Isle of Printing Letterpress Studio: Art Takes Action

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Isle of Printing is inking up Nashville (and abroad) in a unique way — at music venues and restaurants, on candy wrappers and through collaborative projects with artists and record labels. Owner Bryce McCloud creates his fair share of wedding invitations and commissioned posters, but he specializes in making the unusual happen, as seen through his oversized murals, intricate laser cuttings and memorable art installations. Bryce is also a big believer in the power of public art and enjoys getting involved in projects that turn community space into places that bring joy and wonder into the everyday world.

Tell us about how you started out. What inspired you to start a letterpress studio?

Bryce McCloud: I became interested because of my uncle who was a historian of industrial technology. He passed away at a young age, right as I was getting out of college, and his daughter passed on his personal letterpress collection to me. I’ve always loved history and, at the time, it seemed like a dying art. Letterpress is really popular now, but when I got into it, it wasn’t. People were giving their equipment away.

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What sets you apart from similar letterpress studios?

A lot of people who make posters silkscreen, but we actually hand carve wood blocks and linoleum cuts and handset lead and wood type to make our prints.

What’s a typical day like in the studio?

It’s all over the place. We just finished up a year-long assembly of thousands of precisely folded, translucent, letterpressed origami boxes, which we installed as a “cloud wall” at Barista Parlor Golden Sound. It wouldn’t be unusual for you to find us rearranging a large installation, like the one we did at Pinewood Social, where our art is featured as wraps on thousands of cans. Each month we meticulously rearrange the piece into a new image or pattern. Or, we might be working on the “Nashville Sight Seer,” a series of pamphlets where a local writer teams up with an illustrator to create a map and a short write-up of one aspect of our city’s history. We cover things like the hangouts of Waylon, Willie & the Outlaws, where the best urban fishing holes are, or the figures and venues that made up Nashville’s dubious history with professional wrestling. The intent is to give perspective into something you haven’t thought about, to make you go somewhere you haven’t gone, looking at the city with fresh ideas.

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You operate out of Music City. Tell us about some of the music-related projects you’ve worked on.

We collaborate with Third Man Records on a lot of unique packaging projects — things like handmade, laser-cut vinyl record sets. We worked with Mystery Twins singer/guitarist Doug Lehmann on the packaging for their 7” single “TV Talk.” We utilized the physical packaging to animate the front cover, creating the illusion of movement as you pull the record out of the jacket. The inner sleeve consisted of a two-frame animation combined into one image, and the outer sleeve featured laser-cut “scan lines” inside a TV graphic. As the inner sleeve is pulled out of the jacket, the laser-cut lines allow the eye to see only one frame at a time. Pulling it out alternates the frames and animates the cover.

For 20 years, I devoted a lot of time towards making rock ’n’ roll posters — everybody from Bob Dylan to the Black Keys and Gillian Welch. I’ve always treated posters as artwork that functioned as posters. Making rock posters was public art 20 years ago. But now, in addition to creating posters and wedding invitations, public art is on our forefront.

Tell me more about your public art projects, specifically the “Our Town” project.

For nearly a year and a half, we traveled around Nashville-Davidson County inviting people from all walks of life to take part in this community project. At each location, we set up a mobile art studio and gallery, which operated out of a custom-made bike cart. Participants were supplied with grid paper, handmade rubber stamps and black ink pads and instructed on how to create their own self-portrait. After making a portrait, they were photographed with their artwork, which they then traded for a letterpress print created at a previous location. “”Our Town actively engaged Nashville in a conversation about community and enticed people to participate in art making who otherwise wouldn’t. The project visited 50 locations across town — homeless shelters, concert halls, police stations, coffee shops and everywhere in between.

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What does the future look like for Isle of Printing? What new projects can we be on the lookout for?

Right now, we’re working on transforming the shop into a combination storefront-gallery. That’s coming soon. And this winter, we’ll be transforming OZ Arts into a workshop for the creation of large-scale tapestries. Inspired by the “Our Town” project, we’re going to once again try to capture a portrait of the city. This time, the toolkit will include massive canvases and specially fabricated uber stamps which require two people to operate. Audiences will experience the canvases being made — and possibly be engaged to help at the discretion of an art caller who directs the movement and placement of stamps on the canvas.

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Bryce’s aesthetic has helped shape the visual landscape of the community for more than 20 years. His public art invites people to think about what it means to be a Nashvillian, whether they’ve been one forever or for just a few minutes. When you hire Isle of Printing for a project or buy a piece of its merchandise, the money you spend is not just payment for goods and services commissioned. That money is the source that funds its public art projects — commissioned and noncommissioned alike. By supporting Isle of Printing, you support the idea that art can make a difference in civic life.

Emily Davidson Nemoy is a freelance writer based in Nashville, TN. When she’s not at her computer or on her yoga mat, she can be found at live music venues happily spending her excess cash on concert tickets.

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