Making a Good Impression

When Alissa Bell left her L.A. corporate job in the fall of 2010 and returned home to San Benancio Canyon, she was guided by a very specific mantra: be creative.  She started a blog in which she explored some of her favorite topics: fashion, gardening, cooking, design.  She took a creative writing class at MPC.  Most of all, she thought about paper.  Before long, she was studying letterpress printing at the San Francisco Center for the Book, meeting with Napa master printer Glen Bower, and searching for a press of her own.

Today, Alissa Bell Press occupies a small warehouse space near the Marina airport.  Her letterpress, a 1919 Chandler & Price built in Cleveland, sits next to a California jobcase containing slim wooden drawers of letters, waiting to be arranged into words.  Though only in business a few months, Bell is already busy printing wedding invitations and business cards for people who want to send a specific message: this is important.

Letterpress printing speaks to the ancient belief that words have not only meaning, but substance.  When you hold in your hand a piece of paper and you can see the words printed on it in three dimensions and can move your finger across the words and feel them as something real, the words take on a weight and value that is both literal and symbolic.  As more and more of our reading and writing happens on screens—screens in which our words seem to float, untethered, easily erased—it’s not surprising that the art of letterpress printing is undergoing a rejuvenation.

Bell enjoys the meeting of old and new technologies in letterpress printing.  In addition to using the traditional letters in her California jobcase, she also works with a company in New York to design custom-made handset designs for more contemporary or individualized styles.  She also has fun with color.  “I can mix any color in the rainbow,” she says.  “It’s really fun to play with colors and stay as custom-designed as possible.”

Bell investigated numerous paper sources before settling on a small paper mill in Holyoke, Massachusetts.  “In yumminess it’s just a little yummier,” she says.  I watch her print a wedding announcement card in cool silvery ink, first with a light impression, then a second one with a slightly heavier imprint.  The contrast is striking.  In studying printmaking, Bell learned that traditionally the ink would lie gently on the page, “like a kiss,” she says.  Today, many people are looking for a heavier impression, which highlights the handmade, unique quality of letterpress printing.

“I love giving people tools to communicate,” she says.  “I love paper, envelopes, sending mail, getting mail, magazines, all of it!”  When Bell was a girl, her mother made sure that she and her sisters always sent thank-you notes for gifts.  “I wish more people wrote letters today,” she says.  “It’s a lost art.”  She hopes one day to create a website that will be a resource for letter-writing.

For now, she is focused on her press.  “There’s definitely a learning curve,” she says.  “It’s a one-woman show.  I mess up and I just have to be okay with that.”  Bell says that the MPC creative writing class (which is where I met her) was a big step.  “It was my first writing class ever, and I felt vulnerable putting my work out there.  But I was able to get over that and share my work and be happy with it.”  Her favorite part of the job?  “I love working with clients,” she says, “helping them make their vision a reality.  And I love being alone in the studio, working on prints and listening to podcasts and feeding peanut butter to Barley the dog.”  Sounds to me like what life can be when you say be creative to yourself, and then just do it.