By Giovanna Marcus
When Elsbeth Pope’s future-husband Jim Holly proposed to her in the mid-80s, he presented a choice—either a wedding ring or a Vandercook SP15 printing press. Her decision made, the second-hand, 750 pound press went into her basement studio, and the marriage commenced.
Dr. Pope was a scholar and a teacher, with two masters degrees and a doctorate in Library Science. She was also an avid printer, a love that sprung from a fascination with limited edition artist’s books. The first printing studio she created was an elaborate lesson designed to teach her students what it took to print a book.
Pope and her husband lived for many years in Shelton on Hammersley Inlet. In the 90s, Pope founded Hypatia-in-the-Woods, a women’s artist residency where artists can still apply to spend uninterrupted time producing art.
Years later in 2009, Pope—then widowed—suffered a stroke, which left her wheelchair-bound. She was limited in her daily tasks, including printing on her beloved Vandercook. The press sat unused for four years until one day, at the age of 87, Pope sought an intern to assist her.
Jennifer Hukee, 44, is the Olympia-based artist who jumped at the opportunity. Hukee met Pope, and her “assistant,” a service dog Gilly who was trained to pick things up for Pope. That day Pope showed Hukee her collection of one-of-a-kind books. “I didn’t know that books could so beautiful,” said Hukee. The two started working together weekly to complete Pope’s unfinished projects.
“It was a real honor to asset her in the printing,” said Hukee. “I was determined to spend time with Elsbeth for as long as she was alive. It was amazing how quickly she became a dear friend and mentor.”
On breaks they shared lunch. Hukee asked Pope questions about her life—how she put herself through school, how she became so independent and motivated, about her stint as a reference librarian at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. Pope told of her love for type and poetry broadsides, and would show Hukee the newest applications to the artist residency.
Their relationship differed from that of a traditional printer and apprentice, where the unglamorous grunt work is delegated to the apprentice for years. Pope was more casual. “She was pretty free with her knowledge of printing; she valued passing that along,” said Hukee, who appreciated Pope’s attitude about things being “good enough” rather than perfect. In turn, Pope appreciated Hukee’s enthusiasm for learning.
“Once in the studio I was cleaning the press and Elsbeth reached up and patted her press like someone would pat their faithful dog that had been with them for years,” recounts Hukee.
Pope and Hukee were printing in the basement on Pope’s last day at home. Pope was rushed to the hospital in May 2013 for an emergency surgery, surviving for two weeks before dying of an infection. The two had worked together for five months.
After Pope’s death, Hukee asked Pope’s stepsons if she could purchase the Vandercook to create a letterpress and printed book studio. Hukee felt compelled to help realize Elsbeth’s vision for teaching the art of letterpress. Hukee worked extra jobs painting houses to fund the purchase and studio, and created a wildly successful Indiegogo campaign, which raised $10,000 in just 14 days. “It was affirming that it was the right thing to do,” said Hukee.
The studio, Pope Press, opened March 15 at 607 5th Ave SE in Olympia. The space includes an art gallery and space for workshops and classes. It also includes three small table-top presses used to print business cards. Bookbinding classes will be forthcoming as well. In the future, Hukee hopes to add classes for artistically inclined teenagers.
Once community members become proficient, they are qualified to rent the press hourly during open studio hours. One-on-one instruction is available, as well as the popular “Learn to Print With a Friend” day.
Less than a year ago, Hukee had asked Elsbeth about her vision for the print studio, and she replied that she wanted people to learn on it. With Pope Press’ operations well underway, Hukee has ensured her mentor’s vision and memory will live on.
“It’ll always be Elsbeth’s press,” said Hukee, “it’s her wedding ring.”
Visit http://popepressolympia.com for more information.