Creative Art from Old World & 21st Century Technology – Kenspeckle Letterpress

Rick Allen at the studio of Kenspeckle Letterpress in the DeWitt-Seitz building,
Canal Park area of Duluth.

In past posts, we’ve looked at block prints from the 1542 and the 1774.  Let’s catapult ahead to the 21st century.  On a recent trip to the North Shore, I was fortunate to visit the studio of Rick Allen & Marian Lansky, the husband & wife artist team residing in Duluth.  Both Rick & Marian create beautiful unique pieces of art that I’ve admired & purchased over the years.  But each artist has a completely different style of creation.  Rick is an artist that loves using old world technology and hand work to carve blocks of wood or linoleum.  While he said the computer may have killed the old printing industry, it is also now bringing back a resurgence of the historic printing practices.   Rick grew up in

Snow Day – Rick Allen

Duluth and would frequently go to the Duluth Carnegie Library to pour over the books with prints from the 19th century.  That respect for those old block prints, along with a High School teacher, who Rick said was a 19th century man and wanted his students to be able to recite Wordsworth in a conversation, gave Rick an appreciation for art, wit, and old world printing techniques.  This combination of traits has given Duluth and the rest of us some fun & beautiful North Woods art.   One of my favorite series of Rick’s is the Trapper’s Daughter series.  She’s evolved over the years, but it’s always a delight to see what she’s up to.  Scroll down to check out a few of Rick’s pieces  And remember, as you’re admiring Rick’s pieces that these images are carved out of multiple blocks.  The prints are surely beautiful, but the skill & artistry that goes into each of these pieces of art is amazing.

Flaming Bay Laurel – Marian Lansky

Marian, on the other hand, uses 21st century technology to create her artwork.  She normally will start with
an old black and white, 19th century engraving which she hand-colors. She uses a collage process that can use as many as 80 layers
of colors, form and texture in her pieces. Some of Marian’s  more abstract pieces, she draws on a digital tablet.  Marian told me that she has some older pieces of art that she created that are photo
collages in which she purchased
photos & scanned objects to create her initial canvas and then
layer those with color and old engravings, etc.  Marian’s artwork takes shape anywhere from a week to a month. As most artists do, she sometimes leaves a piece sit and comes back to it later when it speaks to her.  “When I come back
I may see something that sparks the solution for me.”  Check out a few of my favorite pieces below which I think exemplify Marian’s  technique; Caribou Moon, What You Seek is Seeking You, Tundra Fog, & Flaming Bay Laurel.  Marian’s use of color, texture, & layers is simply beautiful.

Check out more of Rick’s & Marian’s art at
The Vandercook Proof Press from the early 1900’s is a historic press that many artists use for short run edition prints.
The Trapper’s Daughter & the Close Reach

Several of the blocks used for the printing of The Trappers Daughter & the Close Reach.

Notes on a block for The Trapper’s Daughter & the Close Reach.

The Platen Press from 1910 that Rick uses to print his artwork.  Not only a functional press, but a beautiful piece of functional art.  Rick told us that the curved spoke wheels make the cast iron stronger & also are extremely pleasing to the eye. 

A closer look at the Vandercook Proof Press.

Rick still uses two Platen Presses for printing, one from 1910 & one built in 1897.  Interestingly enough, he said that the computer was helping him & other artists trying to save the old printing practice an unexpected helpful hand, as it is easier to source parts and find like minded artists/printers.

The inventory of typeface & carved blocks.

This is the Platen Press from 1897.

Another shot of the Platen Press.

Some of the tools that Rick uses to carve the blocks.  Depending on the detail of the block, it can take Rick up to 1 week to carve a block. 

Rick uses both Linoleum blocks or polished woods.  The Linoleum blocks are more consistent to work with, as there isn’t the grain to take into account and the wood blocks may have different density within one block, creating a challenge when carving. 

A Wood Block that is used for carving.  The dark wood is denser than the lighter wood, making a steady hand to deal with the different pressure necessary for creating these carved blocks. 

So, the process is quite interesting.  Rick first draws out an image that he wants to duplicate.  He then transfers that image onto one block and carves a master block.  He then takes the master block, and prints it on a number of successive blocks.  He then carves out those blocks (1 for each color he will be using in the final print).  This is a block that Rick did for The Blue Heron’s Trading Company 30th Anniversary.  This bird is my kind of heron, enjoying a little bubbly.

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Marian Lansky in her studio.  Marian takes a completely different approach to her art. 

KenSpeckle Letterpress Shop is located in the Canal Park area of Duluth.

My favorite piece of Rick’s, The Trapper’s Daughter & the Sudden Fall

The Trapper’s Daughter & the Long View – Rick Allen
Rick told us that this piece took 26 carved blocks to print.

The Dream of the Tundra Fog – Rick Allen

Tundra Fog – Marian Lansky

Caribou Moon – Marian Lansky

What You Seek is Seeking You – Marian Lansky
I think the use of color & texture in this piece is amazing.  And as I sit and burn
 beeswax  candles on these last nights of winter, I believe that the bee & their gifts
are truly a source of life.