Nothing really happens literally, which in Devan Penniman-Knapp’s case actually worked out for the best.
As the director of Desert Dog Press, a community printing press, and Colorado Mesa University in downtown Grand Junction, she is surrounded by letters every day.
There’s paper and ink, old presses, and techniques she probably never would have discovered had she followed her original plan.
Penniman-Knapp intended to get a science degree in college, probably biology. But she needed a change from California, where she grew up in the Monterey area.
She decided Colorado would be a good fit, so she spent a summer with AmeriCorps in Steamboat Springs and planned to attend CMU for a year on a college exchange program.
“I thought all of Colorado looked like Steamboat,” she said.
When she arrived at Grand Junction, swapping the green high country for the red rock high desert, she thought, “Oh, what have I done.”
She stayed, however, and enrolled in a graphic arts course in addition to her scientific load. When she entered this class, “everything clicked”. Then she took a printing course for extra credit.
She ended up getting a degree in graphic design from CMU in 2015, and at that time she was quite fascinated with the process of letterpress printing.
Both art and communication, typography is one of the oldest forms of printing. The simplest explanation is that typography uses movable type, raised letters or images that are inked and pressed onto paper.
Penniman-Knapp was so fascinated by the print that as a graduation present, she had letters tattooed on her left arm in the Garamond typeface. The letters are gathered around her wrist and sprinkled on her arm, as if floating from the press and attaching themselves to her.
“I love that the ‘g’ has a freckle period,” she pointed out with a smile.
“My tattoo artist was very patient with me because every letter was placed,” she said.
She chose Garamond because when she first saw the typeface, “it was the first time I realized a typeface was beautiful,” she said. “I don’t know if enough attention is paid to the letters, the form they take and the power they hold.”
Every typeface has a personality. Something can be said boldly or softly depending on the typeface or font used, she said.
That said, “I avoid six points.”
The type of lead that contains each six-point letter is so small it can be a headache to work with, Penniman-Knapp explained as he pulled out a drawer with compartments for the type of lead per letter and in a font and a particular point size.
The most frequently used letters are kept in the center of a drawer with less used letters, such as “z”, on the perimeter, she said.
At Desert Dog Press, there are cabinets with drawer after drawer filled with lead characters or images and near the presses. Nine presses are in the shop, but only five are in consistent use, some for letterpress printing, others for screen printing or engraving, she said.
The Vandercook press, which Penniman-Knapp uses for the poster classes she teaches at Desert Dog, “is the press of pride and joy,” she said.
It’s rare to find, weighs around 2,400 pounds and would be “terrifying to move”, she said.
The oldest press in the shop dates back to 1883 and two of the clamshell presses were discovered in fields in the area.
“This one still has a wasp nest underneath,” she said, looking under a metal part, laughing. “They were completely rusty.”
Eli Hall, an associate professor of graphic design at CMU, did much of the restoration work for those presses, she said.
Hall was actually one of his teachers and teaches CMU classes at Desert Dog.
“I knew she was a talented person,” he said. “Her path is something she is creating. It’s not parallel to others… it takes a special person to make it happen and they’re good at it.
“She’s curious and she allows herself to be vulnerable, which is definitely a quality and not a flaw of any kind, and in doing so she really finds her place in life, something we all want to find,” Hall said. “She’s a designer, but she’s able to use old word technology with contemporary design.”
It was a career path that allowed Penniman-Knapp to learn about paper thickness and ink layers.
This took her beyond her CMU degree to an apprenticeship and later working with another local print shop after graduation.
The path also led to taking time off to hike most of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017 and then starting Fruita Zine Party, a group of creatives who printed their work in a zine publication for several years.
In 2019, she gave the TEDx Grand Junction talk “You’re a Creative, Even If You Can’t Draw a Stick Figure.”
She worked at BestSlope Coffee and The Hot Tomato, where she met Aaron Knapp. Last year, Knapp became the owner of The Hot Tomato, and he and Penniman-Knapp got married.
“He makes pizza. I do typography,” she said.
Printing her own wedding invitations was a dream come true, she said with a smile on her face.
At that time, she was able to print her invitations at Desert Dog. This is a print shop envisioned by Hall as a place where CMU graduates and community members could schedule time to work on printing projects and where classes could be offered to the community, in more than those taught to CMU students.
Penniman-Knapp coordinated with Hall and other CMU faculty members to create a business plan for the print shop that opened in late February 2020. They hosted two workshops and an open house , but Desert Dog then closed because of the pandemic, she says.
The print shop opened on a limited basis in 2021, and this year was able to be fully open for community workshops taught by Penniman-Knapp.
In the coming months, Desert Dog will be offering letterpress poster workshops, stationery printing classes, stamp and linoleum engraving classes, and possibly card-making workshops as the holidays approach.
Due to the pandemic, in-person events and classes seem to have more value for people, Hall said.
“People want to have a tactile experience and they want to have communication with humans and I think (Penniman-Knapp) can deliver both,” Hall said.
It’s actually the tactile nature of the print that keeps Penniman-Knapp hooked.
She loves the challenge and focus it takes to place letters, words and pictures the right way up so that upside down they say something, mean something, she says.
“I like hands-on problem solving.”
It’s more tangible than creating something using a computer, although that route is faster, she admitted.
Old-school printing is tactile and personal and just looks different in an appealing way to those who may not even realize why when handed a letterpress business card.
“It’s the process that’s the best part about it,” Penniman-Knapp said.