Alithea O’Dell puts her entire heart into everything she does. From wedding planning to inspiring humankind to rethink how they think and talk about body image … hell, she’s even excelled at being a ska fan! Years ago, when we were both literal babies, I interviewed her for being one of Seattle’s most dedicated Aquabats fan.
We’ve been friends ever since.
Now, twelve years later, I’m interviewing her again. She (relatively) recently became passionate about printmaking and launched Anchorless Prints, where she turns memorable quotes from writers and musicians like Lindy West, Samantha Irby, Tacocat and The Weakerthans and into framable pieces of art.
But printmaking wasn’t always her obvious passion — a lot of life happened before she was able to fully realize this long-standing love for the printing process. And when I asked her about printmaking, she didn’t just give me stories about sorting and arranging plates, positioning paper and attempting to not lose a finger all the while — instead, she filled my brain with inspiring and vulnerable observations about personal growth, tips on how to embrace creative challenges and she even passed along a damn good smoothie recipe. I should’ve known. Because that’s Alithea. She’s always leading with her whole heart.
You can see — and buy! — Alithea’s work at Anchorless Prints. Follow her on Instagram here.
One of my favorite things about you is that you fully throw yourself into whatever it is you love. But printmaking seems to have clicked with you in a way nothing has before. How did you discover printmaking and what about it has you hooked?
Let me start out by saying there is a very silly and frustratingly pedantic discourse among people who have too much free time about what is and is not considered "printmaking." For instance, I do a lot of letterpress, which is sometimes considered "book art," but I have never made a single book (and don't really feel compelled to —SORRY BOOK ART NERDS go saddle stitch something about it). I, and others, are of the opinion that if you are putting ink to paper using pressure, that is printmaking — including but not limited to screen printing, monotype printing, linoleum printing, and yes, letterpress printing — so that is the umbrella term I'll use here!! Sorry for this punisher intro, but it felt necessary.
Anyways, on to your question!!!!
It's sort of hard to explain, because parts of my love of printmaking have been there since I was a tiny kiddo: I loved stamp making and any kind of paper craft in elementary and middle school, and I did a bit of screen printing in high school which I also loved (shout out to that DIY Atom and his Package shirt I made!!!!1). When Flatstock was part of Bumbershoot, I spent all year looking forward to it and the abundance of screen printed (and occasionally letterpress printed) posters that came with it. It never occurred to me that these were things I could pursue, so instead I just thought of myself as an appreciator of the craft and bounced around to other jobs.
I think the thing that really made me love printmaking is a deep appreciation for the craftsmanship it takes. With printmaking, you can hold A Thing in your hand and appreciate the quality of craftsmanship that it took to make That Thing: the beautiful paper someone made by hand, the intentional use of matte and glossy ink to create dimension, the debossment of a copper plate pressed into damp paper, the texture created by metal type.
In a world that feels overwhelmed with like, horrifyingly unsustainable high-pay/high-turnover tech start up positions, and the pressure to "disrupt" everything from dog walking to groceries, printmaking is awfully slow. It is focused on craft and technique in a way that is remarkably basic and fantastically rewarding. The best presses are over a hundred years old and the best teacher is going to be old timer who doesn't have a cell phone and may or may not have lost a finger in a press, you know? That vibe does not exist many places anymore.
One of the moments that really sticks with me is from about 12 years ago: I was in a very bad abusive relationship and really feeling very lost. I had gone to Portland with my terrible boyfriend while he attended a work event, and was wandering the streets of Portland alone just trying to occupy my time. In the Pearl District, I came across a stationary store called Oblation. Inside, there was an area that was separated from the store by a wall of antique windows, and you could watch their press operators on the other side print cards on these beautiful antique Chandler & Price platen presses. Printing on a platen press is a really magical thing that requires a deep level of focus and intuition with your body and the machine: you need to pedal the treadle in sync with the timing of inserting each blank card, and removing the printed card, and doing everything in a way that ensures your hand does not get crushed to absolute pieces in the iron press. It is just such an awesome thing to watch, and takes a very skilled person to do print on one of these presses. I watched this room full of people do this weird dance, printing greeting cards and business cards and whatnot, and was in complete awe, and knew on a molecular level that I wanted to know every thing possible about this process.
