January 11, 2013
Sonia Farmer: Freedom of Her Press
Some artists’ tools are more portable than others. Paints and brushes can fit in a bag, and the average photographer’s neck can accommodate two or three cameras. But when Bahamian Sonia Farmer needed to transport her tools into her new studio in Nassau, she had to hire a moving company with a crane. You can’t move a printing press casually.
Farmer is the founder of Poinciana Paper Press, specialising in elegant limited-edition literary publications — books that are art objects, using fine papers and printed through the craft of letterpress. From the time of Gutenburg until the twentieth century, letterpress was how all books were printed. A skilled typesetter would compose each page from lead alloy type, which was then coated with ink and impressed on a sheet of paper. Expert printers refined the process to an industrial scale, until offset printing and digital typesetting made these venerable skills all but obsolete — except at small presses like Farmer’s, which preserve the art of letterpress to create printed objects with unique tactile qualities.
Born in Nassau in 1987, Farmer grew up loving both art and writing. When the time came to head off to university, she was torn between two paths, the literary and the visual. Her solution was a sort of compromise. She was accepted into the Pratt Institute, an art college in New York — specifically, into its creative writing programme. “I went to art school to study writing.” At Pratt, Farmer was introduced to letterpress in a course called “The Art of the Book”. She was the only writer in a class of visual artists studying printmaking techniques. “I loved it,” she says. “I felt really challenged.”
Bitten by the letterpress bug, Farmer did specialised classes and started exploring the small press scene in New York, home to dozens if not hundreds of letterpress studios. And she used Pratt’s equipment to make her first books, designing, printing, and binding small editions of poems and prose by writer friends back in Nassau. Poinciana Paper Press was born, in her final semester in 2009.
“I want my books to be a really tactile experience,” Farmer says. “I want the book to be part of the story.” She has several books of poems in the works — including, perhaps, one of her own writing: Farmer is a winner of the poetry prize in the Small Axe Literary Competition. And she’s keen to work on collaborations with visual artists, on “books that have to do with language and art.” Collaboration “is the spirit of small presses,” she explains — breathing new life into an old art.
by Philip Sander