Art from an Antique

Whitefish letterpress artist uses century-old printing press to make greeting cards, wedding invitations and more

By Maggie Dresser
Elisheba Bagrow of Lichen and Pines Letterpress in her print studio in Whitefish on Dec. 16, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After working in the Bob Marshall Wilderness for six seasons, Elisheba Bagrow was looking for a more creative outlet to help her transition out of the U.S. Forest Service. Even though she’s always had an artistic side, she didn’t seek any formal education for it until she attended the Seattle School of Visual Concepts for a design illustration course after she decided to leave seasonal work.

“I wanted to pursue art more,” Bagrow said. “I always loved cards and stationary and someone suggested I make them myself and I said, ‘That’s crazy.’”

After the two-and-a-half month course, she returned to Montana and wasn’t sure she would be able to buy a printing press because of their unique nature.

But in 2017, Bagrow found a 100-year-old, 2,000-pound steel and cast iron motorized printing press, which she named Baby Girl, at Gull Printing in Polson and launched Lichen and Pines Letterpress. She used engine lifts and tow trucks to transport the machine to her studio in Whitefish, which has a garage door since the massive apparatus couldn’t fit through a standard door.

While her past jobs as a trail crew worker and river ranger seem drastically different than her current career as an artist, she sees the handwork as a common thread. She also noticed her love for working with old tools while using a crosscut saw in the Bob.

“I like the old way of doing things,” she said.

Bagrow moved back to the Flathead in the fall of 2019 after a period in Bozeman where she worked with other artists. Now that she’s returned, she’s hoping to letterpress full-time once she’s more established. While she currently works almost full-time at an interior design company in town, she’s keeping busy with her letterpress gig making greeting cards, business cards and wedding invitations.

“It’s nice to do different designs,” she said. “A lot of my stuff is based around nature.”

Bagrow sells her greeting cards to local retailers like Underscore Art Gallery, Forage and Floral and Kintla Creative, but she’s also hoping to make more wedding invitations in the future.

“All the pretty things like ribbon and paper and wax seals, you get to work with so much beautiful stuff when it comes to weddings,” Bagrow said. “I’ve always been drawn to those kinds of details.”

For her custom cards, Bagrow uses a modern printing process with polymer plates to create a unique customized design for each client. She then mixes the ink, which goes on a plate and is rolled over using the motor-powered press, evenly spreading the ink and creating the image. She also uses more traditional styles like clamshell and platen presses.

Bagrow said it has been a challenge to establish herself during the pandemic. But she’s gotten some consistent work mostly through word-of-mouth and social media.

After growing up in Tennessee and bouncing around Montana for the last decade, Bagrow says the press has grounded her not only because of its massive size and its challenging transportation logistics, but she feels committed to being a letterpress artist in the Flathead Valley.

“I’ve tried a variety of things and I’ve had a lot of opportunities and experienced a lot,” she said. “For better or worse, this is my focus and it’s a pretty serious commitment.”

Bagrow says she’s so invested in Baby Girl that she could never justify putting it into storage.

“I would have to sell it if I wasn’t going to use it,” Bagrow said. “Because it needs to be used in my opinion.”

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