Gaspereau Press co-publisher Andrew Steeves is a quiet, reflective man who loves the noise and oddity of 19th and early 20th century wood type. When he inherited 150 fonts of wood type from his late friend, Canadian book designer and typographer Glenn Goluska, he began a three-year project of “play.” He printed sheets showing each of the fonts, and published them in Literarum Ex Arboribus: An Exuberant Showing of the Wood Type at Gaspereau Press, a limited edition book snapped up by private and public collectors in Belgium, Ireland, England, the U.S., and Canada.
As soon as John Leroux, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery’s manager of collections and exhibitions, saw prints from Literarum Ex Arboribus (Latin for wooden letters) he wanted to do a show. He admires the typographer’s “fusion of contemporary design with traditional tools,” and for making “the old new again,” he says. “The works are playful, vibrant, insightful, and very different from what viewers would typically see hanging on our walls.”
Andrew Steeves: Wood Type, a selection of prints from Literarum Ex Arboribus, will run early July to Oct. 24 in the Beaverbrook’s new Harrison McCain Pavilion. During the Beaverbrook’s renovations, the Acadia University Art Gallery exhibited it last fall. There the walls hummed with the wonder of wood type and with humour, humanity, and heart. In quotes by writers from poet H.D. Thoreau to textile designer William Morris to American environmentalist, cultural critic, and farmer Wendell Berry, Steeves celebrates community, nature, the hand-made and living ethically.
The use of wood type in advertising, posters and screaming newspaper headlines was driven by commerce and a desire to grab attention, Steeves said in an interview. “Because the typefaces were for commercial purposes, they stretched and pulled and warped these things in ways that would curl the teeth.” The letters, he says, are “beautiful because they are crazy.”
The task he set himself was to break the rules. He’d spend the morning in Kentville at Gaspereau Press editing books then by mid-afternoon pull out a case of Goluska’s treasured fonts, as the oldest dating from the 1860s. “Then in 15 minutes or half an hour I’d come up with an idea and then I would print it in two, maybe three colours.”
The project was about improvisation and “not back tracking,” about letting the flaws in the letters stand, about layering inks in the reverse order of dark to light instead of light to dark, of working with opacity versus translucence, of letting a singular splotch of colour live in one letter. Some prints are engaging abstracts of shape, structure and colour; others are subtly influenced by the politics of the day and by Steeves’ personal life and philosophy. “It’s more of a diary,” he says. “My father was dying through this, a neighbour’s son hung himself, there was all the stuff going on with the Donald Trump administration.”
There is a wonderful whimsy in the fox prints rooted in the pangram—a sentence containing every letter in the alphabet—used by practicing touch typists: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” The fox appears in the book’s only double-page spread, blaring in black and red, “The Fox Is Quick; I Haven’t Seen Him; He’s Quick.,” from a poem by New Brunswick poet John Thompson. “When I discovered his work in my early 20s a light went on. This guy is writing about my place. He shows up in a couple of places.”
“Audrey Ruth Two Years Old,” in blue with faded out letters and splatters of red, is inspired by what his daughter used to say. “She would declare her name and her age like a job title.” Wendell Berry’s phrase “No High Culture Without Low Culture,” is an important statement to him. Steeves, who has a master’s degree in English, grew up in and around Moncton, N.B., “where high culture was scarce but low culture was vibrant. People were growing gardens, making things, building things, working with their heads and their hands. I can’t think of a better kind of environment to grow up in.” His grandfather had a construction company. There were blueprints around the house. “My brother and I ran a newspaper in our teens, handwritten and photocopied. I was interested in type and designs and logos.”
A former freelance journalist who designed and built his own off-grid house in the Annapolis Valley, he and Gary Dunfield co-founded Gaspereau Press in 1997. “Early on, it became clear that I had a knack for editing and book design, so I’ve focused on that and letterpress printing. Gary took the lead on the administrative aspects of running the press and has also managed the offset printing and trade bindery side of the operation.”
Gaspereau Press publications have been finalists for or have won most major Canadian literary awards. In November Steeves won the 2021 Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Masterworks Arts Award—along with its $25,000 prize— with author Alexander MacLeod for Lagomorph. “Alex and I made the book because it pleased us to do so, and we were greatly rewarded because of the fun of working together and making a good thing together. It is just gravy to have people saying we think this is valid and I’m grateful.”