Unfortunately, learning letterpress in Seattle at the time was cost-prohibitive, so instead I watched every documentary about letterpress, read every blog, used many free trials on Skillshare to learn about the process, and scoured every stationary store, still committed to that role as an appreciator. This spark followed me and showed up in many places in my 20s: wedding invitations and the associated paper ephemera were always one of my favorite things about planning a wedding, and for a while I helped a friend with his printing company — everything from helping to open a storefront to selling at craft shows (RIP Row Boat Press FKA Seattle Show Posters). Even when I worked as a visual merchandiser or designing floral arrangements for clients, those jobs used the same set of creative skills — color, texture, and balance — that I use in printmaking now.
About four years ago when I was still living in Seattle, I had what I can see now was a significant mental breakdown after nearly 15 years of ignoring my mental health. I lost almost everything in the process: my business, many friends, and any confidence I had in myself. I put almost all of my belongings in a 5x7 storage unit and moved into my mom's studio apartment in Olympia, the town where I had grown up and where I had learned to screen print so many years before. It was one of the hardest times in my life, and I still carry immense amounts of shame about it, but it gave me the chance to start over completely. I decided to go back to school at Evergreen State College, with the idea that if I had a four-year degree, I could get a stable job with the State and build an intentional life for myself there in Olympia — buy a house, have a kid, etc. I also got involved with a community letterpress studio called Community Print, mostly because it was cheap and kinda scrappy. I didn't really expect it to be The Thing For Me, just a thing to study and to tinker with until I graduated and got that sweet, reliable state job.
I started Evergreen in September 2018 in a program that centered around landscapes and printmaking, then was able to do a deep dive into monotype printmaking and also create an internship to help Community Print get off the ground in their new space, became an organizing member at Community Print which means I also teach letterpress classes, and then suddenly found myself making a plan for grad school. Surprise, it turns out this is, without a doubt, The Thing For Me. And looking back over the last 20 years it's like, "DUH OF COURSE THIS IS WHAT I SHOULD HAVE BEEN DOING," but I don't know if it would have clicked back then the way it does now. Often times students and faculty will be surprised when they learn I have only been doing this since September, but the reality is that I spent 15 years learning everything I could, just gobbling up information and art as much as possible, before finally, FINALLY learning how to print.
Here is me printing on a Chandler and Price platen press, not smashing my hands even a little bit.
You recently posted about greeting card ideas on Instagram — will there be Anchorless Prints greeting cards in the future? (Please say yes, please say yes, please say yes.)
I am hoping so!! Greeting cards feel like the most accessible form of printmaking and art in general — they are little $5 prints, basically, and an artist can create them with almost any printmaking process, and you can buy them in the store and frame them to create unique, affordable, handmade art. I don't even know how many thousands of hours I have spent browsing handmade cards, trying to find the perfect one to give, or just to appreciate the cards themselves — I have boxes of them that I bought just because they were so cool looking. Remember Nancy on Second Ave. between Fancy and Schmancy? What a dream that store was.
I am hoping to print a small run of fun, unique cards that myself and my friends would be thrilled to receive or to give. I am still working ideas out, but one will definitely say "Sorry this card arrived on punk time."
I’ve experimented with new hobbies over the past couple years and I’ve loved how they’ve allowed me (lol, in some cases forced me) to learn new things about myself. I feel like I got in a rhythm with life and didn’t try new things — I kept doing what I knew I was good at and nothing else — which is so weird but probably common! Have you learned anything new about yourself as you’ve returned to school and found this new artistic outlet?
YES, absolutely. One of the most major things that this experience has taught me is to really be aware, and combat internal narratives about myself. I thought that because I was not good at drawing*, I would not be good at art**. I thought that I didn't like to be challenged, and now I find myself frustrated that I am not challenged enough. I thought that I was too sensitive for constructive criticism, but now I have to explicitly tell my faculty to criticize my work as much as possible so I get better.
