Proprietor, Salt & Cedar
Letterpress Workshop & Bindery
Megan O’Connell is the proprietor of Salt & Cedar, a letterpress workshop and bindery situated in a 3000-square foot former meat locker in Detroit’s Eastern Market. She comes to the business from a background in academia with expertise in graphic design history and practice, typography, bookmaking, curating, and contemporary issues in art. Together with her partner, Leon Johnson, and their son, Leander, she conceives of, designs, and generates a wide range of collateral — from custom invitations and calling cards to monographs and limited edition suites — for clients around the world. Within the region, Salt & Cedar has produced for Media City Film Festival, Corktown Cinema, Trinosophes, Cranbrook Museum of Art, MOCAD, The Detroit Sound Conservancy, i-prospect, Skidmore Studio, Urban Land Institute, The Arab American National Museum, Our Detroit, the cast and crew of Low Winter Sun, Third Coast, and Eastern Market After Dark. The studio’s first commission was a two-volume bespoke book for Beyonce. Collaborators include Matvei Yankelevich, founder of Ugly Duckling Presse (Brooklyn); Silva Rerum (Detroit); Alison Knowles (NYC); Imago (Reykjavík); Steve Locke (Boston); Mildred’s Lane (Beach Lake, PA); and Concord Museum (Concord, MA). Salt & Cedar’s work has been shared at MoMA (NYC), Walker Art Center (Minneapolis), Vox Populi (Philadelphia), Andalusia: The home of Flannery O’Conner (Milledgeville, GA), Print City (via Wayne State University, Detroit), School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Printed Matter (NYC). Megan and Leon also host after-hours farm-to-table food events, film screenings/premieres, literary readings, design lectures, live music, and workshops at the back-of-the-press.
Book: Orlando by Virginia Woolf (a love letter to Vita Sackville-West).
Sanctuary: A long stretch of beach with a vast horizon line. Or the woods.
Prized possession: Suite of Rob Roy Kelly American vernacular wood type specimens printed in the late ‘60’s. I am the only private individual to own one, the rest are held by special collections libraries and museums. We displayed them at Salt & Cedar in 2013, so that they would be accessible.
Motto: Composition is explanation.
Where were you born?
In St. Paul, Minnesota, fifty years ago.
What were some of the pastimes/passions of your earlier years?
Reading and drawing. I also enjoyed competing in sports — skiing, swimming, tennis, and soccer. In my teens, the Twin Cities had an exhilarating music scene. My home was near a small liberal arts college with a truly experimental station, so I collected albums based on what I heard on the airwaves. I got to see amazing shows, especially at the local gritty punk club. In college, I hosted a radio show and saw more of my hero performers play. Hand-in-hand with my affection for music was an interest in museums. I was fortunate to spend a summer as an intern at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC). Undoubtedly, Walker Art Center (where I eventually was hired as an instructor in the Education Department) and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts shaped my ideas about history, aesthetics, and freedom. I once took an intensive course with a ‘controversial’ artist whose exhibition was boycotted at the MIA. Censorship quickly became a red button issue for me. Maybe that’s why I am now a proponent of academic freedom, civil rights, gender equality issues, and free speech.
How did you get your start in letterpress printing?
A professor at Minneapolis College of Art and Design casually showed me a small room that the design students had all but abandoned. It had foundry type and a press in it. After that toe-dip, I became the first intern at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, learning every aspect of bookmaking, including how to hand composite type and operate a range of Vandercook presses and an Alexandra cast iron hand press (a machine virtually unchanged since the Renaissance). I had access to paper studios at both sites, which was the perfect complement to learning about traditional forms of printing. From this base, I was able to design my own degree in Book Arts at the University of Minnesota. I continued studying papermaking, letterpress, typography, and bookbinding throughout my graduate studies at the University of Iowa. I also, fortuitously, learned various pre-press operations and was able to edition work on a Heidelberg press. Not long after, Printed Matter offered my work for sale and collectors bought it — all before I completed my MFA.
Why does this form of artistic expression suit you?
