College of St. Scholastica librarian and associate professor Todd White stands with a 1906 Chandler-Price old style letterpress in the basement of his Scenic Hwy. 61 home. White uses the 1,200-pound machine to create broadside prints similar those made in the 18th and 19th centuries. David Ballard Photography
Artist tools can be very simple: A painter uses a brush, an illustrator uses a pen and a potter uses a wheel.
Todd White is a different kind of artist. He uses a turn-of-the-century, 1,200-pound printing press.
White, a reference librarian and assistant professor at the College of St. Scholastica, started making broadside prints using the industrial age machinery more than 20 years ago. He has shown work at the Tweed Museum, taught students the art of bookbinding and created a book illustrating the Oscar Wilde fairy tale "The Selfish Giant." This spring, White showcased his most recent project — two visual characterizations of the dark and mysterious raven — during the college's School of Arts and Letters Colloquium.
White used his drawing of two ravens to illustrate an 1825 version of “The Twa Corbies.” (David Ballard Photography)
During the presentation, White discussed production of two broadside prints based on the gruesome centuries-old folk ballad "The Twa Corbies" — or "The Two Ravens."
"I've been on a little journey in the company of ravens," he told an audience of about 50 people. "The last eight months of my life have been immersed in ravenology."
For centuries, the raven has been highlighted in folklore, song and story, White said. When a library patron asked him to locate "The Twa Corbies" back in 1992, he became enamored with the work and vowed to make it a broadside project.
After all, who can resist illustrating an ancient song that celebrates two ravens as they salivate over a fallen knight?
In his first project, White used a Scottish version of "The Twa Corbies" documented by Sir Walter Scott in 1803. He used pen and ink to create a vertical raven pattern drawing. The drawing was transferred onto an engraving to create 11x5 image. He selected an ancient-looking 12-point Jenson type for the text. Black ink was used for the five-stanza ballad and red ink for the surrounding raven pattern.
The image was then run through the old printing press — multiple times.
A second broadside, using a slightly different version of the ballad from 1825, was printed in all black and features Italian Old Style type. White illustrated the piece with two ravens flying above a distressed ship like handsome vultures waiting for it to sink.
"What I love about old broadside is how poorly done they are," White told the audience. "The typefaces don't match. The printing is crooked in more than one direction. The images are crude. The impressions are inconsistent — they're lighter here and darker there. That is what makes them utterly charming."
Certainly, White has mastered this charm.
Typesetting, says White, is a complicated and meditative process that combines his interest in reading, history and the creative arts. It also satisfied a desire to explore old world craftsmanship.
"It was kind of a combination of writing and books — which I really loved — and the aspect of being in a shop and working with your hands and materials," he said in an interview after the presentation. "So that got me interested in trying to pursue it."
But in order to fully explore old world printing techniques, White needed a 20th century printing press. Not something easily found at Best Buy.
As luck would have it, a friend found one in a West Duluth warehouse. It was a 1906 Chandler-Price old-style letterpress cast in Cincinnati.
"He called me up and asked me if I was interested in buying it," White said. "Being foolish and naive, I said yes."
This image was printed on his 113-year-old letter press. David Ballard Photography
White had dabbled in the arts before — creating stained glass windows — but the process became expensive and had a limited audience.
"One of the reasons I gave up stained glass was you had to have space for building windows and crates of glass and all this stuff," he said. "Now I've traded it all in for a giant hunk of cast iron and lead."
White has moved the press three times over the years as he and his wife, Lila, restored two houses and raised three children in Duluth. With the children grown, the couple recently built a house on Scenic Hwy. 61 halfway to Two Harbors.
The massive press sat unused and outside during 2015 house construction and then remained idle in an unfinished basement shop. It wasn't until 2018 that White had the time and space to restart print production.
"Hopefully it has a permanent home now," he said. "The old place, it was down in a 1903 basement that's bluestone and wet and full of spiders. Now I've got nine-foot ceilings so it's quite luxurious."
White said he plans to refine "The Twa Corbies" print and build up a portfolio of new material. He also plans to bind new copies of "The Selfish Giant." An early member of the Northern Printmakers Alliance back in the 90s, he said he would like to sell his work again in local galleries.
"I feel like I have a fresh start," he said. "I'll start looking around and see if anyone will take me."
That means the old press is ready to roll out more charm.
"It's actually getting there," White said. "My press is back up. I've got my imposing table, so 90-percent of the shop is ready to go. ... It's functional which is really fun."
What is a broadside?
A broadside is a large sheet of paper printed on one side, as with a political message. In 17th Century, England, a popular ballad printed on such a sheet was known as a broadside ballad.