NSCAD closes Dawson Printshop

Only 10 months after opening, NSCAD closed the fledging Dawson Printshop as a cost-saving measure. Vincenzo Ravina puts on his best typeface.

Under flickering fluorescent lights are cabinets with many thin drawers. The labels on them read "Helvetica" and "Garamond." Here, in the dank bowels of a building on Granville Street, the Dawson collection is housed in more than a thousand of these drawers. Each holds various type---little metal or wood letters that have to be arranged on a press, ink rolled over them and pressed onto paper. This is how printing was done before the digital era. Dawson's unique collection of type is one of the largest in Canada, and perhaps North America.

Above, on street level, is the Dawson Printshop, which used to be one of the only commercial letterpress print shops in Halifax. Many large old printing presses litter the shop. Some are very rare, like the Vandercook Universal II proof press sitting behind the counter in the main area.

However, due to cost cutting by NSCAD University, the Dawson ceased operations as a commercial enterprise on April 30.

The Dawson was closed after only 10 months. Not nearly long enough for a small business to prove itself, says former co-manager Vincent Perez. "We experienced quite a bit of growth within those 10 months...In our last month of operations, we must have been making 10 times what we were in our first month."

After the closure, Perez moved back home to Ontario.

Perez admits the Dawson wasn't yet profitable, but he says they were well on the way. "I did some finished projections that saw us as profitable within, not this year, but perhaps the year after this one."

You might have seen some of Dawson's work around the city. They printed a lot of posters, and the cover of local arts magazine, Her Royal Majesty.

Harriet Lye, the editor of Her Royal Majesty, says that despite letterpress printing being more costly and time-consuming than digital printing---500 covers took 10 hours of labour---the quality of the work is worth it.

"Each [cover was] done by hand and... [Perez] had such a particular and really meticulous attention to detail. Watching him work, he would make sure everything was absolutely perfect, to the hair's breadth."

The Dawson will continue to be used by NSCAD as a classroom, but Perez is unsure of how well that will work, considering there is no technician to take care of the Dawson collection and to train people to use the presses. The closure resulted in the staff of three being let go.

Several concerned NSCAD faculty wrote a letter telling the administration that the Dawson Printshop and type collection needs a technician.

Paul Maher, a NSCAD design faculty member, says, "It's a library, but it's a library with no staff...People come and take and borrow and return, so the onus is really on the user to put things back in a way that other people can find it, which obviously would be untenable in a library, but we just don't have any other option at this stage."

Perez says a technician is mandatory to "take care of this collection that was generously donated to them, that's rare, completely unique and that needs maintenance and guardianship... The school has to recognize that it's a resource that needs care."

Linda Hutchison, director of university relations, alumni & development, confirms that the Dawson was closed as a cost-cutting measure. When asked if NSCAD would hire a technician, she says she doesn't know. "We're not sure when we can reopen the Dawson. We certainly hope to, when the economic climate improves. It's a wonderful opportunity to show and display the letterpress work that's created in the Dawson. I personally love it."

When asked about NSCAD's current debt and whether it's related to the building of the school's waterfront Port Campus, which opened two years ago, Hutchison says, "That's not a question I'm prepared to answer."

But still the Dawson continues to kick, over a month after its death. Former technician Niko Silvester says she's still taking on the odd job. "Most of them at the moment are jobs that people had inquired about before the shop closed, and I don't want to just say, 'Sorry, go away, we're closed now.'"

She's frustrated, "because we were just starting to get things going...our client list was starting to build up...and each month we were doing a little bit better."

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