It is tethered to the past and trajects into the future: there is great pleasure in using forms and combinations that don’t call for a ‘default setting,’ but are based on curiosity and possibility. Nearly always, I am in conversation with a client or a collaborator, so I see myself as a translator as much as a creator. There is a sense both of rigor and play here: restrictions and rules don’t necessarily preclude improvisation. If a finished work is multivalent and opens up some questions or problems, I consider it a success. I don’t limit my work to letterpress, however. When I do design digitally, I apply the tenets I have learned from the analogue to the digital platform. The ethos of Salt & Cedar involves using vintage materials from around the city, some of which have been salvaged, so underpinning nearly every project is a sense of ‘reinterpretation.’ With letterpress, there’s a tangibility factor unrivaled by any other print medium, so it is gratifying to physically find my way through to a solution. Opening a case of type reminds me that I have to be both strategic and agile, as there is a finite range of ‘sorts’ in each. These tight parameters evoke solutions that wouldn’t occur using conventional methods of layout and production. The end result bears a sense of authenticity and — dare I say — aura.
What led to the creation of Salt & Cedar in 2012?
Somewhere between the venerable wine shop and the 125 year-old cheese shop, a print shop was born. We’re here due to the fact that the merchants of the district saw the value of Salt & Cedar as a neighborhood resource, a creative incubator, and a new type of enterprise in Eastern Market. I am forever grateful to the core group who cared enough to help us get up and running in no time flat.
Can you describe the press you use to make your pieces?
Ninety percent of what we print is on a Vandercook SP15 (‘Simple Precision’), built in Chicago in 1964. It is a cylinder press that Leon purchased for me about 15 years ago. It has moved with us from the West Coast, to the East Coast, and in 2011 to Michigan. It is named ‘Siam’ after my grandfather, a first-generation Swedish laborer who once worked in Detroit. Everything about it is ‘perfection.’
Do you have a particular approach [or process] as you begin a project?
First, I determine the substrate size and the color palette. I then begin to hone in on the tone the piece should have. Concerned with the typographic ‘voice,’ I decide which typeface or type family I will use. I then select paper, have it cut down to size, sketch, organize how many runs (and custom plates, if any) the project will have, set type, create a ‘grid’ or organizing field, lock up the type, proof, make a paste-up, correct the actual layout, mix inks, prepare the press (set the roller height, test the packing on the tympan, set the guides), proof again, and then run each color until the job is complete.
What tools of the trade can’t you live without?
Source books, typefaces I will not soon tire of, a pica ruler, a job stick, a self-healing mat, a stash of interesting papers, inks, a modest camera, x-acto knives in various sizes, artist’s tape, a sketchbook/journal, wall space, and flat files.
Is there a project/piece you’ve worked on that has provided an important learning curve?
A Birds Eye View: 33 Poems with Beans by Alison Knowles. It has stretched me in all possible ways. After many prototypes, it will be released early next year in a very limited edition. A related project involved printing a hand-lettered mesostic from John Cage to Alison Knowles. Every time I consider what the project has meant to me and my family, its meaning is compounded.
Who/what are your artistic influences?
The above, as well as my mentors, Hans Breder and David Dunlap, whom I just visited after a 20-year gap. I also hold the early 20th C. avant-garde movements in high regard, along with Fluxus. Any artist who has created multiples interests me. I’ve been reading a lot about Detroit-born artist Ray Johnson lately. Ultimately, all of the work I create is in direct dialogue with Leon Johnson, the wisest of the wise.
Is there a book or a film that has changed you?
A trilogy of films by Leon Johnson: Faust/Faustus; After; Fortress/Boy/Bridge.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
It was not advice given, per se, but others have reflected back to me the fact that I embody ‘grace’ in various ways: how I conduct professional relationships, in the way I teach/mentor, in accepting the obstacles inherent to all processes, in moving past disappointments.
What’s next for Salt & Cedar?
Along with creating a selection of printed commissions in-house, we are preparing for the Detroit Art Book Fair (organized by DittoDitto), the Detroit Design Festival (in partnership with Untitled Detroit), Eastern Market After Dark, MAPC’s Print City (Wayne State University), an exhibition at Lake Forest Library (Illinois), a pop-up via Playground Detroit (at Michele Varian Boutique, Soho), ‘Power to the Vanguard’ the collected political ephemera of Brad Duncan (Trinosophes), a partnership with Mobile Frames International Filmmakers in Residence to screen the films of Julie Murray (Ireland), and an exhibition of heart-stopping, deeply beautiful works on paper by Leon Johnson (for ARK). All of this, in addition to our Book & Bread workshops offered a few times each month. The place is humming!
On top of being part-time faculty in the Art Department at Wayne State University this term, I have visiting artist gigs at The Press at Colorado College (with Aaron Cohick) and Virginia Commonwealth University (at the invitation of David Shields). PLUS a decidedly special project with Jonathan Kung (Kung Food), Joseph Wesley Black Tea, and Leon Johnson is currently in the works.