Austin Museum of Art announces American Letterpress: The Art of Hatch Show Print

“Advertising without posters is like fishing without worms.” —The Hatch Brothers

This sentiment was certainly true in 1879 when brothers Herbert H. and Charles R. Hatch opened Hatch Show Print, a printing shop in Nashville. Their handcrafted posters screamed slogans such as “More Power, More Pep,” “So Many Girls You Can’t Count Them All,” and “Always Clean, Always Good.” Now 130 years later, Hatch posters hold their own as a stirring and refreshingly tactile contrast to the digital advertising world. AMOA, in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, celebrates this time-honored graphic art tradition.

AMOA assistant curator Andrea Mellard explains, “The distinctive style of Hatch’s bold hand-carved images, antique typography, playful taglines, and American subjects is are the perfect blending of art, design, and cultural history. Austin has a vibrant poster tradition and the museum is excited to share Hatch’s hand-crafted, iconic creations.”

American Letterpress features over 100 historical and contemporary posters and over a dozen hand-carved wooden blocks—some on view for the very first time. Whether in posters promoting a Johnny Cash concert or a carnival performance, advertising the rodeo or the Grand Ole Opry, or capturing the modern-day verve of a concert by Coldplay or The Strokes, posters printed by Hatch Show Print capture the heralded traditions of American letterpress printing and graphic art at their very best.

Letterpress refers to the printing process of inking and impressing letters. Generally, this term is used by professional and amateur printers who use metal and wood type to prepare textual documents such as broadsides and posters. Imagery can be included in a letterpress product, but in order to print text and image together, the image is prepared at the same height as the type. Simply put, this is a process where letters are pressed into paper with ink rolled in between. By exhibiting posters and woodblocks together visitors can better understand the letterpress process.

“Hatch is a survivor. We keep ink on the blocks and dust off their backs,” said Jim Sherraden, the exhibition’s curator and chief designer at Hatch Show Print. “We’re in constant production, and we’ve survived all the changes in printing technology to become the antithesis of contemporary digital design. I’m thrilled that we can share our story and our art through this exhibition.” As part of the exhibition programming, Jim Sherraden will give a slide lecture about Hatch’s colorful history and devotion to hands-on letterpress printing in a digital era.

For much of the 20th century, Hatch’s vibrant posters served as a leading advertising medium for Southern entertainment—from vaudeville and minstrel shows, to magicians and opera singers, to Negro League baseball games and B-movies. Many of Hatch’s most loyal clients were Grand Ole Opry stars. Each Hatch Show Print poster is a unique creation, individually handcrafted and inked onto paper in a painstaking process that dates back to the 15th century. This process, known as letterpress, involves inking hand-carved wood blocks and metal photo plates and type that are then pressed onto paper to form an image.

The shop that produces these colorful posters has long been a downtown Nashville landmark and the guardian of a very special piece of Americana. Now owned and operated by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Hatch Show Print not only carefully re-strikes some of the original, hand-carved wood blocks to reproduce classic images on the massive, old letterpresses, but also designs and prints over 600 new compositions each year, continuing in the firm’s tradition. The Austin Museum of Art commissioned two posters in honor of the exhibition, which will be for sale in the museum store.

American Letterpress: The Art of Hatch Show Print will open at the Austin Museum of Art in Austin, Texas on February 13, 2010. Closing on May 9, 2010, it will then tour to an additional 13 museums over the next four years.