Studio Visit: Emma Young

Photography by Maggie Shannon

September 06 2015

Our friend and photographer Maggie Shannon recently ventured out to Martha’s Vineyard to visit the garden studio of letterpress artist and poet laureate Emma Young. We spoke with Young about her elegantly holistic approach to poetry, design, and life.

Emma Young

Hometown? West Tisbury, Martha’s Vineyard Island, MA.
Current Location? West Tisbury.
How do you take your coffee?
Chilmark Coffee Company beans (best on the island), 3 tbs if it’s just me or 5 tbs if I’m brewing for my barn-mate too, ground in a Hario hand-grinder, pour-over straight into the mug, cream & a dash of maple syrup.
What’s your Sunday routine?
Coffee as described might be my only routine. I often dip into my studio projects, but try to make time for the NYT or whatever book I’m into, swimming or sailing if it’s summer, or walking & talking if it’s winter. Sunday is a day to check in with the people & things that I love.

How would you define your art practice?
I’ve never defined it before! But there’s no separation between art & life. I live in a way that informs my writing, and the writing informs the visual content. I have done many different things in the working world, and over time it just became true that I was earning my money in my studio too, doing design & creating custom letterpress for clients.

Congratulations on being named West Tisbury Poet Laureate! How did your journey with poetry begin?
Thank you! When I was nine I wrote a poem in school called ‘green’. It was about the color green. I’ve been writing ever since & I can’t say my style has changed very much. Again, I have the feeling I’m doing something so natural to me, that my community has now given me a platform on which to do it. 

Your letterpress work seems to be the visual extension of a holistic approach to poetry, how did you begin to integrate printing into your practice?
It was actually the concept of the letterhead that go me into design & letterpress. I dig a lot of writers from the early 20th century, when that was the technology. In that era writers were starting to experiment more in content & form. They also wrote a lot of letters, & I view that personal writing as an extension of the artist’s body of work. The representative power of a personal letterhead, your graphic symbol for yourself, made me want to play with that for my own writing. Those writers showed me how much the font, color, & graphic layout can set a tone & change the experience of reading. Metal type are like building blocks, and every step of the process is so conscious. So when I started setting type & printing, suddenly I was as in control of the visual aspect of a poem as I was of the words that comprised it.

When and Where did you acquire your letterpress from?
I have three presses. The first one a friend saw on craigslist & encouraged me to pursue it. The second was given to me by a 94 year old man who lived just down the road from my studio; he hadn’t used it since the 70’s. The third I bought this winter in Jersey City & named her Cocolette after a Peruvian candy bar.

You have a collection of woodblock as well as metal type – where do you source your type from?
The type comes from all over. Salvage yards, collectors, flea markets; pretty much anywhere but the internet, where I find it’s over-priced. I’ve been lucky enough to have been given quite a bit of type from older people who are excited to see someone young taking up the craft.

Do you have a favorite typeface?
It’s hard to choose a favorite; my collection is dated to a certain era, and limited to what I can find. In my studio, I love classic, reliable, Century Old Style Roman, & I love the calligraphic weight of Lydian. But lately all I can think in is Cheltenham.

How did you come to work the Beetlebung Farm in Chilmark, and do you have any remarks on the relationship?
When I moved home to the island about five years ago, I was working as a librarian, but also a part time farmer at Beetlebung to stay happy & healthy. Chris, the farmer there, is also a chef & held private dinners, so I started making letterpress menus for them. It expanded to the point that I was essentially creating the aesthetics of the brand he was building in all his food exploits. And so, when he got the cookbook deal, he decided to incorporate my letterpress menus into the structure of the book; each menu announces all the recipes in a chapter. Then, when we abruptly lost our book designer, Chris called me. I bought a laptop the next day & taught myself enough photoshop & indesign to create the concept design. It made sense since I had been growing food, cooking, & creating visuals with him since he took over the farm from his family. I knew exactly what the vibe is at the farm, and the nuances of his cooking style; so it was my job to represent that in The Beetlebung Farm Cookbook.

Your work has a very rooted sense of time and place – what preparations will you be making as we transition into fall?
Summer is so lush, so busy, that I am looking forward to fall. The island quiets down, but the garden is still producing, the ocean is still warm; we islanders live like kings and queens. I tend to have less commissions in the fall & winter, & that means more time for writing, and more time for my own projects. I’m working on a new cycle of poetry I’m calling Adamantine; thinking about the core sense of self every individual has, unchangeable by time & place(interestingly enough!). In my studio I’m collaborating with a friend who makes a mead every month of the year using a different foraged ingredient; for example mulberries in July & birch in January. I’ll be creating a calendar & mixing an ink color for each of those wild flavors. This transition of seasons is all about gathering ideas for the coming hibernation!

Maggie Shannon is a photographer based in Brooklyn. See our interview with her, as well as her recent studio visits with Pau Wau Publications and Rollin Leonard