Using Words as Mirrors — Book and Letterpress Class Helps Explore Identity

Laurie Laker ’12

“My work explores questions of race and identity, and the stories we tell ourselves about living in America,” explains Ben Blount, the Detroit native designer and letterpress printer, as well as visiting professor for his Block 6 class, Book and Book Structure.

Born and raised it the Motor City, Blount studied graphic design at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. After college, he worked as a designer for several years before returning to school.

“I’d always had an interest in design, typography, and books as a form, and I took an evening class at Columbia College Chicago to learn how to use a printing press,” recalls Blount. Columbia College Chicago is a college that specializes in arts and media disciplines across all areas of creative expression, and it was only when Blount started those evening classes that he learned of full-time graduate program there, and that his path in life had to change slightly.

“I’d been on my way to design school, but that evening class made me switch gears. I refocused, worked towards and received an MFA in Book and Paper Arts,” he says.

“What really attracted me to it was the tactile nature of the craft, how interactive it could be. I loved manipulating type! It’s also really cool just how much everyday language comes from printing; mind your p’s and q’s, out of sorts, hot off the press, make an impression – all these phrases have their origins in print work, so it’s a really impactful medium of work,” he says.

Now based in Chicago, Blount has a “day job” as an Art Director for an advertising agency in the Windy City, and still finds time to devote to his socially conscious printing and letterpress work.

His design is all client-based work, and Blount strives to maintain an emotional, meaningful lens to all his work,

“The printing work, and my ad work, it all comes from something emotional. It’s all about finding and expressing something more meaningful, even if it’s someone else’s work that you’re putting your own spin on, as I do for my day job,” he says.

“People get into this for all sorts of reasons,” he says. “Some are interested in design and art, others like making things or problem solving. You can get into it through an interest in typography, as I did, or you can have an interest in printmaking, it really varies.”

His Block 6 class at CC was his first time ever teaching undergraduate students, and Blount arrived at CC not quite knowing what to expect.

“It was a really great experience, I loved it,” he says. “I had a wide variety of students, from a few senior art majors who already had they had been introduced to printing, but I wouldn’t say they could print to an English major who brought their writing and poetry into the letterpress work. Everyone brought something to the table, and they all came with a level of responsibility and competency that was really encouraging.”

The Press at Colorado College, now in its 41st year since being established in 1978, has two full-sized printing presses, a composing and drafting room, and a huge variety of type options, materials, and inspirational pieces for students to draw upon.

The time pressures of a class on the Block Plan are unique for every area of study, but with artistic expression and creativity, there’s a particular emphasis on being pushed for time.

“Nobody lagged,” jokes Blount. “All the students were pretty conscientious with their work, but also brave – they’d try more difficult things than necessary to finish their assignments! Letterpress work takes years to master, and they were trying difficult and creatively cool things with asmallwindow of hours, it was inspiring.”

Some figures and artists of inspiration to Blount include master printer Amos Kennedy, who taught a Dynamic Half-Block at the college this January called Slinging Ink.

“Amos Kennedy visited my class in graduate school, and my work took a real turn after I talked with him,” recalls Blount.

“I also took a huge amount of inspiration from Audrey Niffenegger while at Columbia College Chicago,” Blount says. Niffenegger co-founded the Center for the Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago, and works as both an academic and an artist across printing, as well as an author, best known for her 2009 novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Music plays an important role in Blount’s life and work, as well.

“I’m a huge hip-hop head,” he says. “Their wordplay, how they tell stories, the constant references to the past and retellings, that’s what I try to do visually, too. MC’s like Mos Def and Black Thought, they’re geniuses!”

Blount’s own work deals with identity, race, and culture, “I’m trying to have a conversation with the viewer,” he explains.

“I’m not using print work as a confrontation option, but a conversational one, trying to represent and explore topics visually that may be uncomfortable for some people verbally.”

Of particular interest and focus for Blount at the moment is the work of “exploring and solving problems around white supremacy,” he says. “The issue is, it’s really hard to move forward linguistically because we’re not all coming to this conversation with the same language basis, which is where the visual element of print can be useful, I hope.”

The focus of Blount’s work coincided with the release of the initial report from the college’s external review on racism and anti-racism, conducted by Dr. Roger Worthington and colleagues from the Center for Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education at the University of Maryland.

“The Worthington report inspired a lot of the work I did while at CC,” Blount says. “Anti-racism seems a step beyond the normal diversity and inclusioninitiatives you see at a larger organization, which was encouraging. I tried to figure out what I could pull from the report, from being on campus around the students, and events of the day with speakers like Shaun King and others.”

Immersing himself in the life of the college was of paramount importance to Blount, and this included a presentation on art, race, and identity called “See Something Say Something in the Tutt Library Event Space in February.

“CC is an amazing place,” he recalls. “It was important to me that I got involved as a member of the community.”

“The press is very cool. It’s really great to see people of all majors from across the community come through the press, utilizing the space and people like Aaron Cohick as resources, not simply art majors. It’s a real community, and I loved being a part of it.”