Updated: Apr 20, 2020
My intro will be brief because the coming interview has got all of the information you could ask for. But today’s feature is Frank Baseman, another artist I discovered at the recent PHILA MRKT (so I know I’ve said it before, but BIT shouts to the PHILA MRKT). Baseman’s work that drew me in was all letterpress, a form of printmaking that is fleeting in this day and age but produces such beautiful work. Baseman’s letterpress work is a real emphasis on the beauty of the medium; bold, simple prints that allow the process to speak for itself. Now, while the strength of the letters and the embossing is striking, it can be a challenge to make just letters and simple images exciting. So how does Baseman suck you in? Brain teasers. Some of these prints can put your mind in an absolute pretzel, that’s what initially drew me to his work and once I was there I stayed to take in the rest of the work. Baseman has a fun hook that pulls you into his work from a distance and the mastery of the letterpress process, brilliant color choice, and super clean layouts keeps you there, wanting more.
On top of the marvelous letterpress work, Baseman is also an accomplished designer, professor, and just a super passionate artist. When I met Baseman, his passion for his craft blew me away and I knew that I had to further the conversation and share his work. As I said already, this interview is insanely detailed so I won’t ramble on anymore. Enjoy this super cool body of work and awesome interview!
1. So, to start, I always like asking about background. So, what got you into art? Any Schooling? Big inspirations? What helped shape you into the artist that you are today?
Not quite sure what “got me into art,” but that is a decent place to start. I was born in Philadelphia (as were my parents before me, and two of my three brothers; I am number two of four boys). We moved around quite a bit when I was younger, mostly in the Midwest or East coast. I was not a “military brat” as much as I say I was an “Encyclopedia Britannica brat.” That is to say, my Dad worked in sales for Encyclopedia Britannica; and as he did well for the company and got promoted, they asked him to move to a new territory/or part of the country. We moved back to the Philadelphia area when I was in junior high. I ended up going to Cheltenham High School which is probably where the “got you into art” came from as they had a very good art program at the time. And family lore has it that my Dad did a comic strip while he was in high school that was published in the Evening Bulletin newspaper “back in the day,” so maybe some of that rubbed off too.
When it came to deciding where to go for college, many of my peers in high school were considering going to art school, but I didn’t think I was good enough for that. So, I ended up going to Penn State University as I figured it was large enough for me to find something that I was interested in. It was during a break in a Drawing class that I discovered the Graphic Design area. After meeting with a Professor and looking into the program, I enrolled in the Intro. to Graphic Design class during my Sophomore year, and I have never really looked back. For whatever reason, Graphic Design ticked off many of the things I am interested in in general: something creative; current events; cultural activities; language and communication; history, etc. I thrived in the Graphic Design program while also taking additional courses in French, eventually earning a BA in Graphic Design.
I took a Printmaking class in college and enjoyed engraving/intaglio. In the Graphic Design program, we also were completely set up for silkscreen, most likely due to the fact that my Professor, Lanny Sommese, made these wonderful silkscreen posters—many of which were printed by his students. So, as a student you pretty much had to learn how to silkscreen and we had great facilities. This was also a time that I refer to as “B.C.” (before computer), so we were doing a lot more things with our hands than simply pushing “command P.”
After undergrad I ended up going to Tyler School of Art for graduate school, earning an MFA in Graphic Design. It was at Tyler that I first started to print letterpress, as there was a press there that nobody seemed to be using. My teacher at the time, Joe Scorsone, showed me a thing or two with the press, but I was basically self-taught.
Thirty some-odd years later I have been practicing as a Graphic Designer my entire career, and continue to operate my own business, Baseman Design Associates. I am also a Full Professor at Thomas Jefferson University (formerly Philadelphia University), where I have been teaching Graphic Design courses since 1998. And a little over three years ago I started letterpress printing again under the guise of Base Press. I somehow have been juggling basically two full-time jobs (my design firm and my teaching) for over twenty years and I see the the letterpress work as an extension of my studio work.
I work out of my house, an old Victorian twin built in 1895. I like to say that the international headquarters of Baseman Design Associates is in the third-floor middle bedroom, which I use as my design office. Base Press is in the basement. It is quite wonderful to be able to conceive of pieces upstairs and execute them downstairs. I am very grateful for my setup.
