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Small press publishing gives a big boost to young St. Louis artists

A group of skaters screeched, weaving circles around the rink. Dozens of booths sat in the rink’s center. Artists sat at the booths, selling their work to the crowd that milled through the rink. The skaters flew past T-shirts printed with crass but clever jokes, collages of old pinups, fanarts of popular comics.

Credit Katelyn Mae Petrin / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Small press tends to choose more eclectic gathering places. This depicts the most recent expo at Skatium.

This is the world of small press.

Across St. Louis, things are happening in this world. People are submitting prose and poetry to a competition that Joyce Carol Oates will judge. A letterpress magazine has released its last issue before re-creating itself as a publishing house. An art space is opening to sell work by women, people of color and LGBT individuals.

St. Louis’ small press culture doesn’t spring from nowhere

  One of St. Louis’ more visible small presses, Firecracker Press, prints with old-fashioned machinery, including letterpress. The owner Eric Woods said it is “using old technology and new thinking to come up with a future, hybrid way of doing things.”

From Woods’ view, printing is part of St. Louis’ legacy since “St. Louis has been a printing town for a long time.” Its type foundries produced original fonts in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Others also connect St. Louis’ history to the emerging small press culture. They point to trends like the more recent 1990s zine boom, local printmaking institutions or the region’s literary excellence.

For the organizer of the event at Skatium, Joe Kloun, it’s just a matter of St. Louis, its geography and how culture has always spread here.

Credit Katelyn Mae Petrin
Joe Kloun runs the comics small press that hosted River Des Press Expo, the event at Skatium.

“Where we are, in the Mississippi, we’re just a little jut out into the river. Things have for years come down the river,” explained Kloun. “Things will go past us, but some things stick.” In his view, small press is just one of those things.

How present is it, really? Woods said people often think his company sells newspaper — or fireworks. They rarely know what a “small press” is. Legally, the difference between “small press” and “large press” is just a matter of income and distribution. But to the people who do small press, it’s also a matter of freedom and exploration. 

Artists explore: Self and others

“I wasn’t seeing the kind of art and writing that I wanted to see out there,” said Jared Rourke of Queer Young Cowboys. “There’s a certain kind of narrative that’s been told.” That narrative didn’t speak to Rourke’s experiences as a gay man, so he entered the world of small press by self-publishing gay erotica.

Rourke acknowledged that what he’s publishing won’t “fly off the shelves.” But he also said it wouldn’t even get published at a larger press. Publishing the way he does, he can tell the stories he wants to tell, the way he wants to tell them.

“And I think that’s the way all small presses are,” said Rourke. “They offer something that the bigger houses can’t.”

Credit Katelyn Mae Petrin / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Marie Enger with her art at Skatium.

For comic artist Marie Enger, that "something" is just a convenient venue.

“Even if I wasn’t doing small press stuff, I would be doing it on my own,” Enger said.

She works in comics professionally, drawing other people’s stories. On the side, she does small press. She said she does not write comics to explore narratives of her identity -- but still, it hasn't remained totally irrelevant to her work.

“It’s a little bit frightening to be a woman in comics for a lot of people,” Enger said. “I went under a pen-name for a really long time. A lot of that was fear-based.”

But she said that small press does not particularly contribute to her ability to make and circulate comics under her own name. Instead, she values it because it lets her sell her own work, make some money, and meet other artists.

Chine Collabs makes art co-founder Brian Lathan calls “edgy” and “relevant to the culture.” But when it comes to making art based on his own identity through small press, he doesn’t have the same experience as Rourke.

“The people [at small press events], though they might be more open-minded, I don’t want to bring up my race because it will alienate them for not being me,” said Lathan. He said that in experiences with the "mostly-caucasian" audiences for art, he has felt outcast for speaking up about race.

In his view, small press breaks down some of these barriers – but not all.

Still, as small press printmaker, he’s allowed to do things that he can’t do otherwise.

Credit Katelyn Mae Petrin / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Brian Lathan at Skatium.

“With like a small press print-making thing, you’re speaking to common people,” Lathan said. That lets him make art that’s sillier, weirder or not as perfect. Small press lets him make art for “just people who are your next-door neighbor, people who walk around, just like cool stuff.”

Small presses, big missions

Many small presses are artists or groups of artists circulating their own work or publishing particular types of story. Some small presses instead curate varied collections by many creators, trying to increase their works' visibility.

Gianna Jacobsen publishes December Magazine, one such publication. It grew out of the famed Iowa Writers Workshop in 1958. From her perspective, small presses can make art inaccessible to larger presses because “mass market presses are profit-driven and small presses are mission-driven.”

Another group, Westminster Press, says its mission is to “build agency for historically underrepresented groups.” Once it opens this summer, it will sell “identity-based” work by women, people of color or LGBT individuals—who they say are often “marginalized” within the art world. 

“My personal practice deals a lot with my identity as a queer-identifying man,” explained one founder, Tucker Pierce. When he started selling gender- and sexuality-themed prints, he said lots of people hadn’t seen work like it. He wants to change that.

The other founder, Nicholas Curry, said some people assume art buyers don’t want work about identity. But Westminster is “trying to demonstrate that there is a market for identity-based work, even if that marketplace has yet to emerge.”

Credit Katelyn Mae Petrin / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
A poetry broadside from a Fort Gondo letterpress collection.

Another small press began as a natural extension from the goals of Cherokee Street art gallery Fort Gondo. “Our agenda for showing artists often has to do with exhibiting folks that are deeply skilled and have exceptional talent but haven’t been represented by commercial institution or museum opportunities,” said Jessica Baran, the gallery’s director.

Baran said Fort Gondo’s publications are intended to be “easily purchasable, mass distributable art publications by local artists.”

This is different, Baran said, because fine art books are normally dedicated to artists late in their career and have national recognition. And they’re often expensive. Fort Gondo’s approach could change that.

Through small presses may have different missions, a common sentiment rises. When they talk about where small press has been and where it’s going, many artists believe that now is a crucial time of growth.

People want small press to grow, and artists are making it happen.

Credit Katelyn Mae Petrin / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
An assortment of small press works.

Kae Petrin covers public transportation and housing as a digital reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.

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