Aaron Cohick, in addition to running NewLights Press and having served on the Board of Directors at Mountain Fold Books, is also the chief printer of the Press at Colorado College. Cohick works in a variety of mediums, including letterpress, book binding, printmaking, and more. You may recognize his work from the posters you see for events around campus or those supporting the Women’s March and DACA.
Interview and Photo by JONATHAN TIGNOR
The Catalyst: How long have you been involved with printmaking, and what was it that interested you in the first place?
Aaron Cohick: I took my first class where I learned how to screen print, set type, print on a letterpress, and bind books when I was a sophomore in college, which was about 18 years ago now, so when I was 20. So yeah. I had done a little bit before that, but I would say that was the beginning of my serious involvement. It was kind of happenstance. I was studying art, painting specifically; I needed a printmaking credit. They were offering a class called “Zines,” which was about making books, basically. It was part literature and part printmaking, and it sounded interesting. I was like, “Oh I like books, so I’ll take this class,” and then, like I said, we learned how to do all that stuff, and I realized that that was what I wanted to do. It was what I’d been looking for, although I didn’t really know it existed until I saw it.
TC: What is the first project you ever printed?
AC: That’s a tough one. The first book—well, when I was in high school I used to make comic books, so I used to draw comics and photocopy them. And so in a way, my first foray into publishing was actually that sort of stuff, and I didn’t think about that being connected to what I did now until much later. But like in that class that I was just describing, I did a small book called “99 Ways to Die,” which was a list poem that was exactly that. People seemed to respond to it. It’s actually the title of the Megadeath song. People responded to it, and I was like, “Oh this is kind of interesting,” but then, at the end of that class for the final, I did a book of poetry by a friend of mine from high school named Justin Edwards. And then I put six prints of my own in and it was like 50 or so pages, made 50 copies, perfect bound them myself. But it was like the first book project, substantial book project, that I did.
TC: Why is it important for a college campus to have its own letterpress studio?
AC: In a way that’s sort of one of the driving questions I think of this place. It’s one of the questions that [The Press] asks, and in a way that’s changing: a sense of why it’s important or how it can be important. I think for me, the reason we do this is not because it’s efficient or cost-effective or any of those things. We do this because something about this technology, which is essentially an obsolete technology, shifts our focus in a different way, and so we see our language, how we construct a page, how we construct a book, how we construct a text; it lets us see it differently than we would normally interact with it. And that can be, hopefully, valuable as a way to start thinking about how those things are constructed, how they make their way out into the world, what that means, what you can do with those kinds of things. So there’s that aspect of it, which is sort of like an engagement with the material and with the process. Also, I try to make the press a place that’s kind of open and accessible to people; if they want to make things, they can come and do stuff. It’s a place where you can amplify your voice because you can make a thing in multiple and distribute it. This is actually sometimes a very solitary pursuit, but also sometimes it’s very sort of group-oriented pursuit, so it’s a collaborative space. It’s just like a weird thing that some people get really into.
TC: What is a good book you’ve read recently that you would recommend?
AC: A good book I’ve read recently was a trilogy—it was the Southern Reach trilogy: “Annihilation,” “Authority,” and “Acceptance.” They’re making a film out of “Annihilation.” It’s coming out soon. It was one I had been meaning to read for awhile and finally sat down and read it. I knew it was a weird, kind of mind-bending, science fiction story. Lately I’ve been really interested in narrative. I sort of eschewed narrative for a long time in my own work, and now I’m interested in how to bring it back in. So I’m looking at lots of different kinds of stories, but I realized recently that I think whatever it is I’m looking for (and I don’t know what it is), it’s probably going to come through film or television or graphic novels, and not so much like a traditional literary novel. Something about text and image and tying them together is what I think I’m looking for. I read Linda Barry’s “What It Is” recently. I’ve been reading a lot of other comic-oriented stuff.
TC: Why should people care about zines as a medium?
