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Leading by Design: Mary Tasillo on Common Press

Leading by Design: Mary Tasillo on Common Press

Leading by Design explores the work of alumni, faculty members, and supporters who are expanding the practice of art and design to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Last year, the Common Press, a letterpress and book arts studio founded at Penn in 2006 during the 300th anniversary celebration of Benjamin Franklin’s birth, made a couple important moves. The studio, a collaboration between the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design, the Penn Libraries, and Kelly Writers House, moved from the Morgan Fine Arts Building to the basement of the Fisher Fine Arts Library. And it hired its first-ever full-time studio manager, Mary Tasillo.

Tasillo, who has an MFA in book arts and printmaking from the University of the Arts, is a co-founder of The Soapbox, a community print shop and zine library, and over the last year, she’s begun to overhaul the Common Press as a resource for the Penn community. The press is decked out with dozens of drawers full of old type and seven printing presses. In December, the studio held open hours for students who wanted to handprint holiday greeting cards. In February, it did the same for Valentine’s Day. This semester, in recognition of the Walt Whitman bicentennial, the press has also held a series of “community print nights” to create materials out of Whitman’s poetry for distribution at events around the city.

Here, Tasillo talks about the purpose of the Common Press and how it could evolve in the future. The conversation has been edited.

What is the Common Press, and why is it here? 

The partners for the press are the Weitzman School, Penn Libraries and Kelly Writers House, and there's an interest in both print history and design here. So we do curricular support, and we have groups that are studying the history and culture of the book come down and see, “Oh, we've been reading about this thing; now we can get our hands in the process. We can set type or see how multiple pages are laid out on the press bed.” In my mind, this is a great place for text and image to come together in a design sense, in thinking visually about text, and in giving yourself some writing constraints. You're constrained by the pieces that you have in the shop—can you make different creative decisions because of those limitations? 

The presses moved to the libraries with the idea that this is a resource for anyone on campus. As part of that, we've been offering workshops to anyone on Penn's campus to come and learn how to print, and then you can come back during open studio hours and work on independent projects. Why would you want to work at the press? I think there's a few things. One is learning tactile processes. The ability to slow down, to do something with your hands, is a really important component of balance and balancing your thinking in our digital age. 

So you feel like things like this are a countervailing power against the onslaught of digital media everywhere. 

Absolutely. There's a lot of process in letterpress. There's something really satisfying about pulling a print with your hand. You can see the evidence of the process. You can see the impression of the type on the page. If I'm going to set type one letter at a time, there's a lot going into the set-up, and there's a lot going into the cleanup, but there's something compelling about seeing the print appear on the page. I've said it before, but I'm really into this idea of slowing oneself down. What does that do for you as a human being? What does it do exercising different parts of your brain? 

We're in a research university and I'm really interested in figuring out over my time here how far we can reach to get different kinds of people down here working at the press. As a point of reference, I have a colleague, John Risseeuw, at Arizona State University who's been working with research faculty in the sciences. He has a faculty member and a research team come down to make a print on handmade paper on the letterpress, about their research in aerodynamics or intelligent design, for example. It's a kind of art that someone in the design school wouldn't make, and the researchers say, Oh, we thought about our research in a totally different way. Take a step back, use the other side of the brain, slow down, and engage with the content in this completely different way. 

Is there a core community of people that come down here a lot? Or is it always cycling new people in an out? 

There are ebbs and flows to that. What I understand is that there was a community of people who were really excited about working with the press who graduated right before I started. Also, the space was less accessible for a period of time while they were moving the shop. So it feels in some ways like we're starting from scratch. But we're starting to build a little bit of a community of people who are coming back for more advanced workshops and open studio time. 

There wasn't a single manager of the Common Press before you were hired? How was this role described, and what was your pitch? 

Well, my pitch was vast, and so a lot of the questions were like, “Alright, Mary, you have these great ideas, you're talking about the different ways the press can serve curricula in different departments, how it can serve student groups, how it can serve visiting artists’ projects … How are you going to do it all?” And I said, well, bit by bit. It's going to be a slow process, and I'm one person. You do all the expansive big-picture thinking, and then you come back and say, Oh, well, actually the studio just moved to this space and so I have to figure out where I'm going to store paper and work my way back out to some of that. 

The role is really to set a new direction for Common Press, and that was part of the interview process—what would you do with this space? There's nuts and bolts to running a shop like this, making sure the Ps and Qs don’t get mixed up, making sure there’s ink down here. But also, what's the concept? What's the idea? What's the direction? What do you want to focus your time on? Is it going to be student-focused? Is it going to be a faculty resource? And then there's been a lot of assessing: How many people have been waiting impatiently to get in here? How many classes are already making use of the space and reaching out? And how much am I doing outreach and figuring things out from scratch? There's been kind of a balance of those things. I’ve started with a student-centered approach. How can the shop best serve the community on campus? This spring our Letterpress workshops have been filling quickly and I’m excited to see a community of sustained users, who come back to create their own projects, grow over time.

What are some of the initiatives you're trying to organize?

One of the next things I'd like to start doing is targeted outreach to student groups. I'm interested in activist posters, so thinking about how this kind of activity can serve social justice and activist work that's already going on on campus. We did some projects at the press in the fall tied to the election, so thinking of that as a starting point and how to have the press as a space to engage and support some of this other activity. 

Next year, I’m hoping to bring Josh McPhee, who's an activist-poster artist with a collective called Justseeds to do some programming here, working with student groups, and hopefully that will have multiple components, such as an exhibition and panel discussion as well as workshops. We have a materials library down the hall where they're collecting all kinds of pigments and weird building materials and things that light up, so I'm interested in figuring out whether we can develop a partnership there to support some creative experimentation with materials in printing and bookmaking.

I’d encourage anyone who’s interested in learning more about how the press might support what they’re doing, academically or extra-curricularly, to reach out.