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In a digital world, this Ohio artist keeps his posters old-school

A man in an artist's smock stands in front of a white wall full of colorful posters advertising musicians.
Kendall Crawford
Ohio Newsroom
Bobby Rosenstock prints each poster made a Just A Jar Design with a printing press.

The walls of a small shop in the downtown strip of Marietta look more like a concert venue. The plastered posters boast bright sketches with the names of world-renowned musicians: Willie Nelson. John Prine. Soundgarden. Indigo Girls. And a lot of Billy Strings.

The illustrations are varied, but you can catch a glimpse of wood grain in each one. Look closely, and you can spot a few stray scratches in the designs. That’s because they aren’t designed on a computer. Instead, their creator uses a device from before he was born.

“There's a story behind every printing press,” said artist Bobby Rosenstock.

Each poster at his shop, Just A Jar Designs, starts with a block of wood that Rosenstock carefully carves, smothers in ink and then inserts into an old Vandercook flatbed printing press.

A large printing press sits in Just A Jar Design shop in Marietta.
Kendall Crawford
Ohio Newsroom
Rosenstock uses an antiquated printing press for each of his artful posters.

“The type of work I'm doing here is what a print shop in the late 1800s or early 1900s would look like,” Rosenstock said. “It's an age-old tradition that dates back to Johann Gutenberg in the 1400s.”

Embracing imperfection

Today, Rosenstock wears an ink-stained apron as he feeds paper into a circa-1960s printing press. He’s printing posters for Marietta College’s matriculation ceremony, a souvenir for each college freshman.

He’s already carved the outline of the campus into a wood block, first drawing it onto graphite paper and then tracing its mirror image on the wood. Next, he picked out a typeface from one of the seven font-filled cabinets in his studio.

These choices show up in the final product: each piece of art he makes bears the history of the machine it's made with.

“Some of the letters have nicks in them. And every time I print that 'N' there's a little bit of a distress line in it,” Rosenstock said. “And that's because some printer 80 years ago dropped that wooden 'N' and on the floor, and it's scratched. And now it prints like that every time.”

A man stands facing cabinets full of typeface.
Kendall Crawford
Ohio Newsroom
Rosenstock collects vintage typeface to use for his posters.

He fixes the design onto the flatbed of his press – making sure to align it perfectly in the path of spinning, ink-smeared rollers. Then, he slides a piece of poster paper into the printer’s carriage and manually cranks the carriage across the bed. A beautiful blue appears on the page.

He’ll let it dry and then put the poster through the process six more times, carving a new block and adding a new layer of color with each press.

You crank, repeat, crank, repeat,” Rosenstock said.

A man in an artist's smock cranks a lever and feeds paper into an 20th century printing press.
Kendall Crawford
Ohio Newsroom
Rosenstock has been making woodcut prints for nearly two decades.

Many letterpress printers avoid color because of the way it prolongs every print, but Rosenstock embraces the lengthy process. He usually incorporates up to seven or eight pigments in each of his designs.

There's a lot of planning that goes into it before it could even get to the press. But I've been doing it for a while now that it kind of becomes second nature,” Rosenstock said.

Acclaimed clientele

It’ll take 40 hours for his artistic vision to be stamped onto 400 posters.

That’s a typical order size for an artist as popular as John Prine or Billy Strings, one of his recurring clients. Many of the posters printed in this small storefront will make their way to concert halls, dive bars and fans’ homes across the nation.

Getting to make posters for artists who you admire, your heroes, it's definitely a pretty big thrill,” he said.

Despite the added time and expense, Rosenstock said folk artists seek his work out. His letterpress’s handmade style lends itself well to traditional Appalachian acoustics, he said. It’s another art form that was passed down through generations.

“It's not something you can recreate, digitally or in any other medium. You have to go the long, hard way to get all those authentic details,” Rosenstock said.

Community focus

The process is slow-moving and, Rosenstock admits, a bit impractical. But the way he sees it, he’s working with history. He said printing presses used to be the vital center of small towns like Marietta.

“They say power to the press. Whoever has the print shop can share information and spread knowledge and all sorts of things throughout the community,” he said. “ So the local print shop, in small towns, historically, had an important role within the community.”

That’s why, despite the rock star pedigree of his posters, he still works for Marietta College and all number of other local organizations: breweries, food pantries, roller derby teams, local farms, girl scout troops.

A man pets dog in front of an antique printing press.
Kendall Crawford
Ohio Newsroom
Rosenstock's dog Lucy often accompanies him at his studio.

He said print shops like his probably won’t ever be able to reclaim their central role in spreading knowledge, but they can create posters that brighten their communities and the businesses within them.

[Local] jobs aren't as sustainable economically as some of the bigger types of client work. But [they] are extremely fulfilling.”

So, that’s what he’ll continue to do, preserving a slower way of life in Marietta with every press.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.