AC: Well they don’t need to if they don’t want to. I don’t think it’s obligatory. Why are zines interesting for people? I think there’s something about when you make a thing, like when you make something and then you’re also responsible for its distribution—when you have to think about how many copies to make, where they’re gonna go, how you distribute them. That’s a little bit more intentional than just like social media or putting up something on the internet because then it doesn’t really matter. But when you think about, “Oh I can make 20 copies of this and give it to this list of people,” or “I’m going to make 100 copies of this and give it to people I don’t know,” or try to sell it or make 500 copies of the thing, and most of them end up sitting in boxes under your bed or something like that. It’s all sort of a part of the puzzle and a part of the experience. So I think that intentionality about distribution and the responsibility that comes with the physical objects, I think it’s useful and instructive to sort of think through that process, or not think through, but to step through that process. Also zines are interesting because they’re still this subversive medium that can’t really be tracked. Like you can print something and give it to somebody or handwrite something and photocopy it, and then there’s no record of that beyond the object and beyond the memory of the people, which is sort of the complete opposite of the way that things are tracked and surveilled via the internet right now. And there’s a long, long tradition of that since writing was invented. Just having it as an option I think is important.
TC: How can printmaking and politics converge?
AC: Well, they always have. Printing is basically the emergence of this idea of like a mass media. So, historically going back to China and medieval Europe, you have this idea of just making something in multiple copies. There’s something inherently kind of political about that: publishing to make public. And so it’s always been a part of it, and there’s this long tradition of very public and activist kind of printmaking, and also very sort of secret printmaking when certain messages were illegal and the only way to get them out was through underground kinds of things. I think today still, we did that Amplify and Multiply show last year in the Coburn Gallery, which had like 150 artists from around the world and 500 different pieces of activist ephemera made in the last six months. We did that in the spring of last year, and that was sort of inspired by the Women’s March and the airport protests and just being in those spaces with all of the crowds and the signs that people had, and becoming overwhelmed by that sort of thing and the empowerment that came with that feeling of being overwhelmed. So we were trying to replicate that in the gallery. I think it provides a kind of support.
TC: What is the worst injury you’ve witnessed while at the Press?
AC: Luckily I have not seen anything too serious. Probably the most scary thing that I’ve seen is when somebody gets their hair stuck in the rollers of the press. Which, the press isn’t strong enough to like suck you into it or anything like that, but it’ll tear out a chunk of hair. And then you have to A) deal with the pain, but also then pick all the hair out of the rollers of the press, so it’s a very messy kind of thing. That’s probably the most like “EUGH” sort of thing I’ve seen, but other than that I haven’t seen anything too serious. I’ve heard about people that press by the door, the one that opens and closes—I’ve known people who have gotten their hand stuck in those, and it will break your hand, of course. Nothing like a horrifyingly permanent injury, but still pretty serious.
TC: Who would you consider to be one of your idols or inspirations?
AC: That’s a hard one. There are a lot of artists and people that I look up to. Let me think … Amos Kennedy Jr. is another letterpress printer. We actually had him out two years ago now. He was really fantastic. I think about his work and also how he frames his work—it’s really interesting to me and super generative and important.
TC: What is your state of mind when you are setting type?
AC: So a lot of the repetitive processes here I enjoy because I find them meditative. So when I’m doing something like printing, or setting type, or putting away type, or book binding, it’s actually usually some of the best thinking time for me. Something about having my hands moving and something that is this kind of detached focus helps me generate ideas and work through problems and things like that. It’s usually kind of meditative, but not in the sense of blank mind, but it’s like a focus that also allows me, my mind, to go elsewhere.
TC: Who (what kind of person) do you think would receive the most benefit from learning about letterpress and printmaking?
AC: One benefit that I had when I learned is that it taught me patience. I was a pretty impatient artist before I learned this, which is weird to think about, that I would have been attracted to this at all, but it actually taught me to sort of slow down and be more careful about things. I think that’s an interesting thing that it can do for people, which I think feels kind of necessary right now in a world where it seems that it’s always trying to overwhelm us. Just being able to push stuff out and think for a little bit, I think is helpful. I don’t know if I could say what kind of person, but I can say what sort of things I think are useful about it. Like managing a complicated object or process, you know, like making a book is really long term; there’s lots of moving parts—you can really mess it up towards the beginning and not realize till the end. So it teaches a lot about failure but also about how to recover and make some things so it works. This process, letterpress and bookmaking, always seems really like you’ve got to have it all figured out before you start. But you actually don’t need to do that. It allows a way to A) plan, but also learn how to make your plans more interesting as you go, and also react when things come off the rails because they always do. So yeah, patience and openness.