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Making an Artistic Impression

February 09, 2015

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    Tracy Schlapp B.A. '87

Tracy Schlapp B.A. ’87

In an old barn once used to store hops for beer making, Tracy Schlapp listened to stories told by creative thinkers. Periodically, she stopped to hand-set wooden type onto her antique letterpress. After inking the type, she pulled the press’s handle, churning out broadsides, one print at a time, based on the speakers’ ideas.

“I snapped images of the broadsides and uploaded them to Twitter,” says artist Schlapp, cofounder of Cumbersome Multiples (a small-batch print and design collective in Portland) and creator of the John Henry Tweets project. “By tweeting at live events along with other attendees, I’m inserting physical language into a virtual world—exploring whether meaning changes through typography.”

Schlapp’s tweeting project is funded by a professional development grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council, which serves Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties in Oregon. She launched the venture in 2013 at the DO Lecture series in Hopland, California, where “DO-ers of the world—movers and shakers, disrupters, and change-makers”—told their stories.

She chose the name John Henry, an American folk hero, because she finds his legend an inspiring metaphor. “The railroad race between a steel-driving man and a steam-powered hammer reflects today’s race between analog and digital communication.” She conceived the project after inheriting a 1928 
C&P clamshell press and a Line-O-Scribe proofing 
press from a friend and fellow artist.

The antique press resides in a studio Schlapp shares with her husband, artist Daniel Duford, behind their home in northeast Portland. Within the framework of Cumbersome Multiples, they frequently collaborate with “artists, writers, chefs, letter writers, and dreamers.” They design and make print pieces based on ideas, images, stories, and objects. They often alter one in each edition to make it unique. Cumbersome Multiples got its name late one night while Schlapp was handcrafting a 200-person mailing with multiple steps. Her husband looked over and said, “You really are the queen of the cumbersome multiple.” Now many of her projects fit in the awkward space between offset and digital printing.

“The collective is still in its adolescence,” says Schlapp. “But our days are filled with happy discoveries.”

Schlapp attracts clients mainly through word of mouth. Tree-dreams.org is one example. Working with San Francisco Bay–area writer Kristin Kaye, Cumbersome Multiples crafted tags to help Kaye create a connection between people and trees. Through the project, they encourage people to write a dream, wish, hope, or thought on a simple tag, hang it on a tree, photograph it, and upload that image to a shared space online.

Schlapp’s professional journey began at Lewis & Clark, where she studied English and did design and layout for the Pioneer Log student newspaper. After graduation, she worked on campus in the publications office, embracing the tactile element of the work. Before branching out on her own, she gained other design and business management skills on the job, including nearly three years as director of publications and communications at the Oregon College of 
Art & Craft.

She says that each professional experience prepared her for the freedom she now has for artistic and personal exploration, including more time to spend with her husband and 7-year-old daughter.

“For most of my life, I worked for other people—needing the security of a regular paycheck,” says Schlapp. “Now, in spite of the greater financial uncertainty, I find security in creative collaborations and sleeping well at night. My work and life feel integrated.”

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