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Austin artist's LetterPress Play turns paper into works of fun

Kyle Hawley demonstrates how to create a paper toy at LetterPress Play. The new retail space just opened up on South Congress Avenue.

"LetterPress Play is my thesis that got out of hand," says Austin artist Kyle Hawley. 

She was going to Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles to become an art director, but then she wandered into the letterpress room.

"Never to return again," Hawley says.

She loved playing with the different printing presses and creating art out of paper. 

Hawley, 48, owns LetterPress Play, which has a studio of presses as well as a new retail store on South Congress Avenue, where people can buy paper arts made by Hawley and other artists. 

Kyle Hawley created a greenhouse exhibit as part of the Fortlandia exhibit at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Hawley loves the interaction between people and paper art. This fall, she created one of the forts in the Fortlandia exhibit at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. She outfitted a greenhouse with colorful panels for the walls and roof and created paper flower installations for inside.

She invited the public to with her. People could write messages on paper toys called Constructanotes. The notes would be folded up inside a toy left inside the greenhouse or left at the LetterPress Play studio to be added to the greenhouse later.

Hawley created a way for groups of people to come together as a community and share in a safe way during the pandemic. People wrote about what they loved about their communities.

Fortlandia has ended for the season, but Hawley plans to bring some of the greenhouse elements, including the notes, into the store. 

"This is the beginning of that story," she says. "I don't see it as an ending; it's a relocation." 

LetterPress Play offers different notecards for sale.

The power of play

In Fortlandia and in her art, Hawley tries to bring in elements of play. She rediscovered her love of play and its importance after having children. Play, she says, is what we learn through. "If we can make money at the thing that's more like our play, that's where we've hit the jackpot," she says. 

That's what Hawley's done with her art. "If you're a fine artist, how many people does it reach? If you're a commercial artist, that reaches a lot of people, but what's the point? I hope the point is the moment, the joy, the sharing, the playfulness. The rest shouldn't be a burden," she says. 

She hopes the new store will create a sense of community for artists. 

"When in art school, you have a fluid dialogue with artists, and then you go out into the world. You miss that sense of community," she says. 

LetterPress Play sells different cards made with letterpresses.

In addition to notecards and other stationery from herself and other artists, Letterpress Play offers paper toys Hawley creates for people to build. The toys are an evolution of what she used to do to her gum wrapper while sitting in a church pew in San Angelo or the Dallas area as a child. She would turn that gum wrapper into something else. 

Each toy comes with a set of directions, and by folding or cutting it, you form the paper into something new. Her toys aim to be easy for kids to create as well as to use the entire piece of paper. 

"It's this simple thing you do together in 15 to 20 minutes, and you've finished something. 'I did that,'" she says.

"Then you can keep it or you can compost it, but you've had the tactile experience."

Kyle Hawley demonstrates how to create a letterpress toy at her art studio. Hawley created LetterPress Play, an art studio that creates materials including toys and cards out of paper using letterpresses.

She remembers times with her own children, who are now 8 and 13, when they would sit down to do projects that were too complicated.

"They couldn't do it independently, then there was more cleanup than there was joy, then I was doing the cleanup," she says. "We would sit down together and set out to promote creativity and the exact opposite would happen." 

The power of paper

While she's having fun with paper, Hawley is also serious about it. "For me it holds a lot of power," she says. 

In a world where we are surrounded by technology, she thinks of paper as an original technology.

"I can take some ink on a stick and record this thought, this idea, and pass this idea to the next person," she says.

She took her daughter to see the Gutenberg Bible, printed in the 1450s, at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, and that really crystalized paper as a form of technology to her. Before there was a press and paper, you couldn't own a book sitting on a shelf, she says.

"We think about technology in the present, but ... paper was the first democratic place for sharing ideas. It wasn't just from someone's mouth to the next. You could record it. You could hold it in your hand," she says.

Kyle Hawley 's LetterPress Play offers an area for creating different toys out of paper.

The press continued the evolution of the technology. She thinks of the different presses she has, including one that is from 1888. "Someone poured the cast, someone fit that together," she says. 

It's not just a machine. There's a humanity to them, she says. "It's people that made them, people that kept them, people they told the stories of," she says. These presses, she says, have an interesting cycle of their connection to people.

She finds it all very democratic: The ideas of different groups of people all can come out in these presses.

There's also something very simple and reassuring about seeing the making of letterpress art. It begins with a piece of paper and a machine working together along with ink to create something. 

"There's no pretense to it," she says. 

Hawley finds it very different from today's technologies. Most of us couldn't tell another person how a smartphone works exactly, she says, yet with a letterpress, you can see it working. 

In her studio and now the store, you can see the art being made.

"It's like the campfire," she says of watching an antique press. "It has a draw to everyone." 

She sees her art as "upcycling." You're using the antique machines to do the same job they were designed to do 100 years ago. 

"I love watching this sculpture, this antique machine go," she says. 

LetterPress Play

2002 S. Congress Ave.

Open by appointment for shopping or by curbside pickup, 512-551-3630, shop@letterpressplay.com

letterpressplay.com

Nicole Villalpando writes about health, family and lifestyle for the American-Statesman. She can be reached at nvillalpando@statesman.com.