In 2016 Harcourt writer Beck Sutton (R.I. Sutton) made the decision to eschew mainstream avenues and publish her own collection of short stories, titled Closer than Breathing. Conscious that her work defied conventional genres and wishing to realise it in the medium best suited to its spirit, Beck resolved an extreme alternative to desktop publishing: she would employ techniques that were in use before the computer age to create a 120-copy limited edition of her book. In an unprecedented venture, Beck would use her income from a part-time job in aged care to fund what would become the first book of its kind in Australia: a 136-page work of fiction that had been typeset, printed and bound exclusively by the writer.
Acknowledging the radical and somewhat foolish nature of her undertaking, Beck dubbed it ‘The Harebrained Press Project’ and set about orienting herself to the immense task of learning the bookmaking crafts, starting with typography and letterpress. In June, 2016, at the Melbourne Museum of Printing (MMoP), she attended the Roots of Printing Workshop: a typesetting and letterpress class held by director, Michael Isaacsen, in the museum’s working studio.
Three weeks after this introduction to printing, Michael surprised Beck with a request: would she represent MMoP at the Inaugural Meeting of the International Association of Printing Museums in South Korea. Daunted, but faithful to the harebrained spirit, Beck agreed. Over the next two months Isaacsen taught her about the machines, equipment and archives in the MMoP collection; and in September she found herself part of the contingent representing Australia on an all-expenses-paid trip to Cheongju. There Beck joined sixty other delegates from printing museums around the world, visiting sites significant to Korean cultural heritage. Her adventure culminated in the Inaugural Meeting where she presented a talk about Australia’s printing heritage to the full cohort, including representatives from the Gutenberg Museum in Germany and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.
Beck spent a year planning, learning and printing at the Melbourne Museum before the prospect of continuing her work there became unsustainable. The long commutes with heavy equipment, the nights spent sleeping on friends’ floors after twelve-hours over the press—all while maintaining a demanding job—took their toll and she found herself close to exhaustion. She decided to relocate closer to home, to HipCat: an artists’ access printery located just outside of Tretham, 75 kilometers north-west of Melbourne. Her new routine involved spending—on average—twenty hours each fortnight setting type by hand before travelling the 260 kilometers to and from HipCat over two days. There she would print 160 copies of eight pages before heading home to distribute the type, ready to set again. In this way she gained momentum and had completed page 104 of her book by August 2018.
Yet the milestone could not keep Beck from realising that even this was unsustainable. After many months of driving through frosty mornings and nights, of struggling, while it snowed outside, to use ink so stiff that it tore the surface off her paper, she made the difficult decision to put printing on hold until she could buy her own press and work from home. For the next nine months Beck taught herself paper marbling and completed the 280 sheets she would use for her books’ endpapers. While she marbled, Beck tried to find a suitable printing press, searching local listings and applying unsuccessfully for bank loans.
In May 2019 Beck had a windfall: she found 'Rinaldo', an affordable press large enough to complete her project. The drawback was that, unlike the other presses she had used, this one did not have an automatic inking system. A roller would need to be custom-made and used by hand to ink the type. After restoring and modifying the press and having a roller made, she returned to printing—and to work more physically demanding than any she had experienced before. Using a roller that weighed over four kilograms, she ran 5,000 sheets through the press to complete the last 32 pages of her book.
In 2020, as Beck began the final stage of her project—bookbinding—Covid struck. This made it impossible for her to attend classes in person; she was forced to rely on a combination of book learning, YouTube videos, email queries, experimentation, trial, error and practice to build her knowledge and skills, and to finalise materials and binding constructions. Frozen postal services from some countries made acquiring the specialised tools and materials required for high-end bindings a logistical challenge. To forge on, she had to source them from further afield—and at greater cost.
2021 heralds a sense of culmination for Beck as she brings together her hard-won press sheets and binds them into books. She will invite the public to pre-order from her website in October and will hold The Harebrained Press’ inaugural launch in February of 2022. Beck hopes that Closer than Breathing—ten years in the writing and almost six years in its making—will be both a testament to persistence and hard work, and a tribute to art and craftsmanship.