INSIDE AN HISTORIC 1892 BRICK BUILDING in the heart of Minnesota Czech country, a Letterpress Print Show drew me to The Arts & Heritage Center of Montgomery. The show, continuing until February 26, features the art of Craig Kotasek of Tin Can Valley Printing Co. in nearby Le Sueur.
As a journalist and an art lover especially appreciative of letterpress printing, I delighted in this exhibit of an art now in revival. Not only that, I hold a connection to Kotasek. We both worked at The Gaylord Hub, me as my first newspaper reporting job straight out of college in 1978 and he as an apprentice printer there in 1999. We learned under the mentorship of Jim Deis, then editor and publisher of the generational family-owned newspaper. I’ve never met Kotasek, yet I feel linked via The Hub.
To view his art is to gain an appreciation for a past printing process. In letterpress printing, movable raised wood or lead letters/type are pieced together in a frame, then secured before inking onto paper via a printing press. That’s a simplistic explanation. If multiple ink colors are required, the process is layered, longer, more labor intensive. Likewise, art carved from linoleum or wood blocks goes through a similar process in creating fine art prints, gig posters and more.
When I entered the narrow room which houses The Arts & Heritage Center in the small southern Minnesota community of Montgomery and saw Kotasek’s letterpress art, memories rushed back. Memories of the strong scent of ink, the clacking of noisy printing presses, scenes of printers Dale and Bucky laboring in stained printers’ aprons, me trying to hear phone conversations with sources. Me pounding out news stories on an aged manual typewriter against the backdrop of all that noise.
But on this February morning, quiet prevailed as I studied the work of this craftsman, this visual artist. Letterpress is both craft and art.
Beneath professional portraits of Kolacky Days queens, which ring this room near the ceiling, hang examples of Kotasek’s assorted creations. Gig posters for musical groups (including his own Oxbow Boys band). Fine art prints created with hard-carved blocks. A mix of letterpress and block. And on a shelf, a box of his popular letterpress greeting cards. Another display holds his $10 numbered prints.
I feel such an appreciation for Kotasek. His love for the letterpress craft shows in his printing skills, his creativity. To get clear, crisp prints takes patience, practice, time, effort. But before that comes the visualization, the creativity, the ability to bring many elements together in hands-on work.
A tall enclosed cabinet holds some of Kotasek’s tools of the craft. Letters. Rollers. Ink. Wood-cuts. All offer a glimpse into this artist’s world. He’s gathered abandoned, about-to-be-scrapped printing presses and other printing tools from small town newspapers in Minnesota and set up shop in a renovated granary on the family farm just outside Le Sueur. His studio overlooks the valley, home of the Jolly Green Giant associated with Minnesota Valley Canning Company, later Green Giant.
Kotasek pays homage to the vegetable canning company in the name of his printing business, Tin Can Valley Printing. On his website, he offers several explanations, one referencing a farmer who fed discarded canned vegetables to his pigs from damaged cans. As the story goes, the pig farmer tossed those empty tin cans into a ravine. During a massive flood of the Minnesota River Valley in 1965, the cans reportedly floated into town, causing an array of issues. The name Tin Can Valley stuck. I like the historic reference, the memorable moniker.
I found myself drawn to Kotasek’s Green Giant-themed prints. I purchased No. 38 of his 2019 “Niblets Corn Sign” 8 x 10 card stock print. It’s a reproduction of a metal sign that once marked the Green Giant canning factory in Le Sueur. The four-color print, crafted from wood type and hand-carved wood and linoleum blocks, features the legendary Green Giant hefting a massive ear of sweetcorn. The image is iconic rural Minnesota.
Kotasek represents in many ways the past of newspapers in Minnesota. Early editors printed their papers with letterpress. They also served their communities as print shops. When I worked at The Gaylord Hub, farm auction bills flew off the aged printing presses. Kotasek remembers the endless fundraiser raffle tickets he printed while learning the printing trade.
If you’re interested in meeting Kotasek, visit The Arts & Heritage Center of Montgomery, 206 First Street North, between 9 am – noon on Saturday, February 26, during an artist’s reception. The center is open limited hours: from 2-5 pm Thursdays and Fridays and from 9 am-noon on Saturdays. The show closes February 26.
While in Montgomery, be sure to check out the shops (gift, floral, quilt, thrift, drugstore…) and stop at Franke’s Bakery for a sweet treat. You’ll find kolacky there in this self-proclaimed “Kolacky Capital of the World.” The town is also home to Montgomery Brewing and Pizzeria 201 (a popular local eatery with curbside pick-up only currently). I encourage you to check destination hours in advance of a visit to avoid disappointment. Also notice the historic architecture, the photo tributes to veterans and the town mural (across from the bakery). Montgomery rates as one of my favorite area small towns…because of The Arts & Heritage Center and more.
© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling