Michael Hepher

On July 1, 2011, a small caravan wound through the mountains towards the Southeastern corner of BC and the town of Fernie. The caravan carried not only my family and all of our worldly possessions, but also a glowing pebble of a dream that would become Clawhammer Letterpress & Gallery.

I have always been creative - first in pencil, then in pen and ink, then as a musician, as an artist blacksmith, but significantly, in 2001, I submerged myself in the world of digital design, founding my own design firm in 2003.
In those first years, I became fascinated with typography. To understand communicating effectively, I studied the origins - hand-setting type in traditional letterpress printing. In 2005, my local commercial printer offered me an old press in storage. Two weeks later I hired a crane truck to move the 2100 pound ~1916 Chandler & Price press into my garage. The subsequent weeks and months I spent cleaning, organizing and learning about this fascinating machine. More than any other event, this press shaped my journey artistically and vocationally.

The hands-on letterpress process resonated in a way digital design failed. As an artist, I’m like a child– I need boundaries to thrive. In letterpress printing, the boundaries are inherent in the process. I might have four or five fonts in a given size rather than 100’s. If I’m lucky, maybe two communicate what I want. Then I must arrange the type securely in a chase, so they don’t fall out while printing. This pushes me to new places as I dance and fight and negotiate within the parameters of each project. With persistence, the result is often something far different, but far better, than I imagined at the beginning.

In 2007, I discovered wood-block printing amplifying my love for the press. With basic carving tools and a block of wood, I create images full of organic texture, and different from anything I’d seen or done before. The grain of the wood shows through the print. The negative process—carving away everything except the part to be printed—is more akin to sculpture than drawing. It was challenging. I was hooked.

In 2009, as the business world went into survival mode, I found myself accepting projects simply to make ends meet creating a profound frustration with my work. I longed for balance in my life. In early 2011, my family started looking for a path back to equilibrium. For me, the path led through creativity and a dream of using my letterpress vocationally.

Last February, I was formally introduced to Fernie, and felt an immediate kinship with the town. Not long after, we began planning our move. In May, I showed my woodblock prints at the Arts Station Gallery, challenging me to create a new body of work. The show’s success renewed my determination.
After our arrival in July, we leased space in the Fernie General Store building in downtown Fernie, and I worked converting the empty room into a studio and art gallery. In early October, I kicked open the doors and invited people into Clawhammer Letterpress & Gallery for the first time.
Clawhammer Press is one of the few places in Canada to see letterpress printing first-hand. The press uses tons of pressure to apply the ink to paper creating a three-dimensional work. It is inspiring watching people pick up a printed piece and gently run their hands over the surface. The process is characterized by minute imperfections we immediately recognize as “hand-made”. Each piece carries its own personality. The history of the equipment lives on in the nicks and scrapes transferred from type to paper. Letterpress is a uniquely human printing process.

Clawhammer Press is about taking my art to the next level, and taking a risk with something unique and special. I am encouraged and emboldened by the people of Fernie wandering in to watch and ask questions. We are excited to be part of the emerging creative vibe in Fernie, and to feel a balance seep back into our lives.

We planted a pebble and will now water it to see what emerges.

Letterpress printing is a great option if you’re looking to add an extra touch this Christmas. Clawhammer offers custom printing, workshops, as well as wood-block prints and a line of paper gifts. Also, the space includes a small commercial gallery featuring landscapes and limited edition prints. Currently on display are pieces by Neil Patterson, W. L. Stevenson and Jim Logan, as well as local favourites Laura Nelson and Paul Reimer.