Printer demonstrates craft as part of nine-month road trip

Kyle Durrie had established a decent living, handcrafting and printing wedding invitations, but truth be told, she was at the end of her creative rope.

As in the cowboy songs she loves, the open road called to the resident of Portland, Ore. The life of a vagabond, however, didn't seem to jibe with that of a craft printer, whose equipment doesn't fit into a knapsack.

Flying by the seat of her pants, Durrie dreamed up a way to squeeze her studio into the back of a 29-year-old van. Instead of feeding the wedding industry, she decided, she'd drive the country, spreading the gospel of letterpress printing at art shops, schools and flea markets. She set out in June and, on Saturday she rolled into Baltimore, where she demonstrated her craft outside the American Visionary Art Museum. She's scheduled to appear Sunday at the Baltimore Print Studios.

Durrie, 32, sells self-printed posters for her Moveable Type tour that sum it all up pretty well. "Lead Wood Iron and Love," they read, "In A Very Small Space."

Letterpress printing was a common way to produce signs and greeting cards until the mid-1900s, when faster, larger-scale methods took over. But the art has retained a hold on hobbyists and small-scale craft shops that survive by printing custom signs, cards and invitations.

Durrie's chief tools are a 1950s sign press — once used by an old Sears and donated to her by a museum in Wisconsin — and an 1873 Golding Official No. 3 tabletop platen press that she found onCraigslist.

Using the sign press on Saturday, she spread ink over a configuration of wooden letter blocks and symbols, laid paper on top and then hand-rolled a metal press over the paper to create her prints. It's an easily repeatable process for the patrons who crowd into Durrie's van.

They inevitably exclaimed "That's so cool," when they peeled the pages off the press.

"It's so neat the way she works with her hands, especially in this world where everything is on a computer," said Jennifer Poole of Connecticut, who visited the truck with friends on Saturday. "You really get up close and learn how she does her craft. I think it's great that she's keeping it alive in this way. It's important."

One of the weirdest things for Durrie is meeting fans who follow her blog posts from the road. Caryn Michael, an art education student from Leesburg, Va., had followed Durrie for a year before finally meeting her in Baltimore.

"As someone who wants to be a teacher, it just fits with me, the way she's showing people these old forms of art that we don't do anymore," Michael said.

Steve Cole, a local printing hobbyist, showed up with a gift — several metal Linotype bars that spelled out a greeting to Durrie from Baltimore. "It's almost like she's an evangelist for this type of work," he said, grinning.

The idea for the trip came to Durrie in summer 2010, when she crossed the country on a three-week drive with her boyfriend's folk band, Run On Sentence. "Bands do it all the time," she said of going on tour. "It's such a great way to show off your work, and I started wondering why more artists don't do it."

Durrie launched her quest last November, with a fundraising campaign on that netted her $17,000, about twice what she was seeking. It was a good thing too, because the whole enterprise has cost a lot more than she anticipated.

In February, she bought the 1982 Chevy step van, also off Craigslist. She and her brother stripped the interior down to bare metal. Then she hired a carpenter to build the shelves and cabinets that would hold her printing supplies (and the mattress on which she sleeps many nights).

After 41/2 months that have taken her everywhere from San Francisco to Sioux Falls, S.D., to Halifax, Nova Scotia, the van bears many signs of her journey. There are the guest book crammed with signatures, the in-progress map on the ceiling forged from refrigerator magnets of each state, the tip box brimming with cash donations.

She's not making a profit on the trip, which will hit 47 states. "As long as I can fill the gas tank to get to the next place, and feed myself, that's all I'm looking for," Durrie says. "One day I might only get $15; the next I might get a lot more. It's all been balancing out."

She says she's a terrible networker, but the trip has brought all manner of unexpected attention to her work, recognition that she hopes will pay off when she returns to her shop in Oregon next spring. Even if business proves to be good, thoughts of another trip are already swirling through her mind.

"I think," she said, "that I'll be going out again."

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