James Tucker: Gestural Topography & Aesthetic Ritual

Q: What does the letterpress mean to you? How did you two meet? 

A: What drew me towards letterpress was its history of democratizing art and the written word. Before letterpress, all books were hand lettered and were very expensive. With the advent of the technology, the common person could afford to have books in their home. Originally, it was the Bible, which led to the Reformation. Later, it was political manifestos. I wanted to be part of the continuous line of bringing these things to a wider audience. With the internet, knowledge and art can be spread faster and cheaper than ever before, so I’m more concerned with material, printed, limited edition Fine Art for the common person; to educate about what traditional printing is and why there is a value to it.  

I found out about letterpress in college. We had an amazing little print shop and some dedicated people that loved the technique of letterpress. I was a Graphic Design major at the time, but after a summer apprenticeship at the historic letterpress poster shop Hatch Show Print, I switched majors and have been a pressman ever since. 

Q: While preserving a tradition, you seem to be exploring the creative capacity of the press. What is your method for achieving such depth and texture? Which press did you use for these prints specifically? 

A: For this series of prints, I used a 1952 Heidelberg Cylinder press. It’s similar to most letterpress machines, but there are a few advantages such as pneumatic suction and more inking rollers. The press weighs 6,300 lbs. and majority of that is the impression cylinder, which achieves great results. My method for creating this series involved both exploring color and treating paper as a three-dimensional object. I consider the surface of the paper and the depth in which I can press the image and ink into the paper. 

Q: Do you have a ritual for when you print? 

A: I have different rituals for coming up with ideas for making prints and the actual making of prints on the press. Coming up with ideas is a slightly more esoteric, borderline trancelike, feeling with 200% of my mind, opening myself as a conduit to something greater than our normal lives. 

Making those ideas into prints comes from a very technical mind set. Matching colors from photos by mixing inks via Pantone formulas, taking gestural ink washes, scanning them, and adjusting halftone plates. Operating the presses is a major endeavor on it’s own and is truly a craft. Not only am I printing what I see in front of me or what is planned, but I also have to improvise. This is where the art of the press comes into being. I sometimes joke that I paint with a three-ton paintbrush, but in essence that’s exactly what I am doing with the press. Painting is just as technical as printing, and painting can either be a craft or an art depending on what you do with that technical tool. 

Q: Your work on display at The Midway is heavily inspired by Californian nature and geography. Do you think your Jersey Shore upbringing influences your perspective of these landscapes?

A:  I feel like I’m in between worlds, not belonging to either one. I grew up on a Christmas Tree Farm, not the Jersey Shore, where my grandmother taught me about nature and the world. I would go to the beach, which was very close by, to stare at the horizon, the gradients of blue sky, and the progression of waves. I partly moved to the West Coast because my childhood landscape had been overrun by subdivisions and the generic culture of contemporary America. The West seemed to have open spaces and to operate on some other system, or at least for a time it did. 

With this series, I’m interested in the unlimited expanses of nature that cannot be appropriated: the sky and the sea. Even if we put objects in them or on top, they will eventually sink and disappear. 

Q: How does the Heath Ceramic Factory and San Francisco as a whole influence your work? 

A: The Factory is made up of a good group of people. The fact that my business can exist in such a space is something I could have never imagined or hoped for. I’m constantly inspired by the people who surround The Aesthetic Union. 

Q: Anything big lined up for James Tucker and The Aesthetic Union for 2016?

A:   I plan to continue to work on this series and expand it. I want to explore more landscapes that aren’t in California and create prints of them as well. 

The Aesthetic Union will continue to do what it does best, make prints. We plan to make things smoother, so we can have more time to experiment with letterpress and make prints no one has seen the likes of before. 


Written by: Marlena Holland