Trading Places

When I got my first vintage press in 2003, one of the people already making waves in the modern letterpress community was Jennifer Farrell ofStarshaped Press. After learning the basics in Chicago’s independent media scene, in 1999 she founded her own print shop. With talent, tenacity and hard-work, modern pioneers like Jen have pushed the medium forward from obscurity into a vibrant and growing historic craft—laid on a foundation of knowledge sharing and built back to legitimacy through innovation. 

I set out to write this article about how progressive the letterpress community has been at supporting generational talents like Jen regardless of gender, but what I’ve learned has been startling and discouraging: we still have so far to go. It turns out that my own male privilege has me seeing my own craft through a grimy, rose-coloured lens. 

In my dialogue with Jen about her experience I have discovered that through her career as a printmaker she has faced, and continues to face, all kinds misogyny, prejudice, and discrimination. She has been passed over, pushed aside and undervalued by gatekeepers in the arts world and business world alike. She sees less accomplished men being considered first for shows. She sees women being offered less for equivalent projects—it is assumed women will be grateful for under-paid opportunities despite their talent or accomplishments. Even now, it seems that many men who call themselves ‘woke’ do so to appear progressive, but do not take any action to give substance to their words.  

As male in a small-town arts community, I’m an unlikely minority. At any given artists’ gathering I’m often one of few men, and I’m invariably surrounded by creative, talented, competent, hard-working, and knowledgeable women. When we discuss our process or technique, we discover our differences are irrelevant: we are just humans pursuing a craft. Our art scene, and subsequently our lives, are richer because of the inclusion of all ways of seeing art. In Fernie, without our bold women, our arts scene would be all but non-existent. As an artist I’ve had to fight for my place in the greater art world, but the strong women around me have never made me fight for my place amongst them. How much harder would it be if I had to fight for gender equity also? 

I find it strange that we still struggle to value humans based on superficial things like gender or ethnicity. We consider ourselves to be rational beings—do we not have enough examples of people that break these barriers to consider them irrelevant? How many Jen Farrells do we need to know before we respect the women we work with? Why do we drag our feet about paying women equally for the same job? What entitles us to set standards higher for women than for men to occupy the same cultural spaces? 

These questions are rhetorical of course because we already know the answer: pride. Power clings to pride in order to maintain a sense of importance, but what we stand to gain in diversity is far greater than any perceived loss of control. 

As a white male, it has been a difficult journey for me to write and rewrite this article—I’ve learned so much about my own bias and privilege. I don’t presume to speak on behalf of women because it’s clear to me I cannot live their experience, but I do speak on behalf of men wanting to change. I believe that when we come to the table there is no priority seating. Each of us, regardless of gender, have important parts to play in our world. What’s incredible is the work that Jen Farrell and so many other women have been able to do in spite of the inequity of their experience. Imagine what would happen if every artist started at the same jumping-off point, or ran with equal loads on their shoulders? 

If the idea that we have so far to go makes you feel defensive, I challenge you to take an honest look at what that feeling is about. There are no logical external reasons to propagate this system. Why do we keep buying in? We learned cultural stereotypes about all kinds of people, but so what? We can unlearn, and relearn. We can choose to step back and make room for others that are fighting to have a voice. Change is hard, but we’ve done hard things before, and it will be worth it when we see our daughters, wives, friends and ourselves reaching our potential in a world rich with that diversity. 

I’m grateful for Jen Farrell, Tanya Laing Gahr, Anie Hepher, Krista Turcasso and Vanessa Croome for their perspectives and encouragement through the writing of this column. 

To find out more about Jen Farrell and Starshaped Press, visit starshapedpress.com.