Artist readies antique press for new prints

In a world of virtual typesetting, ink-jet printers and computer graphics programs that allow limitless variety, Mike Mullen takes a slower, hands-on approach to his printing.

“I get results that I could never imagine,” said Mullen, a printmaker, art instructor and musician, of old-fashioned relief printmaking. “The process really takes over and takes you places where you’d never get on your own.”

Mullen, who lives in Northville Township, recently bought a 121-year-old, pedal-powered platen press that he’s in the process of restoring. For its post-restoration debut — and its first printing job in about 30 years — he is planning a limited-edition linocut print that is to be the centerpiece of an arts fundraiser in Plymouth next month.

Mullen will donate 100 copies of the print, Endless Possibilities, to the Plymouth Community Arts Council, which has a two-day fundraiser — also called Endless Possibilities — planned for Friday, April 27, and Saturday, April 28. Prints number one through five will be auctioned off through the PCAC (bids will be accepted beginning Friday, March 30), and prints six through 100 will be available during the fundraiser for $100 each. The press itself, which weighs about 1,100 pounds, will be displayed at the PCAC that weekend.

Musical guests

Mullen will also be performing with his folk group, the Pairadocs Trio, at the PCAC on April 27 to help kick off the fundraiser, which will feature several other musical acts the next evening. Mullen, who plays guitar, is president of the BaseLine Folk Society, which gathers at the PCAC, September through May, for coffeehouse-style folk concerts.

According to Jeff Burda, executive director of the PCAC, Endless Possibilities will depict a child holding something undefined — a pencil? a paintbrush? a conductor’s baton? — and poised to create art, symbolizing the possibilities of the work’s title. The theme, Burda said, is tied to the PCAC’s wide reach in the community and its array of arts programs, which include exhibits, workshops and classes in art, theater and music, summer arts camps for children, and concerts. Burda teaches part time at an area high school and is a PCAC pottery instructor.

Mullen says he has the print’s design sketched out and plans to carve it into linoleum — from whence the word linocut — for his press. The carving will be a mirror image of the finished print; Mullen said part of the challenge of that style of printmaking is that it forces him to think in reverse.

“You ink the surface and whatever’s left on the block takes the ink,” he said.

Press ‘revolutionized’ trade

Mullen is thrilled with his antique press, an 1891 model “jobber” press built by Chandler Price of Cleveland. He bought it from a man in Westland who kept it in his basement but hadn’t used it in decades. The man had bought it as a 14-year-old and had used it for small jobs to earn some cash.

“Most kids at that time had a paper route. He had a printing press,” Mullen said.

The “jobber,” with a maximum printing area of 8 by 12 inches, could accommodate smaller-sized projects, such as business cards and stationary, in a more cost-effective way than other presses of its time, Mullen said. “This particular style of press revolutionized the printing industry,” he said.

Mullen began cleaning up the Chandler Price, one thing led to another and pretty soon it was being completely restored, he said. He hopes to have the project finished in early April.

“That’s typical when you get into a project. You think it’s going to be a week or two, and now it’s been three months,” he said.

Foot power

The former owner had a motor mounted on the press to power it, Mullen said, but he didn’t want that, preferring to use the original foot treadle instead. That’ll give him more precise control over the process, he said.

Once Mullen has the linoleum carved, the printing itself should only take a couple of hours, he said. And once finished, according to Burda, the carving will be destroyed, leaving the prints as the only ones of their kind.

“You can only get it here,” Burda said.

The PCAC will also receive an artist’s proof of the print to hang on the walls of its headquarters in Plymouth.

Mullen, who also made a limited-run print for a recent Northville District Library fundraiser, said he’s glad to be able to help out. The PCAC has worked out well as a headquarters for BaseLine, which is in its third season there, and he wants to give back, Mullen said.

“That organization has bent over backwards for us and welcomed us with open arms,” Mullen said.

mjachman@hometownlife.com (313) 222-2405

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