Uptown Greenville, NC


Preserving a Lost Art – ECU Artists Commemorate USS Enterprise

Alexa DeCarr
ECU News Services

December 20, 2012 - Hundreds of antique printing blocks are stored among vintage letterpress printers inside a one-story shop in Ayden, where an East Carolina University faculty member applies a 15th-century commercial printing process to create works of art.

His most recent project — 500 letterpress prints to commemorate the decommission and retirement of the USS Enterprise — was delivered on Dec. 18 to U.S. Navy officers, members of the U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama.

Craig Malmrose, a professor in the ECU School of Art and Design, spent the past two-and-a-half months working on the Enterprise project, initiated through a request by a former student who now works for the company that built the ship in 1961. The Enterprise was the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

“I gladly accepted and became immersed in it,” he said. “I spent every waking second in this shop; I even came in here Thanksgiving Day.”

The print features a drawing of the ship done by Ray Elmore, a friend of Malmrose and a retired faculty member from ECU.

The printing technique Malmrose employed in creating the prints was originally used for 15th-century commercial printing. That printing style was replaced by offset printing, which has since gone digital.

Malmrose discovered letterpress printing in 1994 when he read an article about a school in California teaching the historic art. He was so taken by the idea that he began collecting printing blocks and letterpress machines anywhere and everywhere that he could, traveling as far as North Dakota to get what he needed. Eventually, he acquired enough to open up his own shop.

“It’s so tactile and hands on,” Malmrose said of his craft. “It’s not digital. You can actually feel the engravings of the print on the paper.

“I asked Ray to do it because when it comes to drawings, he’s the best of the best,” Malmrose said.

Elmore’s drawing was based on a small photograph of the ship and was created using small dots in all black ink.

“To make it look darker in certain areas, you place the dots closer to each other,” Elmore said. “It’s all about moving your hand a certain way.”

Behind Elmore’s drawing, the print features a yellow E with a pale yellow back shadow, symbolizing the ship’s colloquial name, “The Big E.”

Underneath the focal image reads “USS Enterprise CVN 65,” in a Photoshop-created font that replicates the writing on the side of the actual ship.

“We took what is on the side of the ship and downsized it,” Malmrose explained. “If you look closely, it looks like there are small lines cutting through the font because that’s how it looks on the actual ship.”

To create the edition, Malmrose sent the images to a plate maker in Pennsylvania, where the images were replicated onto a metal plate, leaving a raised surface to place the ink, much like a modern day stamp. The plates, with the ink on them, were then set up on the press machine in Malmrose’s shop. He pulled the images by hand, one color at a time, onto Mohawk superfine paper which he ordered from Raleigh.

Because each print is done by hand, Malmrose said “no two prints are exactly the same.”

He has kept one of the prints for his portfolio.  While Malmrose may be done with the project, his work in letterpress printing will continue.

“It is an extremely time consuming, lost art and I believe it is my mission to preserve it,” he said.

To view a video of the printmaking process, please visit http://www.ecu.edu/cs-admin/news/enterprise.cfm