For Megan O’Connell, every day presents an opportunity to explore how the past can feed the future. The internationally acclaimed artist, designer, and educator shares space in her Detroit Eastern Market studio with mellow old wooden cases and drawers full of handsome vintage type. She composes letterforms on a cylinder press and prints on either reclaimed Detroit stock or mould-made European papers, creating intriguing broadsides, cards, invitations, monographs, artist’s editions, and more.
It’s essentially the same method Gutenberg used six centuries ago, and involves artful precision and a passion for the printed word.
O’Connell’s made a bespoke book for singer Beyoncé. She also designed and printed projects for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, the Cranbrook Museum of Art, and The Detroit Sound Conservancy. Those are just some of the Detroit parts of her prolific career.
Step into O’Connell’s studio, called Salt & Cedar, and you’ll find a 1964 Vandercook SP-15 letterpress in the center of the room. The press is one of only about 2,000 left in the world; most of them disappeared when computers took over in the 1970s. The studio, located one block east of Cost Plus Wine Shop, once was a place where veal was processed. Today, it’s a 3,000-square-foot workplace/creative incubator/gathering space, where experimental posters hang alongside favorite old pieces from O’Connell’s friends, and the unique aroma of ink lingers in the air.
O’Connell moved into the Eastern Market space in May 2012, and quickly became part of this tightly woven neighborhood of merchants and artists. “It started as a family effort. My two sons (Marlowe Johnson, now 24, and Leander Johnson, 20) really helped get it going,” she says. O’Connell says the name Salt & Cedar “invokes two elements that are used to preserve other things — ‘Salt’ as it relates to food; ‘cedar’ for its traditional role in the preservation of textiles. There’s also a relationship between these descriptors and printing processes and materials. ‘Salt Cedar’ is the common name for an invasive plant species, Tamarix, known to survive and proliferate, and sometimes even to flower under the most abysmal of conditions. It’s about elements that preserve and protect,” she explains.
In the rear of the studio is a huge table and gallery space where she conducts art openings, workshops, and seminars; screens films; holds communal dinners featuring local farmers’ foods; hosts poetry readings; and more. O’Connell’s son, Leander, an accomplished artist himself, collaborates with her on various works.
There’s been a resurgence of interest in the letterpress process in the past decade, but O’Connell’s been at it long before that. “I’ve been doing this for three decades,” she says, explaining that she began as a student of creative writing, then learned all aspects of bookmaking — from writing to binding — while in the Honors College at the University of Minnesota. She earned her MFA at the University of Iowa. O’Connell was the first intern for the Minnesota Center for Book Art, which opened in 1985, and after that she taught students how to make subjective guidebooks of their favorite works at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Recently, she was offered an opportunity to conduct a bookmaking workshop at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. “I used to sell rare books,” the Saint Paul, Minn., native says, and explains that experience further kindled her affinity for the typefaces and ornate borders between their covers. Now she’s considered one of the world’s experts on all things letterpress — O’Connell has taught and exhibited all over the United States and has been featured in Forbes, Condé Nast Traveler (U.S. and U.K. editions), AFAR, The New York Times, and many other publications. She can even operate the world’s oldest press, the Albion cast-iron hand press.
And when traveling around the country a few years back with chef/author Anthony Bourdain’s Balvenie 2015 Rare Craft Collection (sponsored by the eponymous single-malt whisky-maker), she was one of four U.S. artisans and one from Scotland selected for their extraordinary old-world skills. “We visited New York, Houston, and Chicago,” O’Connell says, adding that Bourdain was an awesome host.
This summer she will visit Italy as an invited artist and scholar for the Legacy of Letters multicity tour, and will travel to Paris to collaborate with renowned printers. After that she’ll be in Berlin, exhibiting at Atonal, the experimental music festival, and will serve as artist-in-residence at p98a, an experimental letterpress workshop.
This artist never stops. And even though she could live anywhere in the world, O’Connell says her adopted home, Detroit, is where she thrives. “I recently took stock of where I most wanted to be, and it’s here,” she says. “(This is) home.”
For more information on Salt & Cedar, visit saltandcedar.com.