for "Moveable Type" was sparked after a cross-country road trip she took with her partner and his band, the indie-gypsy-folk group Run On Sentence (which performed at the Pub last night). She described the beauty of their nomadic spontaneity of stopping in towns, unloading their instruments, and playing music on the sidewalk.
"Why don't other artists do that?" she asked.
Of the many things from my youth in Portland, Ore., that I thought were typical enough until I moved away (the woman who breastfed her baby every morning as she biked to work comes to mind) I recall a painter who often sat with her easel on a hill overlooking the city.
We would drive by her in carpool on the way to school, all vying for a view of her canvas, but were always surprised when we saw that she was not painting the landscape around her, but instead, other, seemingly random images.
I suppose inspiration is rooted in place, and I am sure that the undulating grid of Portland's streets somehow informed her nudes and cornfields. That is, her painting would have looked different were it composed in a basement in Los Angeles or on a Great Lakes beach.
Durrie said she hasn't had much time to work on her own extended projects since being on the road, but she is "taking stock" of inspiration and anticipates some sort of gallery show when she returns to Oregon. She still has another six months—and the American South and Southwest—before that day.
After her presentation, she told a packed Beam Classroom that her truck would be open for letterpressing through the evening. The line of students was long, and when I finally entered the truck, I was surprised by a feeling of nostalgia, a déjà vu from a history of printing that I have never experienced.
Letterpressing is incredibly time-consuming: finding the correct size and type of each individual character, laying them in the press, rolling on the ink, lining up and tightening in the paper, moving the heavy metal roller across the page.
I only did the last two steps, and was struck by the weight and deliberate force needed for the final roll. It demands a confidence in the inked words that technological printing with its delete key and its copy and paste cannot compare to.
The print I took home—along with every other student who visited her truck, as Durrie had laid the type beforehand—is on an average-sized but thicker-than-average piece of cream-colored paper.
Lined up in an upside-down staircase are the words "quintessential" "quinine" "quip" and "qi," framed at the top with two arrows and at the bottom by three miniature camels.
Though literally nonsensical, graphically it is utterly logical and playful, with every word and "Q" a different font and a slightly different size.
When I return to Oregon next summer, I plan on finding Durrie again. I want to hear about the rest of her adventures (although I will also follow her blog at www.type-truck.com) and buy a poster or greeting card.
I am already brainstorming who will best appreciate the gift of one of her card sets, small cream-colored notes that read in blocky red type: "R U 18?"