What kind of people would answer the door to this shockingly-mint green house in Marietta? What kind of people spend days carving and letter-pressing? As my friend and I pulled up to the home of Bobby Rosenstock and Sara Alway, I sort of hoped we’d step into a time warp: Bobby in suspenders and Sara in a circle skirt. With pink cheeks and drooped brows, they’d be gritty young warriors of the Industrial Revolution.
This is not who we met. Bobby greeted us sporting New Balances, a beanie and tan beard that blended right into his face. His green, ink-stained apron looked as natural on him as his jeans, which happened to be the exact color of his eyes . I guess he looked like your average letter-pressing, wood-carving NY/Portland/Philly to rural Ohio transplant. His wife, Sara, appeared to be a grown-up Lisa Loeb, with cat-eyed frames and perfectly lined eyes. She teaches design at Marietta College, and I suspect that many of her students have been crushing hard.
The two were having a dinner party that night, so Sara stayed upstairs and attempted chocolate mousse cake, and the boys and I headed downstairs.
Bobby works in their small basement with low ceilings, cold floors and walls covered almost entirely with letter-pressed posters. Specialty vintage cabinets and shelves tower in the back and hold thousands of tiny engraved letters. And there’s the letterpress itself, metal and dense, stacked with rollers and a crank. Maybe my Industrial Revolution fantasy was not totally lost.
Bobby uses the letterpress to make custom prints for Just A Jar, which is his and Sara’s press and design business. Sara designs and Bobby creates event posters for Stuart’s Opera House , along with business cards, invitations and fine art. My personal favorite may be the Bruce Springsteen tribute poster with a wood-carving print of the Boss and a verse from “Thunder Road.”
That poster sums up the impression I got of Bobby that day. He keeps it simple, and he has fun. He likes bears, The Jets and Bruce Springsteen. He served us PBRs, Wheat Thins and apple slices. Before, I was pretty sure that the humble, easy-going, good ol’ boy lifestyle was perfected in Ohio, but apparently they grow nice guys in other states, too.
Bobby is from New Jersey, but he received his BA of Fine Arts at Alfred University in Western New York, where he met Sara in the dorms on the first day of school. While he was at Alfred, he ventured to Tasmania where he fell in love with printmaking. After Bobby and Sara graduated, they moved across the country to where most mild-mannered white kids want to land: Portland. After Bobby worked in commercial printing and then as an apprentice (hopefully in suspenders) for a fine arts master printer, he and Sara packed up and headed back East. The two of them enrolled in the University of the Arts in Philadelphia where Bobby graduated with an MFA in printmaking. When Sara was offered a position teaching design at Marietta College last summer, the couple ventured down to a state that, to them, might as well have been Iowa.
“Ohio is, um.. good,” Bobby told us with enormous, polite eyes. He smiled down to the paint he was mixing for the next Stuarts poster. The paint he mixed started too red, and Sara told him to make it lighter.
He went on about his move to Ohio, “We’re able to live as artists and have space. We’re paying less for the mortgage here than for the rent in Philly.”
If someone mentions the word “mortgage,” in my brain, they jump to the top of the “grown-ass adults” list. And that’s what Bobby and Sarah are. They own matching dishes and bake cakes. They own a cat and throw dinner parties. And this summer, after Louis and Clark-ing it for years, Bobby and Sara got married. They seem to have done a lot of living and then settling for people who are 28 and 29 respectively.
Bobby hesitantly continued his thoughts about Ohio, and mentioned that living here does make him feel older than he is. This is where he became a homeowner, a husband and a business man.
“And they don’t teach you about business in art school,” Bobby laughed.
He left the paint and started meticulously typesetting the text for the poster. The letter blocks are ancient, tiny metal things, and Bobby adjusted the kerning and spacing of them with ridiculous focus. Before we met with him, Bobby had spent hours carving a beautiful bighorn sheep skull and then printed it in yellows and pinks. The poster was for a Lucinda Williams show, and Bobby was commissioned to make something rad and then attach the relevant details with it.
“That’s the cool thing with art,” he said, “ You, like, make your picture and stick a band’s name on it, and now 10 times as many people want it.”
There’s that business degree he didn’t get. With Sara’s design expertise and Bobby’s printmaking skills, the two make all sorts of products for Just A Jar, and often, people pay money for them. Sometimes they’re paid to make something promotional, and sometimes they just make stuff and sell it on Etsy. Business.
But Bobby admitted that all that selling can sometimes complicate the way he thinks about art.
“I’m still an artist, and once you start trying to make a living as an artist, it’s hard to stay true to yourself,” Bobby explained as his voice drifted to somewhere else.
Sara had just broken it to him that the stars he used in the text were too contemporary, and his border clashed with the image. He dumped out the tray of letters and started over without a complaint or even a sigh. Back to business.
The people at Stuarts give Bobby a fair amount of freedom with the event posters he makes for them. For this one, they asked him to do something with a skull. Bobby decided to design a yellow sheep skull, a polka-dot background, a pink puffy headline and crisp vintage text at the bottom. But still, with the event posters and Etsy merchandise, it becomes hard to tell if you like something because you like it or because you know other people will buy it. Did you make the art that way because that’s how you wanted to make it, or because that’s how other people want to see it? And do these questions even matter? The line gets pretty blurry.
Luckily, in Ohio, there’s not much else to do besides ponder these sorts of topics, look at trees and diners and seek balance. This seems like just the place for Bobby and Sara to land. Bobby keeps his own style, even for the commissioned work, by using his distinct printing technique that he refers to as, “controlled chaos.” Look at a Stuart’s poster, and you’ll see a totally unique piece of art. When he carves something to press, he does so decisively, with very few preliminary traces. He uses no eraser or magic wand. And when he prints, he prefers to leave smudges and spots if they happen. While he says other printers may see this as sloppy, he sees it as raw and organic. If you’re going to make something and want it to look perfect, you might as well do it digitally.
And if people like his distinct style and want to buy it, then so be it. He pulled the final draft of the Lucinda Williams poster from the press. It’s bright and beautiful, and I had never seen a print like it. Now to make a few hundred more.
Aside from keeping his style in prints like these, Bobby also stays balanced by spending time on other, totally weird, totally unsellable projects.
“I’ve made some terrible stuff that no one would ever want to hang on their wall,” he bragged.
His most recent of these kinds of projects is a six-foot bear-man sculpture that just hangs out upstairs in their living room.
But in the basement, Bobby had enlisted our services. My friend and I took turns snapping the paper in place, turning the crank, holding onto the paper as the ink jumped onto it and pulling out the finished, glowing product. If I had been doing this alone, admittedly, I would have switched the Bruce Springteen radio to piano-based parlor music. I’d dramatically wipe my brow and grumble. Was I going to have to run this revolution my own damn self?!
In real life, I just grinned like a drunk and kept clumsily pumping out posters. Bobby said that this is the part, after all the carving and painting and letter-pressing and editing, when he can relax and zone out. Snap into place. Crank, crank, crank. New poster. Repeat.
As Bobby coasted toward the tail end of this project, it seems that Ohio life too, has gotten a little easier. If this state is anything, it’s comfortable. And after moving every three years for almost a decade, this is the first place Bobby and Sara have landed with some expectation to settle down, buy furniture and throw dinner parties.
But, like any young, enthusiastic industrialists, Bobby and Sara are ready for anything.
“We’ve learned not to predict what happens next,” Sara told us in her assertive teacher voice. And then she ran upstairs to check on her cake.
Photos by Zach Long