In terms of other influences, there are so, so many: early in my career my undergraduate Professor (and mentor) from Penn State, Lanny Sommese; my advisor (and mentor) from Tyler, Joe Scorsone; and almost anything produced by Pushpin Studios, the Graphic Design studio. Many art movements/artists from the typography of Dada and De Stijl to the drawings and sculptures of Alberto Giacometti. I am a fan of Impressionism; and great photography in all forms esp. Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau. The letterpress work of Jack Stauffacher; and on a contemporary level, there are so many fine folks working within letterpress today; I have particular respect and reverence for the work of Jen Farrell of Starshaped Press out of Chicago; David Wolske; Stephanie Carpenter of Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum; Jim Sherraden formerly of Hatch Show Print; Dafi Kuhne from Switzerland; there are just so many.
2. You’ve got a very text-based design process, always weaving letters/words in and out of images. So how did this process and style start for you? How did this develop into your letterpress work? Is a classic process like the letterpress important to the work you’re making?
As stated earlier, I took French language courses and studied French for about six years (I almost majored in French in college). Over time I have come to realize that I think I got into Graphic Design more through a language/communication/writing door rather than through a drawing or illustration door. What I mean by that is that I have always enjoyed/been intrigued by language and communication, and my extrapolation of that is my long-held interest in typography.
What specifically led to my interest in letterpress? Well, I’m going to blame that one on my sabbatical. It has been almost three years since I had my first—and as yet, only—sabbatical (from what was then Philadelphia University) during the Spring 2017 semester. For my sabbatical project, my goals were many-fold: first, I wanted to go “back to my roots” and embrace letterpress printing, an activity that I engaged in while in graduate school but had not done much with since. For subject matter, I immersed myself in another one of my long-held interests: the communication and design vehicle of the “rebus”—those visual and verbal puzzles that are familiar to many of us when we first encountered them while learning to read. For some of the work, I ended up reinterpreting well-known quotes and phrases in the form of rebuses, that were letterpress printed as broadsides to produce a collection entitled “Rebus Quotes and Other Typographic Explorations.” This collection of work—in addition to select projects from my over thirty-year professional practice—formed the basis of my first solo exhibition in over thirty-years (since graduate school) mounted at Penn State University (Fall 2017), as well as marking the beginning of Base Press. Since that time, I have produced two additional invited solo exhibitions post-sabbatical, at Marywood University, Spring 2019 and University of Delaware, Fall 2018.
I’ve always liked the “physicality” of letterpress, the “sensory-ness” of the printing. Obviously, you are seeing what you are printing; and it is obviously a very tactile medium and you can feel the impression. But you are also listening for the sound of the ink on the press. As a self-taught printer I also find letterpress rather accessible, rather approachable. I now think of myself as “practicing the letterpress,” in the same way that my son practices his bass guitar.
3. Your letterpress prints also pair as fun little riddles that you have to figure out as you look at it. How do pieces begin for you? Do you select a phrase and expand on the image from there or something else? Does the color bare any significance or narrative meaning to your prints? Or is it just an element to make things pop?
Initially my intentions were to try to build or make a “body of work.” I settled on rebuses as the subject matter as to what to print, so I first did a lot of research into well-known quotations and phrases. I was looking for phrases where I could replace some of the words with images (there are clearly some wonderful quotes and phrases out there but some may not make for great visual/verbal combinations). In a Word doc, I would literally re-write some of the quotations and replace some of the words with brackets for images to come. For instance, “To be or not to be…” became  [bee] [oar] [knot]  [bee] etc.
Why rebus as a form? I really don’t know, but I’ve always been interested in them. To me they are the epitome of “visual + verbal = message” (an old axiom I picked up in college). Think of “I heart NY” or “America runs on Dunkin’” and you will know what I mean. Most everyone is familiar with the form, even though at first, they may not know what they are encountering.
For imagery I have always been drawn to the vernacular nature of old printer’s “cuts” or “line engravings,” as we used to refer to them. Those late 1800s, early 1900s old engravings from wood or metal that helped to illustrate items. By now they have become as innocuous and familiar as sort of “dictionary definition” illustrations. They are all in the public domain (so no worries about copyright infringement). Plus, I find that the vernacular of these type of images meets up well with the visual/verbal puzzle of the rebuses.
As to color, I tend to print the predominant phrases or type parts first. Typically, these have been black ink (although really it is a very dark gray color). Since most of the registration of the printing revolves around this larger type, I try to get this in place first. After that, it depends on what other coloration I have in mind for the piece. I have been using silver as a kind of neutral gray (since I have been printing exclusively on uncoated paper, the silver doesn’t have the same sheen as it would on coated paper). I have been using brown as a neutral color as well. Then I have been using a pretty liberal palette of “highlight” colors to have things pop. I will admit a weakness lately for the bright fluorescent pinks, oranges and reds.
