Everyone’s acquainted with the ampersand. You might have even tried to draw it from time to time but can’t get a firm grip on its intricacies. Perhaps you’ve mastered it and plastered it all over your notes. Whatever your relationship, the swirling, symbolic form of “and” is almost everywhere – just check a book, advertisement or your professor’s PowerPoint.
When Chicago-based artist Jennifer Farrell came to campus last week, she brought with her a slew of different portrayals of the ampersand. These portrayals were characterized by their font and features, as well as the distinct designs and patterns contained within them.
“It’s ubiquitous,” Farrell said of the ampersand. “People love it. You know what it is, even [if] it’s in a different typeface.”
What makes Farrell’s work unique, though, is how she creates it. She practices letterpress printing, a process of printing images similar to that of a printing press.
Farrell is the principal designer and printer for Starshaped Press in Chicago. She has been crafting letterpress art full-time since 2001, designing everything from wedding invitations to business cards to event posters.
“Anything that can possibly be printed in short quantities is something that I probably have done,” Farrell said.
Farrell’s “Well-Traveled Ampersand” exhibit officially opened in the Wertz Art & Architecture Library last Wednesday. The exhibit features a collection of ampersands from different fonts and typefaces, featuring designs inspired by cities such as London and Milan and cultures such as that of the Maori people.
Farrell’s favorite ampersand print of hers is the “Cooper Black” print, depicting Chicago inside the ampersand of the Cooper Black font, made popular by Chicago type designers in the 1920s.
Farrell constructed the forms for each ampersand by hand, using old-fashioned materials in a process she said was intense.
“There’s no digital part to it,” Farrell said. “I like being able to work with my hands. I like the form and structure [of letterpress].”
Although Farrell created the forms, the designs for her ampersand prints came from different artists.
“After I first compiled a list of designs, I realized it was a list of dead white men,” Farrell said. “I said to myself, ‘well, I just can’t have that.’” She scrapped the initial list and sought out the designs of contemporary artists from locations such as India and the Netherlands.
Miami graphic design professor Erin Beckloff brought Farrell, a longtime friend, to campus as a part of the ART 281 lecture series. ART 281 is a one-credit hour class requiring students to attend one lecture by a visiting artist each Thursday evening. Farrell’s visit eventually broadened into a series of on-campus events, including the exhibit in Wertz, as well as a “brown bag lunch talk” in King Library at the suggestion of King’s curator of special collections Carly Sentieri.
“I’ve been teaching letterpress for seven years,” Beckloff said. “So I wanted students to be able to connect with a real printer.”
At the ART 281 lecture, Farrell discussed her career history, inspirations and process of creating her work.
“[The lecture] was really enlightening,” said freshman fashion design major Kennedy Hettlinger. “My mom is actually a print broker, so she’s kind of struggled with keeping business going since everything has gone digital. So, to hear [Farrell’s] perspective on keeping print and art alive is just really inspiring.”
During the lunch talk last Wednesday, Farrell spoke about her assortment of dollhouse gig posters, event posters printed on paper small enough to fit into a dollhouse.
“It was kind of a joke against the screen printing world in Chicago because they make these massive posters, but letterpress is much better for smaller formats,” Beckloff said.
According to visiting librarian Lori Chapin, Farrell’s ampersand collection is the first collection by an artist to be showcased in the Art & Architecture library. Chapin hopes to have more in the future.
“It’s exciting to see somebody come in with such neat stuff,” she said. “I’m excited to use the art library for more exhibit space. This is the stepping stone to doing that.”
Chapin hopes that the library space can be a space for students to showcase their work as well.
“If [people] have anything they’d like to be shown, I encourage them to contact us,” Chapin said. “There’s a lot of potential for great collaboration.”