A study by creative software company Adobe polled more than 5,000 working adults in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, and Japan and revealed that more than 75 percent of those employees felt as if they weren’t living up to their creative potential.
Even workplaces as diverse and innovative as Google can struggle with this conundrum — which is why the company allows its engineers to spend 20 percent of their work week on projects that ignite their creative passions.
It’s little wonder, then, why so many experienced workers are leaving more lucrative jobs to establish their own creative endeavors or take up a creative side hustle. This month, South Sound Business talked to four such individuals who enjoy working creatively so much that they augmented, changed, or steered their careers in a direction to do so.
Come back tomorrow for the next creative endeavor.
The Economy of Language
Expedition Press’ Myrna Keliher prints words that she believes people need to read, or remember, or send to a loved one. She’s exacting in her process, working closely with writers worldwide to perfect wording and design from her tiny Kingston studio.
Tucked behind a drive-thru café less than a mile from the Kingston ferry terminal is a modest letterpress print shop. Expedition Press fits snugly into a space that once was a garage, simple and private enough to be the perfect place for owner Myrna Keliher to make magic.
“Not everyone wants to find the door,” said Keliher, who opens her shop up to visitors who inquire but does not advertise it as a store-front. “Not everyone needs to. But some people do.”
No-nonsense, warm, and sharp, the 34-year-old Keliher knows well the inexplicable pull that some people feel toward an art form like letterpress — the need to visit, to witness the process, and to ask questions. She herself stumbled upon the craft at age 21 after spending most her life hellbent on pursuing a career in medicine. When she discovered letterpress in a broadly themed class at The Evergreen State College, she said something suddenly clicked: She had discovered what she wanted to do.
“When I walked into a print shop and saw type, the best way for me to put it is that I recognized it,” said Keliher, who knew nothing of letterpress at the time. “From that first moment, letterpress for me was the ideal pathway to discover myself as an artist: I was using my head and my hands and my heart, all together, and I was thinking and feeling deeply. I had found something that finally made sense to me.”
A lot of the draw, Keliher said, is likely rooted in the comfort she found in printed words during her tumultuous childhood, which was spent in a small town near where she now works in Kingston. Even in years of scarcity, she said, the library symbolized for her utter freedom and abundance: It was one of the few places where she could have anything she wanted.
“Reading was this space where my mind could travel and explore that was safe and private but also shareable,” Keliher said. “For me, printing has never not been related to books and language. I print words that I need, or that somebody else does.”
That’s what makes Keliher’s letterpress process unique: She’s exceptionally particular about the work she reproduces, aiming to increase access to poetry and deepen appreciation of language with everything she does. This undertaking manifests in Keliher’s “poetry propaganda,” in which she prints the work of poets worldwide as broadsides, art, and books — as she states on her website, “fight(ing) to make space for the imagination in our everyday visual environment.”
“I’ll be reading, and something will stick in my head, and I’ll remember it a couple years later,” Keliher said of her process. “I select work to print based on how I feel. If I feel really strongly about it, I know I can make a beautiful and useful thing.”
If it’s a poem or another piece of published work she encounters, Keliher reaches out to the writer to obtain permission to reproduce a part of the work as well as collaborate about the purpose of a reproduction.
“There are so many questions I always have about the (pieces) I make: How is it going to exist in the world? And why? Who do I want to encounter it?” Keliher said. “I love to have that conversation with the poet to the degree that I can.”
And in printing — as in poetry — every word that makes it onto the page is essential. Keliher referred often to the economy of language: how a lot can be said with very few of the right words. The concept governs everything she does: in choosing the poems she prints, and in coming up with her own reminders to print — “Feelings aren’t emergencies” — that hit home in as few words as possible.
The intention with which Keliher approaches everything she makes is just one element of the drawn-out and patient process that she prefers. In no rush, she allows the time that it takes for her work to be what she wants it to be.
At a certain point, though, Keliher said, she has to let go of each of her projects.
“I have to commit,” she said, though doing so, she admits, is difficult as a perfectionist and overthinker. “You never finish a job and think, ‘It’s perfect.’ There is no perfect. We just put on finishing touches, and then we get back to work.”
In witnessing her process, however, it’s clear that Keliher takes immense pride in her work and the near-perfection she can achieve. Precise and exacting, she doesn’t mind spending hours in the minutiae. In fact, she delights in it.
“I spend a lot of hours making tiny adjustments that are invisible to most people but that now are glaring to me,” Keliher said as she bent over a metal frame called the chase, poet Maureen Reiser looking over her shoulder as she worked. Reiser, a writer enrolled in the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University, interned with Keliher as a part of the MFA program — an experience that culminated in the printing of Reiser’s poem, All I Ever Wanted.
“What we’re doing is pretty magical,” Keliher said, almost absentmindedly as she locked up the form, solidifying the perfect snugness of the type Reiser had set earlier that day. “There’s all these tiny individual letters, punctuation, spacing materials. It’s a whole system that all fits together.”
The amount of time spent between the two women before the first proof is even made is astonishing: There’s the process of writing and editing the poem on Reiser’s part, the choosing of fonts and sizes, the painstaking setting of type letter by letter, the rearranging of lines, the adding of spaces, and the lining up of margins before Keliher finally places the lockup — the combined system of materials that make the print — on her 1901 Golding Jobber press and brings the poem to life for the first time: her favorite part of the process.
After this step, however, things don’t get any less laborious: The first proof reveals backward Rs, repeated words, misspellings, not-quite-right spacing, the need for a slightly larger paper size. Nothing escaped Keliher’s attention as she and Reiser combed through the poem, making minute shifts, reading the words out loud over and over — frontward and backward — to make sure they were correct.
And finally, after hours bent over tiny letters resting on the marble imposing stone that centers the studio — which Keliher inherited from Stern & Faye Printers, the printshop where she apprenticed throughout her 20s — it’s time to let go: to print the poem. Keliher lets Reiser crank the 118-year-old press to bring her own words onto the paper.
The laborious nature of the work is one reason letterpress fell out of favor as the main method of printing by the 1970s and ’80s, at which point computers offered a faster and cheaper way to print words onto paper. Thousands of small business owners like Keliher, however, have saved letterpress from becoming entirely obsolete by harnessing it into a craft that is used largely for fine art and stationery. Since 1440, when Johannes Gutenberg was credited with developing printing techniques in the western hemisphere, the process has moved from essential to recreational — the tactile elements more nostalgic now than burdensome.
And for creative minds like Keliher’s, the satisfaction of working with elements both tangible and historic — while in conversation with writers like Reiser — is what makes the process special.
“I do feel my work is about people — it’s about words, yes, but it’s also about people,” Keliher said. “I feel very committed to passing on information. My craft is not a common one, and I’ve been gifted with such great teachers my whole life, people who just continually have given me their time.”
And in the 13 years since Keliher first came home to herself by discovering letterpress, she has exposed many people to the wonder of the craft, either by showing them the process of making a print or by reminding them about the power of language through one of her pieces. In that time, she also has grown into what she now calls herself: artist.
“I inhabit a lot of different roles in my life — I wear a lot of hats,” she said. “Analytical hat. Business owner hat. Shipping and fulfillment hat. Website hat. But really what I have come to find is that the word ‘artist’ really describes who I am and what I’m doing. And, you know, in printing, economy of language is important.” Keliher gave a smart smile and a shrug. “You can only have one word.”