Love of Words Inspires Local Artists

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Wolfgang Hermann hand paints notecards and gives them away. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Most days, Emily Hancock is in her Afton print shop, hand carving linoleum or wood blocks, or setting old-fashioned type, space by space, letter by letter. Sometimes she’ll be at one of her collection of century-old presses, cranking each page out by hand or treadling it by foot like your grandmother might have done at her sewing machine. 

For books and journals, her work’s not over when the pages are printed. To finish these, Hancock walks into her bindery, where she hand sews the pages together with linen thread.

It’s tedious work, and she usually doesn’t have the option of calling a mechanic if one of her several antique presses breaks down. She’s learned minor repairs, and is usually able to spot the faulty part and fix it on her own or with the help of a welder. 

Emily Hancock operates the cylinder press at her Afton print shop. Submitted photo.

A few miles to the east, you’ll find Wolfgang Hermann working on some small, beautifully rendered paintings on card stock at his Midway Road studio. Hermann uses crayons, oils, glazes and watercolors to transfer the haunting, fluid visions in his head to notecards. It’s a hobby that’s replaced the few hours each day that formerly were spent watching television, but which gave him little satisfaction, he said.

He has a busy radon-mitigation business that occupies his days, and his artwork is unlikely to increase his income, since he gives most of it away for free.

Why do they do it? 

Both are artists who delight in the visual appeal of their painstaking products and find contentment in work that combines the creative process with careful hand execution. But there’s another motive they share: Both Hancock and Hermann want to preserve the use of written language—letters, notes, cards, and journals—to communicate the body of ideas, feelings and small stories that make up our history. 

“This is our culture,” Hermann said, “and we’re losing it.” He talked about the reluctance of children and teenagers to compose anything longer than a text message, a reluctance increasingly shared by their parents and grandparents. “When you go to the mailbox, you find mostly junk,” he said. “But when you find a card or a letter, that’s something special.”

That’s why he gives his hand-painted notecards without charge to anyone willing to write on them. There’s a big drain on his inventory each Thanksgiving, when he offers the cards, along with envelopes, to family members and friends who gather, encouraging them to send someone a note over the holidays. 

Hermann has always had art in his life. He used art therapy in his work as a teacher at schools in southern Germany and Portugal, before coming to Crozet and taking a job at the Waldorf School in Charlottesville. Needing to supplement his income, he became qualified in radon mitigation and built his business, Central Virginia Radon Inspection.

Wolfgang Hermann believes letter writing is important for preserving out culture. Photo: Malcolm Andrews

In 2008 he discovered the work of Jean Sampson at McGuffey Art Center, a discovery that had a profound effect on him. He saw an exhibit of her large abstract paintings and couldn’t look away. “I’d been drawn to abstract art in the past, but I wasn’t interested in large geometric blocks of color,” he said. “Her work filled me with joy.” 

He studied with Sampson, then continued on his own. “One year, I translated my feelings about each day into a painting every night,” he said. He’s had a number of exhibits but wanted his work to be accessible to everyone. “The art world can be very commercial,” he said.

Hermann spends a lot of time thinking about the ways that we lose our human connections. He believes that creativity helps us understand what we feel and what we need.

He likes to speculate about where his cards might end up. He recently sent one to a relative in rehabilitation, and thinks it would be a good thing if prisoners could have a stack of notecards. “We spend so much time consuming media,” he said. “Why not find ways to listen and learn instead? Art can change us, can change the world.”

Like Hermann, Emily Hancock had a chance encounter that changed the direction of her life. 

She was associated with Stone Soup Books in Waynesboro and often looked through boxes and bins of used books to sell at the shop or online. She spotted a beautiful little poetry book, and recognized that it had been set on a letterpress printer with metal type. “The only way to describe it was as beautiful words in a beautiful home,” she said. “Right away I knew that this was what I wanted to do.”

Hancock had been a chaplain in Georgia, working at an Atlanta hospital. She always made time for poetry, both reading and writing it, and played music with friends. Seeking a simpler life, she moved to Afton. Once she set out to re-create a print shop from the last century, her life became a lot more complicated. 

Emily Hancock sets type, letter by letter, space by space. Submitted photo.

She had help, though, lots of it. “There’s a whole world of people interested in traditional printing,” she said. She went to classes, asked questions, searched online for antique equipment. Mostly, though, she taught herself, and it wasn’t all cerebral. Once she located the antique equipment she needed, she drew on mechanical skills that she believes are inherited: “My father loved to tinker and was what we called in the South a shade-tree mechanic.”

Once, she had to disassemble a 1930s-era paper cutter, appropriately called a guillotine, to fit it in the door of her basement shop and then reassemble it inside. As she found other old equipment, she also found dozens of greasy repair jobs, layers of blackened machine oil, and bolts that had been seized up since long before she was born. “Spray enough WD-40 on it, and something has to give,” she said. 

Hancock named her operation after St. Brigid, partly because she has a love of Celtic spirituality, and partly because Brigid is the patron saint of printers. St. Brigid Press specializes in poems and literary non-fiction. She also prints cogent messages and, at the holidays, she creates notecards, gorgeous in their simplicity, each year with a different thought. “I especially like the cards,” she said. She believes they’re three times blessed: “I make them with love; someone writes on them and sends them with love; and someone receives them and feels the love.”

See more of Wolfgang Hermann’s work: www.wolfganghermann.net.

Visit www.stbrigidpress.net to find out more about Emily Hancock. 

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