Home to a 3-D printer, a letterpress, and a vibrant community
By Chandler Walter, Assistant Editor
In the second floor of a small shopping complex in the heart of Chinatown, above a restaurant and past a forest of bargain-priced clothing racks, there’s a small studio space with big ambitions. Its walls are covered in artwork, posters, tools, and paints, and in the middle of the entrance sits a bulky, antiquated piece of machinery: a letterpress.
This letterpress is both physically and figuratively at the centre of WePress, a community studio/social enterprise that was created by Vancouver artists who wanted to learn how to use the letterpress, and teach others as well.
Cara Seccafien, a co-founder of WePress, teaches workshops on how to work the rollers, place the metal letters, and apply the ink to make posters and other artwork as they did before electric printers made letterpresses all but obsolete.
She is one of a handful of individuals who have come together to make WePress a reality, and who work to make their space available to those who would otherwise not get a chance to use such equipment.
The cost of art
“The reason why we say this as valuable is because the vast majority of print-making happening in Vancouver right now is expensive,” said Seccafien. WePress offers workshops at a sliding scale, with a $40 suggested fee. “Even though we charge fees for some of our services, many of them are free and our fees are below market value by far.”
WePress hopes that by offering low fees, they can allow people belonging to marginalized groups to have their chance at using a letterpress, or the 3-D printer that they have and teach workshops on as well.
“We’re making it accessible for women, for queer people, for people of colour, whereas other workshops, like tech industry stuff, is usually mostly accessed by white guys,” she said.
Along with the letterpress and the 3-D printer, WePress is also home to an industrial sewing machine, and workshops teaching other forms of art, such as book binding.
Chanel Ly, a workshop facilitator at WePress, had been busy teaching a half dozen or so participants the art of bookbinding, and said afterwards that the workshop was edifying for her in more ways than one.
“My work can be quite stressful and I myself turn to bookbinding to de-stress,” Ly said. “People were saying, ‘How do you de-stress during this process?’ It’s really about doing it more and knowing the process, and then once you learn it, it’s quite meditative.”
For Ly, the opportunity to share her knowledge with others is a big factor in why she facilitates the workshops.
“People seemed really happy and proud of what they made, so that was rewarding,” Ly said.
On top of the gratitude, artists who run workshops out of WePress get to take home half of the admission fee, with the other half going to WePress’s rent.
Seccafien said that the payment model works out well, as it offers a chance for artists to make some money, and for WePress to keep their space running.
“Artists who might not make money from their art form otherwise can make some money. We’ve actually had quite a few artists who might not have an income otherwise, or might have a very low income otherwise, come in and teach workshops and make a little bit of money, and then we are sustaining ourselves as well.”
The history of the letterpress
WePress and their letterpress have both had quite the journey in getting to where they are now, according to Linda Uyehara Hoffman, a founding member of WePress.
The letterpress was originally owned by Woodward’s, a department chain store that operated in Alberta and British Columbia before being bought by the Hudson’s Bay Company. They used the letterpress to make posters and advertisements. From there, the press was inherited by the Community Arts Council of Vancouver, and then, after many people showed interest in learning and using the art form, the press was brought to the studio space that it is in today.
However, the story of the press and the story of the people working it are not one and the same.
Originally, Uyehara Hoffman was part of a group that was interested in preserving what they could from a different letterpress.
“It started with a large group of 30 people who were kind of brought together because of their interest in Ho Sun Hing Press in Chinatown,” she said. “[They] had letterpresses and offprint presses, and they did menus, wedding invitations, all kinds of things for Chinatown.”
Uyehara Hoffman said that when Ho Sun Hing closed down, the group decided to all pitch in and buy a large set of type.
“The larger group decided what they could afford to do was buy a full set of Chinese type from Ho Sun Hing and it was kind of a legacy thing for Chinatown, to have this type.”
The type was transported across the street to a basement in a building in Chinatown, as WePress’s current studio does not have enough space to house such a large set.
This group eventually dwindled down, and what was left joined up with the letterpress from Woodward’s and others, such as Seccafien, to form WePress as it is today.
“Somehow, I don’t know how I ended up being one of the last people standing,” said Uyehara Hoffman.
Looking to the future
With WePress’s studio not being big enough to house the Chinese type from Ho Sun Hing, and with a rather large letterpress sitting in the middle of the entrance, space is tight at the studio. Uyehara Hoffman hopes that WePress will find itself a larger studio someday soon, somewhere more accessible and visible for Vancouver’s artists to gather.
“We don’t have the room now, but we’d love to have a space that could be open for whenever, where people could just drop in and hang out. But right now we don’t have the resources to do that,” she said.
However, due to the high rent in Vancouver (for even a small space) and WePress’s emphasis on being available to those of lower incomes, they are struggling to make rent and to keep the space open for those who would be interested in using it.
“We’re kind of struggling along, but we’re coming really close to our drop off point,” Uyehara Hoffman said. Up until now WePress has existed primarily off of grants from the city, but they are not able to apply for more until the spring.
WePress’s volunteers have even been giving to the organization to keep it running, and they sell memberships, cards, and 3-D printed products.
“A lot of us are stretched thin,” said Seccafien, “but we are super passionate about what we’re doing here, and we just want it to become something bigger, so we just keep giving until we become self-sustaining.”
WePress has recently started a GoFundMe account in the hopes that donations will help them make it through the winter.
Merging the other with the new
As WePress has both a 3-D printer and a letterpress, they have been experimenting in creating printing plates with the former to be used with the latter, a practice that Seccafien said is cutting edge technology.
“There’s only a couple other studios in the world working on this, and everybody is doing it in different ways.”
“A lot of the other studios that are working on this kind of technology are working with more graphic elements and less photographic,” she said. “We’re really focused on the photograph.”
Seccafien explained that one of the other co-founders at WePress, Nina Yañez, has been working on software that allows for a JPEG to be uploaded into the 3-D printer.
“It comes out as a 3-D plate, and then you can print it on the press, which is WePress developed software, which is really exciting,” Seccafien said. “We have this small little studio that only a small community knows about, and we’re doing something that universities aren’t doing.”
WePress also offers workshops on using the 3-D printer, and have made all sorts of things with it, from a whistle to a Yoda figurine. Uyehara Hoffman said that the 3-D printing workshop is among their most popular, though she hopes that one day soon they will be able to offer workshops on the industrial sewing machine that they have, as well.
“We don’t know how to use it yet, and we’re scared to use it without someone training us—someone will be training us, but she doesn’t have time yet,” she said.
A collective and a community
Seccafien noted that WePress is unique in how they operate, with each core member having their own projects, so that many things may be going on at WePress at any given time.
“We don’t always all know what each other is doing because we’re so busy, and I think that’s kind of great because we kind of trust each other to run our own projects,” she said.
The diversity in the members is also a plus for Seccafien, as it creates an interesting collective that offers many different viewpoints.
“I’m the youngest member, and then there’s people in every age range who are involved as core volunteers who are operating the organization,” she said. “We’re bringing together all these different communities that we belong to because, not just that we’re different ages, but we’re from different worlds completely.”
Seccafien talked about WePress while working the letterpress, rolling ink onto the type, inserting a card, and rolling the press over top. She was making “Get Well Soon!” cards in blue ink after Ly and her bookbinding workshop had packed up for the day.
“We’re bringing together these communities and creating this hub for creative social justice, and technology, and learning,” she had said.
“I just think there’s nothing else like it in the city.”