I also thought that if I wasn't good at something, I shouldn't do it at all, because what's the point in doing something if you are a bad at it?? Which I guess is true in some instances (like, if you aren't good at brain surgery, PLEASE, do not do a brain surgery!) but it definitely is not true in others. When I learn a creative skill, even something distantly related to art, I am always able to fold it in to my own artistic practice. Maybe I'll take a pottery class and I will be terrible at pottery, but maybe it will also cause me to think about visual mass and weight differently, and that has immediate value to my art. Being open to something new without caring about whether or not I will be good at it is one of the greatest skills I have now that I did not have even two years ago.
This also applies to non-creative skills. I thought I was bad at math for like, 25 years. I took a math class with a great teacher, and it turns out, I am fucking great at math. Math became my favorite subject, which if you had told me this even five years ago, is so profoundly out of bounds for who I thought I was, and what I thought I was good at, that I would have called the cops on you and maybe fought you right then and there. There is incredible power in finding the thing you think you are bad at, looking into its eyes, and proving it wrong.
*Okay listen, it turns out I am actually fine at drawing, it just takes me a very long time to draw a thing I am happy with, and I find that process so, so boring. There is no joy in drawing for me. Maybe this will change?? I sort of hope it does??? But in the mean time, fuck drawing.
**Recently a teacher and I were talking about the concept of being "good at art", and she said: "If you are a bad cook, do you just stop eating? No, you figure out a way to eat so you don't DIE. Similarly, if you are an artist, you will figure out a way to make art." and it blew my idiot brain wide open. 30 years of thinking because I was not good at drawing or painting that I couldn't be an artist, but it turns out, I am an artist, I am just not an illustrator or painter.
Let’s talk about snacks. You have great tastes in snacks. What are some of your favorites right now?
Goofyfoot Pretzels all day long, especially the white truffle flavor. They, as a company, definitely have Big Youth Group Energy, but I do not even care a little because their small batch pretzels are SO good.
I also started making smoothies every morning (after thinking for 15 years that I am 100% not a smoothie person! Again, fighting that internal narrative!) and they've become the highlight of my day, and I get sad when I can't make one. When I drink one in the morning, I feel super powerful, which is important because printmaking is very hard on the body and requires a ton of focus. My smoothies are packed with protein and are super delicious.
My favorite combo is:
1 aggressive handful of fresh spinach
1/3rd cup of full fat, unflavored greek yogurt
1/3 cup frozen pineapple
2/3 cup frozen blueberries
1 tablespoon flax seed meal
A glug or two of unsweeted soy milk
Shove everything into a mason jar (because they are cheap and don't get ruined when I leave them in my car to fester for a week on accident), immersion blend that shit, drink, enjoy, crush your enemies.
Speaking of greek yogurt, Ellenos Yogurt is now available at Costco, so you know I am gobblin' that shit up.
You no longer live in Seattle. I no longer live in Seattle. Apparently Seattle has gone to Hell since we left and I’m not sure I’d want to move back given how much it’s changed. But how much do you miss Rancho Bravo nachos?
Rancho Bravo nachos are one of the few things I do miss, but also, at the same time, I come to Seattle every six weeks or so (for shows, to get my hair cut, whatever) and I have not gone there EVEN ONCE?? So maybe I don't miss it as much as I think I do. Maybe I just miss the company (THAT MEANS YOU MEGAN SELING).
I will say that I have zero desire to move back to Seattle, and even though it is very shiny, it does feel like a certain kind of hell. I have spent a lot of time over the last year thinking about where, physically, I belong. I plan on going to grad school in two years, and the programs I am looking at are not exactly in ~illustrious locations~. At the same time, I have been thinking about the cultural narrative around small towns, around the mid-west, around coastal elitism, and around what I need to be happy in a place. For a long time, there was this idea that you could only be a successful artist if you lived in New York or LA, and like, I hate those places (SORRY BUT I DO), so does that mean I will never be able to have a career in art? Also, when you look at cities with substantial funding for visual arts in grants or other opportunities, or what cities have funding for artist housing or work spaces, its not New York or LA. It’s places like Cleveland, Ohio and Lincoln, Nebraska. It’s working class towns. It’s towns with reasonable costs of living. Seattle is beautiful and it taught me so much about who I am, but how can I love a city that isn't built to love me back?
You can see — and buy! — Alithea’s work at Anchorless Prints. Follow her on Instagram here.
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