I tend to work in batches; that is to say, I conceive of several prints at a time; and once designed, go to the press with several in progress. That way if I want to use a bright red on one piece, I might also be able to use the same color on another. This keeps the number of wash-ups down, and I must say I enjoy the mental challenge of trying to figure out what to print next, and what color to print.
4. Speaking specifically to printing your pieces, how does the process of rolling the prints go for you? Do you have a large collection of plates that you pull from? Or do you have things made for each print if necessary? Does the collection of plates you have affect how you create an image or what words are images and what are just letters?
Once I have some thoughts about which phrase/quote/text I would like to try to make a print out of, from there everything starts as sketches. Some thumbnail, some a little tighter. Then using some of the type that I have in my collection in the shoppe (whether wood type or metal type) I usually proof the words that will not be images to see what that is going to look like. I then scan the type, and then using the computer (in InDesign) I lay out the whole piece. I work out the design this way, printing quick laserprints to get the design exactly where I want it to be, including choosing colors/making color decisions (although I have also been known to “punt” and change my color selection on the fly at press-side).
If I am working on a piece that requires an image/cut/graphic that I do not have already in my collection, I find that image; size it to the size that I want; make a PDF of it and send via upload to a place in Owosso, Michigan and they make a “type high” letterpress plate for me. For instance, if I need an image of an “eye” to stand in for the letter “I,” I get the plate made of that image at a certain size. Once the plate is made, I am stuck with that size. But it’s not a bad restriction, as it forces me to work with what I have. Not the endless/endless/endless possibilities and choices that are available to us today. Sometimes restrictions can be helpful in that way.
As to “rolling out the prints,” I find the whole process of printing rather meditative, rather cathartic. Once things are set up, it can be quite calming to print out an edition of prints.
I also sometimes work on more abstract things where I go to the press and conceive/construct and print things more on the fly. I find this to be a liberating alternative to printing the other pieces that are already figured out. To me it is kind of like sketching; making monoprints and seeing what comes out of this. Sometimes I try to live by the adage “print more, think less,” which in my mind means to just print—and try not to judge while making; just make stuff and worry about whether or not it is “any good,” or whether “I like it or not” later.
5. When we met you mentioned that one of your prints was the only one you’d printed multiple times, are most of your prints just one and done? What is the significance of running such limited prints of your work? if there is any.
Most prints are “one and done” for the limited-edition benefit. I don’t always have a set or exact number in mind when I start a print, but most prints have been of the limited-edition variety of btwn. 30 and 40. As many printmakers/printers will tell you that most of the time spent on a print is in the “make-ready”—as the word implies, making things ready for printing. That is the minute details of positioning, proofing, setting things up, moving things around so that they are just right. Once this is achieved, you might as well make a few prints, and not just one or two. So, I landed at about 30 or 40 because 50 seemed too many, and 10 wasn’t enough. I also do have to account for mistakes and errors along the way (mostly in registration); as some prints end up being 14 or 15 different colors; each color means a different set-up or make ready. So, if I start with 30ish I’m more likely to yield a decent amount of really good ones in the end. As to the “limited edition” part: these prints are special; there are not 100s or 1,000s of them. They are made by hand (albeit using a press); but still, it is a hand operation. So, I hope there is something special about the limited quantity of them, as obviously there is only a finite number of them. I also hope to sell as many as I can! So, go to www.basepress.co and look around!
The one that I printed more than once that you reference was simply out of my own curiosity to try the same phrase/quote a different way. It is the only time (so far) that I have printed the same phrase/quote more than once.
6. Finally, PLUGS! Where can people find your work? Any shows/events coming up? Anything and everything you’d like to share and wherever people can find you, let it rip!
First place to go for more info. (and to buy any prints, cards and such) is my website at www.basepress.co. And then follow me on Instagram (@basepress).
I will be having a solo exhibition at Montgomery County Community College at the beginning of Fall 2020 semester; followed by another solo exhibition at Harrisburg Area Community College in Spring 2021. Info and details will be posted in time on my site and Insta. I have also done/sold at the Chesapeake Printer’s Fair the past two years, and expect that we will do that again this year; usually end of April. I have done/sold at the Lancaster Printer Fair the past three years, that one is in mid-Sept. Beyond that, I’m always looking out for more opportunities to exhibit and get my stuff out there. So, stay tuned for any further info.
Baseman Design Associates: www.basemandesign.com
Base Press: www.basepress.co
Instagram: @ basepress