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John Lamb, Published September 23 2012

A passion for printing

Some people are known as men or women of words, famous for delivering rousing speeches, giving voice to grand thoughts and memorable quotes.

Jerry Richardson is a man of letters – many, many letters.

Talk to the 82-year-old and you’ll likely get a carefully considered, concise response delivered in a low, quiet, even tone.

While not known for his prose, he is well respected for his visual presentations of words in print.

In the basement of his Ninth Street home in Fargo, Richardson runs two letterpresses, producing some of the finest textual prints in the region, from individual literary lines to limited edition books and broadsides.

To paraphrase a great orator, Teddy Roosevelt, “Speak softly and carry a big pica pole.”

“He has such a passion for work, for printing,” says Fargo artist and fellow printer John Volk. “He is such a humble printer. He is very caring, very thoughtful, very thorough. You can see it in his work.”

The two men collaborated to print Mark Vinz’s poem “Heartland” with Carl Oltvedt’s landscape on a broadside – a large, single sheet of paper often combining a graphic use of text and imagery, intended for display. Volk printed Oltvedt’s image from a lithograph stone after Richardson laid out Vinz’s verse, one letter at a time. The final product, “Heartland,” can be seen in the Plains Art Museum’s gift store.

While his work may be in museums (both at the Plains and having shown at the Rourke Art Museum and Gallery), Richardson insists what he does isn’t art, a statement that infuriates his colleagues.

“It drives me crazy,” Volk says. “Jerry is much more technically evolved than he cares to admit. He acts as if he just slaps stuff together.”

Richardson doesn’t offer much insight into why he fell in love with a fading art form.

“It goes back to my childhood,” he says. “I can’t explain it, but it’s fun to do.”

Making his mark

Richardson got started printing in college.

“It’s kind of the story of my life,” he says, explaining his inky beginnings. “When I enrolled in South Dakota State University, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.”

He was given an aptitude test that determined he had “strong verbal skills,” which sent him to the journalism department. There he learned about typesetting and how to run the presses.

He returned to the presses after serving in the Korean War but later was offered a job as the director of communication at North Dakota State University.

He didn’t spend as much time in the press room, but kept his hand in the process, studying the craft and even taking trips with his wife, Lou, to significant spots, like Subiaco, Italy, the former abbey where the Germans introduced the Italians to printing in the 15th century, and the Grolier Club in New York, a private organization of bibliophiles.

“He goes to these things. We don’t,” exclaims Mark Strand, Richardson’s former colleague at NDSU, by way of explaining his friend’s dedication to the craft.

Richardson’s travels to presses and workshops have resulted in friendships with masters like John Randle, the dean of British fine printers, and Gaylord Shanilec, a wood engraver who co-founded the Minnesota Center for Book Arts in the mid-1980s.

“I don’t think I could do anything in that class,” Richardson says of these two printers, but Shanilec, a Fargo native, has been known to praise Richardson and his work.

“To me, that’s the real pleasure, the kind of people it brings you in touch with,” Richardson says of the latter two, as well as Volk and Fargo printer Cameron Peterson.

Line by line

Richardson made the jump from small passages to broadsides in the early 1990s when he heard librarian Jerry Lamb, my father, read his essay, “The Book,” in praise of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.

“I thought, ‘That was so nicely done it deserves to be committed to graphic permanence,’ ” Richardson says.

He laid out the text to that and “Heartland” in his basement, a print shop with drawers of various type, labeled 18-POINT CENTAUR, 36-POINT GARAMOND.

The shop is known as the Ree Heights Institute for Regional and Cultural Enrichment, a nod to the small South Dakota town where he bought his first press in the mid-1960s.

Actually, the whole three-story Fargo house is Ree Heights. The attic is a workspace where ideas develop. A bedroom on the second floor holds the computer where off-set works are laid out. The main floor living room has been a meeting space for visiting artists, including famous Life Magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt. And of course, the presses reside in the basement.

“The whole house is a work-flow space,” explains Strand.

Eisenstaedt’s visit and how Richardson got his portrait taken by the famous photographer and numerous other anecdotes are detailed in Richardson’s latest project, “Not Bad Chicken! And Other Profound Observations Famous People Have Made to Jerry Richardson.”

The book collects the stories behind the snippets and photos – like how Richardson came to acquire photos of Marilyn Monroe in Korea or a shot of Peggy Lee rehearsing for a local show flat on her back.

A lifetime work in progress, don’t expect it to hit the shelves any time soon. In Richardson’s typical deliberateness, he estimates that he’s been fiddling with the layout for a decade. He jokes that Lou is running out of patience with the project.

“It’s still a work in excruciatingly slow process,” he says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533