Modern-day graphic designers use the click of a mouse to do things like “kerning,” “leading” or other actions once performed manually on presses and blocks of type. But at Central Print in Old North St. Louis, Marie Oberkirsch aims to preserve the traditional printmaking process and promote it to younger generations, who are often blown away by the tangible experience of it.
“I think it changes your way of thinking, when you’re used to dealing with something so conceptual on the computer,” says Oberkirsch, “to actually handle the materials, put ink on paper and see them print onto something you can hold in your hands and is a beautiful artifact.”
Indeed, it was the physicality of printmaking and the history behind the objects that first ignited Oberkirsch’s passion for letterpress — qualities that carried over from her training in weaving and textiles. (She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in textile design from the University of Kansas and a Master of Fine Arts in fiber from the Cranbrook Academy of Art.) Having shared studio space for several years with Eric Woods, the owner and founder of the letterpress design studio Firecracker Press, located on Cherokee Street, Oberkirsch took one class there and was immediately hooked.
“Everything was 100 years old and had been used by innumerable people for different reasons,” she says. “You could see every little scratch of a fingernail on a piece of wood type print. The printed piece was long gone, but we still had the equipment and tools to print new things with today. I found that really inspiring.”
It was the impetus she needed to leave her job as events manager at Laumeier Sculpture Park and take on a more ambitious role as the leader of her own enterprise. In 2014, she and Woods co-founded Central Print.
Today, the nonprofit occupies a vast, three-room storefront space dating from 1865, where a Sobel’s department store used to be. It sits roughly one mile north of the Arch grounds — the historic site of St. Louis’ many foundries and print shops before industry needs began to shift in 1925. The surrounding neighborhood has “a tremendous sense of history,” Oberkirsch says. “There is a bathhouse around the corner — one of very few still in existence — and there’s even a horse stable behind a house on 14th Street that was only recently torn down. There are also a lot of murals that express pride in the neighborhood.”
In her role as executive director, Oberkirsch coordinates an abundance of educational programming. Introductory offerings include free Saturday morning printing in conjunction with the North City Farmers’ Market during the summer, where Central Print sets up a press in the 13th Street Community Garden from 10 a.m. to noon. Visitors can print leaves, flowers and other found objects from the natural environment. Another fun and laid-back event is Print Lingo, where guests play 10 rounds of bingo in competition for original prints.
For more in-depth study of the printmaking arts, Central Print also offers extended workshops, such as the upcoming five-session course, Multi-Color Printing with Linocut, which covers printing designs carved in relief on blocks of linoleum. Participants will learn everything “from carving the block, to mixing the ink colors to creating their own run of prints,” Oberkirsch says, who designs the workshop schedule based on student feedback and the availability of local teaching artists.
“If it’s a popular class, we’ll host it again,” she says, noting the recent popularity of Introduction to Bookbinding and The Book and The Big Reveal, in which students learn how to create interactive books with pop-ups, cut-outs and pockets.
In 2019, Oberkirsch launched a two-week program called The Printery Book Arts Lab Residency, allowing one selected printer to lead a project using the equipment and type inventory once belonging to the St. Louis bookmaker Kay Michael Kramer and his former private press, The Printery — on loan to Central Print from The St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Past artists-in-residence include Rachel Linn Shields, who used letterpress to translate several sections of a middle English poem as part of her interest in exposing new readers to the complexities of Arthurian legends.
Beyond its excellence in arts education, Central Print fulfills a deeper, more fundamental purpose in its surrounding community: that of civic leader and community partner. Put plainly, it’s about being a good neighbor — a role inspired by Oberkirsch’s gratitude for the commitment and good will that her neighbors in Old North St. Louis have shown her.
“They are tremendously supportive,” she says. “In no other community that I’ve lived have I known the neighbors so well. The investment that everyone has is what impresses me the most, as well as the importance for me and my organization to be present, open and welcoming, and to provide tools and equipment to those in need.”
This work manifests in a variety of ways. One is uplifting the students and teachers at nearby Jefferson Elementary with printmaking activities that mark milestones such as fifth-grade graduation or the start of a new school year. Another is printing the cover of Outside Lit magazine, an annual publication written by the students at the Central Visual and Performing Arts, a magnet high school within the St. Louis Public School District, located on Kingshighway.
Yet another is hosting Print for a Cause events, where printers have free access to Central Print’s resources and produce materials about a selected topic with community relevance. For a recent iteration on voting rights, Oberkirsch set up stations where people could ensure they were registered to vote and then print posters to express their feelings about the importance of voting access. (Central Print is currently seeking funding for this program.)
As committed as Oberkirsch is to her physical neighbors — she was part of the inaugural cohort of the Neighborhood Leadership Fellows program at the University of Missouri – St. Louis — Central Print’s community extends far beyond the boundaries of the Old North neighborhood.
This community includes the broader group of traditional printmaking artists across the United States, for whom Central Print hosts the Ladies of Letterpress Conference every fall, and it also includes the broader swath of St. Louis residents or art patrons who encounter Central Print at outreach events.
When she’s not facilitating such events, Oberkirsch spends considerable time tending to the vintage equipment. While this work can be labor-intensive, it is important to her to ensure the equipment is operational so she can preserve the full range of printmaking techniques.
“Our mission is to keep these traditions alive, to pass them on to the next generation,” she says. “Every chance we get, we’ll bring in an older adult printer who is willing to share all their secrets. We’ll get together for lunch at Crown Candy and have discussions and then learn how to use the equipment. There are so many techniques and subtle trademarked things to learn, from perforating to dye cutting, to printing and getting a good impression.”
Oberkirsch rarely says no to donations of new (old) equipment — or for that matter, prospective volunteers. “We love volunteers,” she says. “It’s a quick study if you want to learn a little bit about letterpress and help us sort a case of type, maintain the studio a little bit or even print some flyers. We can always use help with marketing.”
Just as she’s been embraced by the Old North community, she extends that welcome to all visitors of Central Print, from experienced letterpress artists to casual visitors.
“We welcome people from Tuesday through Saturday, regular business hours, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” she says. “Anyone who’s interested, I’ll do an impromptu tour of the whole shop. Our doors are always open.”