Interview with Aaron Cohick
Aaron Cohick is the Printer of The Press at Colorado College. He is also the founder and proprietor of the NewLights Press, a small press focused on the intersection of experimental writing and artists’ publishing. He received a BFA in painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2002, and an MFA in printmaking from Arizona State University in 2007.
When did your interest in books arts and letterpress begin and how did these texts shape your world perspective?
I wandered into book arts and letterpress/ printmaking kind of by accident in my sophomore year of college. I was a Painting major at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and I need a printmaking credit. They were offering a course called “Zines” that was a double-credit course in English and Printmaking, team-taught by the artist Hilary Lorenz and the poet John Yau (they also co-founded MICA’s press, Dolphin Press). In that class I learned how to screenprint, set type and print on the letterpress, and to bind books. I also learned about the history of small press/DIY publishing. I made my first books in that class and realized that it was exactly what I needed my work to be—to deal with text and image, to be solo or collaborative, and to exist in the world in a way that was at once public (the books are made in multiple copies) and intimate (they are read by a single person, and can be owned and live in the home). I founded my own imprint, the NewLights Press, with the final project in that class. That was 18 years ago, almost exactly as of this writing. I haven’t stopped.
Working in books and print has taught me many things: patience; the value of engaging in long, complicated projects that risk failure at every step; the value (and challenges) of collaboration; and the different ways that one can build a community through art. Working in books, which exist in a kind of intersectional space between 2D, 3D, and 4D visual art, design, writing, functional objects, and business complicates “traditional” ideas of what art is and where/how it exists in the world. There is this idea that the “uselessness” of art is also a kind of freedom in it. I don’t think of art as useless—it gives voice, claims space, focuses attention, and articulates ideas. It’s a kind of thinking, of and through the world.
How do you keep up with new presses, books, and ideas or methods in your field?
Reading, reading, reading. Talking with, and (very importantly!) listening to, my peers and colleagues in the field. The social medias are okay, but always feel more distracting and draining. I sign up for email lists from presses and artists that I am interested in, and I read those emails. I buy books and art whenever I can, avoiding trades and freebies, and donate to the organizations that support this work—economic support is real and important. I regularly go to conferences and bookfairs to see my book-friends and their work in-person. I also serve on the boards of some of those organizations, or teach visiting workshops, etc. Teaching on a regular basis helps to keep me in touch with the contexts and the “why” of all of it.
The Press at CC offers a wide range of opportunities for students from learning basic methods to creating individual or group projects to contributing to the press’ book publications, posters, and broadsides. What do you find important and exciting about these opportunities for students? More specifically, how do you envision a student’s interaction with the press helpful in terms of learning about the press, themselves, text, or the world in general?
One of my favorite (and one of the most challenging) questions that I’ve ever gotten here at The Press is: “Why do you do this?” Why teach a process that is demanding, obsolete, time-consuming, inefficient, etc., when one can just type on a computer and press “print?” And why print at all in this age of digital transmission and goods?
The processes themselves (setting movable type by hand, carving images, arranging pages on the press, etc.) focus our attention on parts of texts and books that we often don’t have to pay attention to. There are fewer “defaults,” or rather the defaults look just as strange to the modern person as everything else. Letterpress does not guarantee “good” or “interesting” or even “mildly entertaining” results—but it will slow you down, and ask you to think and make choices. Ultimately what we teach is a way of paying attention, or maybe of using attention.
It’s very important to note that what we do at The Press is not about nostalgia. The Press is not a museum, or a romanticizing of the “old way of doing things.” The Press is an unusual—but pointedly contemporary—laboratory for research into the material word and image. Some of the most effective classes that I have seen here move between letterpress and other analog techniques and the digital, drawing on the strengths and affordances of each.
The Press at CC often supports social equity and awareness by making broadsides such as the “DACA now more than ever” and “The Work Continues” series. How is an engagement with activism through a press different than other types of activism?
Photo by: Stormy Burns
In the face of large-scale crises it’s hard to know what to do. The answer is sometimes: “what you do.” At The Press we do a very specific thing—so how do we do that and make it useful or generative in a time of catastrophe or violence?
All of those projects that you mentioned emerged as a kind of “crisis response”—the first were in response to the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The initial idea was not about any kind of pre-determined product or project, but about providing an opportunity for people at CC (mostly our students) to come together, be together, and process their thoughts and feelings through an empowering activity. To make space, hold space, and to amplify voices.
What I didn’t anticipate is that the objects would take on a life of their own pretty rapidly. All of the posters, starting with the “BLACK LIVES MATTER” prints, have been used in protests here in Colorado Springs and all over the US. The “Work Continues” prints were very popular and we realized that we could use them as fundraisers for organizations that were doing social justice work. So we partnered with Ladyfingers Letterpress (an awesome letterpress/design studio in town) to sell the prints and raise money for the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Colorado Springs NAACP, Inside/Out Youth Services, and the Black Educator’s Network of El Paso County. That fundraising continues.
After listening to some much wiser people here at CC I’ve realized that we can’t only be doing “crisis response”—that we need to center the social justice aspects of our work more intentionally in our day-to-day activities. Our new publications are one way to do that. The printer Amos Kennedy has pointed out that “fine printing,” like many arts, often excludes the voices of people of color, of women, and of LGBTQ+ people. The Press at CC has been responsible for such exclusion (that includes me as well), so there is so much work to be done there. I think that we are off to a decent start with the broadside projects this year (Layli Long Soldier, Byron Aspaas, Jennifer Elise Foerster, and François Vigneault) and the next book (Divya Victor). All of those people are brilliant writers and artists, and we are lucky to be able to spend the time with/in their work that letterpress demands.
How is The Press at CC contributing to a larger discussion on image/text and also what is it offering that other presses might not be?
In addition to our efforts above, the broadside with François Vigneault was a large-scale graphic narrative piece, which is something that I have never seen done in letterpress before. (Unless you count the full-page Sunday comics from when variations on letterpress were still used commercially.) There is definitely some overlap in the strategies/craft of graphic narrative and the strategies/craft of artists’ books, and that overlap is a really interesting area to explore. In my own work I experiment with a printing process called collagraph, which is basically building a printing block using collage. I think of it as printing from the world. Those experiments, naturally, find their way into the Press at CC books and classes as well.
With a 40-year anniversary around the corner, how do you feel the press has grown and what would you like to see in the future for the press?
I can really only say how The Press has changed in the last 8 years since I started. I think maybe we’re getting better at what we do? We are definitely offering more opportunities: more classes, more workshops, more events, research grants, awards, etc. There is still room to grow, especially in full block, for-credit classes. Figuring out an active but sustainable publishing schedule that alternates comfortably between large and small projects is always a challenge. I want to keep working to make sure that everyone is, and knows that they are, always welcome here.
Aaron Cohick and Block visitor & artist Emily Larned
The Press at Colorado College, founded by CC Art Professor James Trissel in 1978, is a letterpress studio dedicated to the art of making limited edition books and broadsides. In our daily practice we address the minute and practical problems of the space between letters as well as the messy, theoretical questions around what it means to print and publish today. The Press has collaborated with many writers and artists, including Layli Long Soldier, François Vigneault, Divya Victor, Seamus Heaney, Kay Ryan, Billy Collins, Amitava Kumar, David Quammen, and Darren Wershler. Books and prints made at The Press at CC are in public and private collections all over the world.