I’m spending this school term (end of July to end of September) working one day at the ANU School of Art teaching typography and a bit of binding, and the rest of the week as Artist-in-Residence at a local early learning school in the inner suburbs of Canberra, the O’Connor Cooperative School.There are only five of these residencies granted every year, and I applied for it on a whim, because I’d decided that I liked the energy of small children, and wanted to interact with them a bit more. The fact that I was matched up with this particular school was very exciting. For one thing, there’s only 80 children in the whole school! It’s tiny, friendly, and extremely open-minded and progressive. They have solar-passive buildings, they keep chooks, and they recycle and reuse as an everyday activity. The school is on my ‘flight-path’, which means that I get to ride my bike there (when I’m not lugging materials and heavy equipment around), and the staff are amazing, generous and fun.

Unlike other years, when artists had to apply with a fully-formed idea, this time we were encouraged only to talk about our general practice and what we thought about making art with early learners, and then the final project would be fully negotiated between the artist and the school. Obviously I did ok with my pitch, and I have to mention here the help I got from my wonderful friend Amelia, who works professionally with art and children. Then I sat down with the OCS headmistress, Margaret, and her sidekick, Bec, and we nutted out a really fun project called POSTMARK MAIL ART. I always write it in caps, because it just needs to be shouted to the roof.

Here is nearly the whole school population (bar the preschoolers), ready to go for their weekly run up the park behind their schoolyard (they’re in training for the Canberra Fun Run, but they don’t know it yet). I’d just been to their assembly, where I’d talked to them about sending postcards and other things through the mail. Ready, set, GO!

Originally I’d wanted to print the backs of the postcards with a commercially-produced polymer plate (which included all the logos etc that needed to be included) and then the kids would make their own solar plates & print the fronts; this was all well & good until I did some test plates and discovered that the solar plates just didn’t work well with water-based inks, and I didn’t want them wallowing in oil-based ink.

So. I had a frenzied rethink, and went back to an earlier notion of combining letterpress and other, simpler techniques, and I’m glad I have now, because it’s allowing a lot more play and experimentation. I’m still doing the backs with a plate, but the rest is much more tactile.

This week we started printing. I took in my tabletop Adana platen press and a tray of type (48p Gill) and a pre-set chase ready to slot in their names. I set up my ‘printshop’ outside under cover in the playground (because we are using oil-based ink for this phase and it smells), and each child comes to me and sets their name themselves, then I put the chase in the press and I help them work the lever to print the cards.

They are printing an edition of four cards each: one for posting, one for keeping, and one for the school to keep. The fourth one is a spare one, to practice and allow for mistakes. The school copies will be bound together using a single coptic binding into a souvenir of the experience. I’ll get the kids to write a sentence on those ones on what they liked about the process.

Here’s some progress shots:

This is me in my printer’s hat. Every day I make a new one out of newspaper, and I wear it in the printshop, and the most enthusiastic child (or the one who remembers to ask at the end of the day) gets to take it home to keep. I look a bit sombre, but that’s because I’d given my camera to one of the children to shoot me, and I had no control over when he took the shot. I hadn’t smiled yet! The hat isn’t an affectation; it’s a very practical and cheap way of keeping stray bits of hair off your face and out of the ink. I haven’t perfected the size yet; the pattern allows you to adjust the size to fir anyone, and that day’s hat was a bit high, they’re meant to sit about halfway along your forehead (if you click on that printer’s hat link, you’ll see what I mean).

Here’s Ruby, selecting her name from my typecase. The kids love this bit, and are quite intrigued by the backwardness of it all.

And then she puts her name into the allotted spot in the chase, and I put it into the press.

And here’s Oscar, having just printed his second postcard. I set it up with the name in one corner, and a few stars in the diagonally opposite corner to balance the pressure. What child doesn’t like stars? They will fill the rest of the space with more basic printmaking later in the term.

So that’s where I’m up to; I’ve printed with about a third of the children to date, and because it work with them one on one, I get some marvellous conversations about type, printing, names, hats, pets, Christmas carols, and whatever else pops into their heads.

And the energy! I so admire those teachers; I’m already exhausted!