“I found them at an estate sale for five bucks,” Ophelia Chong explains as she shuffles through newspapers marked November 23, 1963. They are mostly papers from Los Angeles and have headlines like “ASSASSIN NAMED” and “HIGHLIGHTS IN LIFE AND PRESIDENCY OF JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY.” There’s even a simple headline of “MARTYR.” The papers are deep portals into simpler times with articles on the dangers of crosswalks, the sport of cheerleading, and typewriter classes, all of which are complicated by an American tragedy: the loss of a president. Ophelia is using these newspapers as the basis for a letterpressing project that she has been working on, one that meditates on America, tragedy, conspiracy, and violence.
Ophelia is a visual artist and creative director who teaches a Marketing & Self-Promotion Photography class at Art Center. She is an incredibly interdisciplinary artist who is constantly playing with her craft. Her current obsession is letterpress and she uses Art Center’s immense facility to experiment in the craft (under the supervision of Seth Drenner, who runs the South campus’ letterpress area). She stands over a Vandercook Universal press and arranges wooden letters around the table.
“Second Shooter? End of Something? Extra Bullet?” she asks, trying to figure out what she wants to print atop of the paper. That short headline pops into view: “Martyr! We can get big letters for this, too.”
She walks over to a large wall of drawers that practically is its own wing in the letterpress studio. There are thousands of trays full of tiny letters in countless styles. “This is one of the biggest collections of type,” she says as she opens drawers looking for giant letters to spell MARTYR. “They used to set all of these by hand.”
The process of picking the letters is a huge part of the process for her as the letters jump out l and tell her what to say. Like previous letterpressing experiments like Your Fear Is my Wearpon and Money Honey? NO, what goes on her paper is a result of what spoke to her in the drawers. This current project is no exception. “Oh!” she exclaims, “How about the word WHY instead of the letter Y? It’s a play on words!”
She grabs all of her letters and returns to the press. As she begins to assemble them, she speaks with various other students who pass in and out of the space. Photographer Tyler Adams–who is in Ophelia’s marketing and photography class–stops by and hangs out with her as she works. The letters are arranged in a curious order: “Everything is backwards and in reverse…it took me a while to get that!” She laughs as she arranges and rearranges the letters, spellchecking them with the original newspaper.
Opening and closing the papers, she pulls particularly meaningful sheets. There are advertisements and editorials and reactionary pieces all mourning the loss of the president: picking the right pages to print on is very important. She then cuts the paper in half using a large, loud paper cutter. She finishes setting her letters by adding in small barriers to keep the letters taught and flush against where the press presses. The process of preparing is very reminiscent to a late twentieth century tile matching game. “Yes,” she nods. “It is a lot like Tetris.”
She pulls out her colors–silver, blue, and black–and prepares them on a nearby table. S places a small glob of paint onto the spinning press cylinders that turn from a shiny silver hombre to a matte silver-white. “The process is very fast,” she says. She tapes a test sheet down as a buffer for the frail newspaper and makes sure her letters are all flush. She begins to roll the paper over the painted letters. The machine makes a double popping sound with each revolution, sounding like the cracking of joints in fingers.
Ophelia pulls papers, slides them into the press, presses them, and then lets them dry. Each paper requires her to stop and examine what she’s printing over. “Oh here’s one: ‘Accused Man Denies Killing President: Lee Harvey Oswald denies he had anything to do with the crime.'” She laughs. “It was a grassy knoll!”
“Ah,” she squeals: “This one is the one with the word MARTYR on it.” As she works, you can tell that she has an extreme excitement for what she is doing. She is absolutely giddy to make and to experiment, learn, and play with new forms of expression. She continues to work on the pieces for hours, playing until she has something she’s really into. “You should take a letterpressing class!” she says to anyone and everyone who can hear her. Clearly, Ophelia is an enabler in getting people to make.
For more on Ophelia’s MartyrWHY project, be sure to check out her Flickr page. You can also find a few photos below taken by Ophelia of another letterpressing project she’s been working on: Give A Card. Get more on Ophelia here.