Adoring Effort: The Work of Printmaker Julie Sola

By Brian D’Ambrosio

The word “handmade” has evolved into an umbrella term used to describe the particular devotion paid to a wide variety of products and merchandise. In fact, there has been a resurgence of interest in goods and services appealing to the more individualized and less mechanized aspects of craft.

However, Santa Fe printmaker Julie Sola has been living the qualities of handmade artistry for a quarter of a century. She works in letterpress, the skill of pressing paper onto letters and then typesetting, or composing them, with lead or wood blocks. It’s an arduous process that traces its origins back to the 15th century and Johannes Gutenberg’s first mechanical movable type invention.

Sola cut her teeth in the essentials of letterpress while working at Hatch Show Print, a design and publishing house founded in 1879, in Nashville. It is now owned by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

“Hatch Show Print has continued to run for 145 years and has not stopped making posters the same way,” Sola said.  “The typesetters pull the copy and handset the type. Letterpress itself remains as it was done hundreds of years ago, sticking true to its form, with no changing.”

While employed at Hatch Show Print, Sola was part of a creative team that designed and printed custom tour posters for a multitude of musicians, including Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, David Byrne, and B.B. King. They also produced event posters for the Ryman Auditorium, the Grand Ole Opry, and other renowned venues worldwide.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of Sola’s experience was when she was selected to illustrate the book Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride, Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music, by musicologist Peter Cooper. The compendium of anecdotes told of the people Cooper knew and worked with in the music business.

The book was released in 2017, after a couple of years of production, during which time Sola was provided with an incomplete draft of the manuscript and expected to illustrate each of the 18 chapters with a single drawing, as well as provide a series of illustrations for the coda.

Some of the most striking designs in the book include graphics of Johnny Cash, David Olney, pedal steel player Lloyd Green, Ernest Tubb and his “Green Hornet” bus, and an image of the 1952 Cadillac convertible in which Hank Williams died in the back seat. Most photos were copyrighted and shared by the publisher, though the visual of Green was inspired by one of Sola’s own snapshots.

Blue Hills Press selected Sola for the illustrator role after seeing her work at Hatch Show Print and the self-published children’s books that she had hand-printed and typeset.

Sola was employed at Hatch Show Print for about six years, leaving the company in 2006 to embark on a career as a music industry clothing and wardrobe designer for the next 15 years.

Today, she runs the Fat Crow Press in a former mercantile building in Las Vegas, N.M., where she can be found several days of the week enveloped by walls hung with posters associated with her previous employment.

“We were all allowed to keep a couple of our posters when I worked at Hatch Show Print,” Sola said. “My favorite one was a Jim Henson poster for the Smithsonian, of his puppets.”

At Fat Crow, Sola works in the same manner as letterpress operators of old – one print, one color, one objective at a time, physically distributing the ink and pulling the paper. She keeps her letterpress typeface in trays in large cabinets such that when she is finished using one particular style, she puts all of the letters and characters associated with it back in its marked location.

She is especially fond of Cheltenham, a soft typeface that she has used for her children’s books. Animals – especially crows, possums, and dogs – play a big part in all of her work. She often pulls and sketches images from family photo albums and blends them with drawings of animals, forming a luxuriously colored book illustration or print.

“There are no copies or giclées,” Sola said. “You could make 100 copies of one poster, and it is really temperamental, and each one of them will have little, subtle differences, and that’s what makes them so beautiful.

“Letterpress was never considered fine art because it was utilitarian, printing a book or broadside or magazine.”

Sola’s work, however, certainly penetrates the margins of fine art, especially the unique, music-related items that she helped fashion years ago.

“The posters are in collections, or people come into the shop and sometimes recognize one of my favorites that I have on the wall,” Sola said. “Someone will come in and say, ‘I have this poster!’”

In addition to floating hours at the studio in Las Vegas, Sola rotates twice monthly at the Santa Fe Society of Artists marketplace and at the Santa Fe Railyard Artisan Market on Tuesdays and alternate Sundays, usually providing demonstrations at her booth, inky, expressive, textural, transformative, but never perfect.

“I like to show people something that is tangible,” she said. “You are working with your hands on it. It is so nostalgic of a look – a look to it that you cannot copy. If every nick in the lettering is the same and consistent, you know it isn’t letterpress.”

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