At any given midnight over the past six years, there was a good chance you could find Chris Fritton pulling some version of an all-nighter in the basement print shop of the Western New York Book Arts Center.
Since 2009, Fritton has run the day-to-day operations of the center, leading workshops, curating exhibitions and cranking out countless gig posters, screen prints and handmade books. He’s been a driving force behind the center’s success, measured though that success has been, and a key part of its local and national reputation as a pioneer and proponent of the analog revival.
But after six years at the center, Fritton says he’s ready for a chance of pace.
On Friday, he resigned his position as studio director there and set his sights on an ambitious new project. He has branded himself “The Itinerant Printer” and will set out next year on a 30,000-mile journey to visit and work in dozens of print shops small and large across North America, many of which have recently sprung up as the hands-on printing movement has gained momentum.
As part of the project, Fritton will visit shops in all 48 contiguous states plus British Columbia and use the collections of each shop to produce a series of unique prints that he’ll mail back to those who followed and support the project. At the end of the trip, he’ll produce a hand-bound chronicle of the journey, complete with travel journals and prints. Fritton also plans to give presentations about the history of itinerant printing, and, if a shop requests it, a day of work to pay each venue back for letting him use their collection.
“Right now, what I would consider the analog revival in the U.S. is cresting, especially for things like letterpress and screen-printing, anything like wood carving, furniture making,” Fritton said. “Right now, more than at any time in the past, people are opening up their own shops.”
In the newspaper business, we sometimes jokingly refer to ourselves as “ink-stained wretches,” but of course that stopped being true (at least the ink-stained part) even before the era of glue pots and linotype machines came to a close. But Fritton fits the description, with ink stains permanently lodged under his fingernails, a largely nocturnal work schedule and a fierce belief in his chosen medium that often pushes him to the point of total exhaustion. And that’s to say nothing of his other projects, the inordinately successful Buffalo Small Press Book Fair, the online project ihidart.com and countless contributions to other artists’ creative projects.
Fritton’s interest in the complex mechanics and social history of printing borders on the obsessive, the new project will help to fill in a vital part of his education that he felt was missing. Printers of yore went through a progressive education system, in which apprentices worked to become journeymen, who eventually settled down to open up their own shops.
Though he has worked extensively with Book Arts Center co-founder and fellow print obsessive Richard Kegler, who recently took a job running the book arts center at Wells College, Fritton lamented the fact that he never had a formal apprenticeship or worked as a journeyman.
This trip is Fritton’s attempt to correct that and to fall in line with the so-called “tramp printers” and journeymen in whose lineage he wants to belong.
“In the journeyman stage, a printer would move from print shop to print shop across the countryside and he would learn new things from all of those printers, he would convey things that he knew to those printers, but then at some point he would settle down and start his own shop and be the master printer of his own,” Fritton said. “I never had that sort of formal apprenticeship at all. I was thrust right away into being kind of like a master printer. But I know that there’s hundreds of thousands of things for me to learn. So I think the reason that I’m doing it now in my career is that that journeyman time is missed, and I really feel like I need it.”
That kind of self-awareness and ambition to improve is all too rare and deeply heartening to see. Fritton’s vital presence at the center will no doubt be greatly missed. The center, according to a release, is currently “restructuring its model to accommodate for Fritton’s absence” and searching for someone to replace him. But it’s worth remembering that when he returns from his travels, he’ll bring with him a wealth of knowledge that, more than likely, will further enrich the cultural life of Buffalo.
“I’m hoping that in a year, this project will prove itself out in a way that I’ll be able to take the idea global in 2016,” he said. “Beyond 2016, I’m really hoping that I’ll have gained greater skills, a greater sense of this national and global community and be able to use it to start my own space. I think at the end, it might have that medieval feel, where it’s like, post-journeyman, I’ll settle down and start a shop.”