Christopher Stern had big hands. They were calloused and rough from working on a press all day, seven days a week, 14 years straight. It was hard for...
Christopher Stern had big hands. They were calloused and rough from working on a press all day, seven days a week, 14 years straight. It was hard for him to take a break to do errands or visit friends, even. His work — he was a book artist and a letterpress printer and, later, a vibrant instructor of both — was his love, and he loved to work.
Stern died two months ago, in November, of colon cancer at age 56. The current gallery show at the School of Visual Concepts is a retrospective of Stern’s 20 years as an artist. Organized by his wife and fellow printer, Jules Remedios Faye, the show chronicles Stern’s versatility and evolution as an artist, ranging from sparse, cream-colored pages, decorated only with crisp lettering — an homage to the text itself — to commissioned business cards, stationery and invitations — beautifully crafted moments in time.
At the time of his death, he had already proved himself a talented and dedicated book artist. Under the aegis of Grey Spider Press, which he started in 1986, he printed a variety of small chapbooks, featuring the work of Robert Sund and Chuck Palahniuk, among others.
In the last five years, Stern had just begun exploring other forms of letterpress art, stretching his talent and testing his artistic grit. “His latest work shows him beginning to explore the brilliance of his talent,” says Sandra Kroupa, a friend of Stern’s and Book Arts and Rare Book curator at the University of Washington. “In that type of printing, he was at the top of the game.”
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The current exhibit showcases Stern’s vibrant relief paintings and a series of nostalgic, emotive and richly-colored posters (broadsides, in the lexicon of the art) that evoke advertisements of a 1940s Americana. They are at once funny and sad and true. “Howling at the moon will only clear your throat,” warns one.
One of Stern’s reliefs — a long road disappearing into a bright, cloudy horizon, rendered in muted blues and greens — hangs above Kroupa’s desk. “Keep your eyes on the road,” it reads.
“It’s just so Chris to me,” she says. “He always had his eyes on the road. He knew what he wanted to do and he did it. He was one of the most dedicated, focused artists I’ve ever met.
The Chris Stern Retrospective: Twenty Years of Letterpress Printing and Design, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Fridays , noon-3 p.m. Saturdays, closed Sundays, through Feb. 28. Free admission. School of Visual Concepts, 500 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle (206-623-1560 or visit svcseattle.com).
“He was living his dreams, but he didn’t have the swagger and arrogance that people have when they know they’re living their dreams,” she adds.
Stern realized part of his dream in 1994, when he and Faye moved from Seattle to a little farm in the Skagit Valley that they converted into a printing shop. The Printing Farm, they called it, partly in jest.
Every morning on the farm, Stern would brew a large pot of coffee in an old pickle jar and make his way out to his shop, a converted barn, with south facing windows that looked out over a little apple orchard. From morning to night — sometimes to 10 or 11 at night, if he was really inspired — he’d work, printing and reprinting and reprinting again. He never settled for good enough.
“He had impeccable standards,” remembers Faye. “He wouldn’t stop refining and perfecting, even if it was good to begin with. It had to be stunning.“
“He used to take a Post-it note and wedge it sideways between two letters to make sure the spacing was immaculate,” concurs Amy Redmond, who apprenticed for both Stern and Faye for eight years. “But I’m the same way now. His insane attention to detail, his passion was contagious.”
“It’s a good thing Jules was there to remind us to eat, or we would have stayed out in the shop all night and all day,” she laughs.
Although Stern was a nationally respected printer who has, over the past decade, influenced and taught a whole generation in the field, he never considered himself either a mentor or an artist. Last month, colleagues and students from the School of Visual Concepts where Stern taught, and friends from Seattle’s art community, announced they would accept donations to help Faye defray the cost of Stern’s medical procedures. Letters of admiration, veneration and financial support poured in from all over the country.
“It’s so deeply moving that everyone just spontaneously came forward to offer so much love and support,” Faye says. She expects many will show up at her husband’s memorial at the gallery on Jan. 20, but she also hopes students and admirers of his art will arrive early, stay late or come another day to appreciate his work.
Back at the Printing Farm, Faye remembers when Stern caught a hummingbird that had flown into his shop. Come look, he’d called to her, excited as a child. And, before he’d set it free, she’d seen its little body, trembling, cupped so small in those big, rough hands.
Haley Edwards: 206-464-2745 or email@example.com