Our latest Artist Process Video features graphic designer and letterpress printer Ben Blount, and we couldn’t be more excited to share his work and process with you. In a printmaking world saturated with digital and mass-printed pieces, Ben’s work is an exciting reminder that printing can be small-batch, tactile, and dimensional.
As an artist, Ben Blount works largely with text and type to create his images, relying on word play, double meanings and the interplay of letters to animate his posters, prints, and artist books.
Learn about Ben’s path to becoming a practicing artist, his process, why he loves letterpress, and more by watching his Artist Process Video. Remember to check out our previous Artist Process Videos, featuring Russell Muits of Storm Print City, Vidhya Nagarajan, Michelle Chandra, and Veronica Corzo-Duchardt.
If there’s one commonality between each of the artists that we’ve heard from in our Artist Process Video Series, it’s that the path to becoming a practicing artist is never a straight line. Although each of our featured artists are creative and practice art off and on over the course of their entire lives, they each go through periods of uncertainty and doubt when it comes to pursuing art as a full time career.
Ben Blount grew up in Detroit, where he drew and doodled throughout his childhood, inspired by comic books, cartoons, and superheroes. He always loved art, but didn’t decide to pursue art in college until his senior year of high school. It was then that he discovered graphic design, which immediately clicked for him as the marriage of text and images, and the fabric of all daily visual life. He studied graphic design for his undergraduate degree, and then moved to Chicago.
For his masters, Ben got an MFA from Columbia College Chicago in Interdisciplinary Book and Paper Arts. He wanted to learn how to print, so he dived head first into letterpress printing, book binding, and paper making.
However, after leaving school, he didn’t do anything professionally with his MFA. He worked as a graphic designer and Art Director at an advertising agency, where his work happened entirely on a computer.
Ben didn’t want to teach, and was uncertain about being able to make it as an artist. His fear of failure, wasting time, and being unable to sell his work held him back from pursuing his career as an artist. He was consumed by the label of “artist”, and by his own ideas and expectations of what it might be like.
About 4 or 5 years ago, Ben started making, selling, and showing his artwork. He kept his job at the ad agency, but would work on his practice in the evening after work. It’s a total juxtaposition from his day job, and he loves the difference in the process and the finished product. For Ben, as for many other artists, the cultural perceptions about what an artist has to do to be successful are prohibitive. Monetizing and publicizing your work can often be tough when it’s so personal and instinctual, and can be challenging for artists to get into the mindset of.
Most of Ben Blount’s work, whether through printing, posters, or artist books, is heavily typographical. He grew up in the heyday of hip hop, and credits the musical genre with his appreciation for the word. As in hip hop, lettering and typeface allows him to practice a kind of highly personal storytelling that’s rooted in a larger political reality. He can be precise and meaningful with his language to talk about universal truths that are rooted in his personal experience.
Ben uses turns of phrase, slang, double meanings, and poetic phrasing to communicate messages in his pieces, often speaking on the topic of race in America. He says that growing up in Detroit, the country’s largest black city, profoundly shaped his attitudes towards race and how it seeps into everyday life. Now living in Chicago, Ben knows that conversations about race are often uncomfortable. He finds this tension point exciting and inspiring, using his art to examine the conflict and stress inherent in such interactions.
He describes his work as having to do with “American identity” in all of its twists, turns, convulsions, fractures, and stalemates. Ben hopes that through such work he can help viewers to break out of the cultural echo chamber so often created by mass media and the news.
Letterpress printing is a unique artform, and has largely become obsolete in the digital age. It was how things used to be printed before the advent of computers and digital printing, where individual letters were set in a letterpress to create longer phrases or sentences. Ink is then mixed and paper runs through the press, taking on the imprint of the typography that the printer has laid down. It’s a relief printing process, which means that the letters are stamped deeply into the paper, and take on a tactile dimensionality.
For Ben, letterpress printing is the antidote to his daily digital workload. He is able to fully immerse himself in the printing process, mixing his colored ink by hand, placing the letters, spreading the ink on the press, and running the paper through. He is surrounded by sensations, whether it be the smell of the ink, the feel of the letters, the pressure of rolling the paper through, or the vibrancy of the inks drying on the page. He engages his entire body in the process, which forces him to be very present when printing.
Ben uses his letterpress to print small editions of 50-100 prints, meaning that his designs have limited runs. The finished pieces are tactile, as the letter press leaves impressions in the front of the page and creates embossed outlines on the back of the page. Letterpress printing affects the topography of paper, making it three-dimensional and sculptural in a sense.
Ben’s other medium he works in most often is the artist book. The artist book is a conceptual way of looking at a book, as a vehicle to get the artist’s message across to the viewer or reader. Instead of being a standardized form, the artist book utilizes every visual and physical element of the book to make its point. From binding, to paper size, to material, to typography, to folding, to trimming the pages, each of these choices and more are made intentionally by Ben to express his intended idea. He creates 10-20 artist books at a time, with even more limited runs.
Through the creation of these artist books, Ben can dive into the interplay of printing, graphic design, book binding, and paper making, combining all of his diverse interests. He can combine text and image in an even more concentrated way, creating a physical, portable object as the sum of his stylistic and design choices.
Near the end of the video, Ben shows off a small print he has by his letterpress. It reads, “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.” It perfectly exemplifies Ben Blount’s approach to printing and his art. He believes that creating is a responsibility, and it’s one that he takes seriously. His art can be used for positive social change and it can start conversations. He can get his ideas and experiences out into the world and into the hands and onto the walls of many! Ben knows that this freedom is important, and he intends to use it as much as he can.
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