Felicia Rice & Moving Parts Press:
A Climate Crisis Story and a California Wildfire Story
“Told through the Medium of Letterpress Printing I believe the legacy of Mendocino as a center for the arts is a large part of its attraction.
As artists, my family has proven over generations that it has something to offer this community. Our work has always been of and for community.”
– Felicia Rice, Fall 2020
A California Wildfire Story, the First Anniversary
Visiting Felicia Rice one day last August, she was standing in the combined kitchen-dining room of the house that was originally her parents’ home in Mendocino. The room was nearly empty of furniture except for a few practical pieces—a table, two chairs. No clutter. She would be renting it out soon and she had come up from her home studio in Santa Cruz for a few days to prepare the small place for a new tenant.
On the table she had laid out her most recent publication to show me—The Necropolitics of Extraction, a book-length publication inspired by the writings of professor T.J. Demos. This limited edition artist’s book is a deep and critical visual exploration of Demos’s themes. Felicia’s illustrative prints mirror and interpret the text in book form—in other words, publishing books—but publishing on a creative scale that I have rarely encountered, even amidst the rich history of California book arts.
As a letterpress printer myself, I have followed her career with awe, continually amazed by her fearless and bold use of complex imagery derived through both innovative and traditional relief printmaking techniques on the letterpress, and her equally fearless and potent subject matter. Her artists’ books make use of an array of inspired images, including drawings and photographs that are interwoven with distressed words and mercurial sentences, mixing word and image, creating a new medium unto itself—something that has not existed before in quite this way. In the case of Necropolitics, Felicia’s visual storytelling forms a compelling graphic narrative, an indictment of the deadly and entrenched culture of extracting human and natural resources from our world that result in the loss, deprivation, and poison we are witnessing every day, damage that is eroding all forms of life at a frightening rate.
I could see why she is held in such high regard by the book arts community and the larger cultural community of artists, poets, scholars, and activists. Work from her imprint, Moving Parts Press, is included in exhibitions and collections both nationally and internationally. Her innovative work has received numerous awards and grants including a Rydell Fellowship Award from the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the French Ministry of Culture, and, most recently, the Arts Council of Santa Cruz County. She is featured in the award-winning Craft in America documentary series produced by PBS, in the episode, “Visionaries.”
We spent a good part of the afternoon together as she gave me a tour of this most recent book, a project that had taken over two years to develop and to print on the hand press. This was the latest of dozens of such projects she has produced over forty years of fine press publishing.
We now have to take a large eraser and rub it all out, eradicate this tour de force, wipe it all away. Because that is what happened. Not four days after our meeting, the CZU Lightening Complex fires erupted in the Santa Cruz Mountains and tore through thousands and thousands of buildings and homes (over seven thousand by the end), reducing many structures to blackened concrete foundations, including the studio home Felicia had shared with her husband, Jim. The fire destroyed her life’s work along with nearly the entire edition of the newly completed Necropolitics of Extraction. The copy she had shown me is one of the few copies left in existence.
You can’t measure this kind of loss in a simple mathematical way—through an accounting of dollars or volumes of books or irreplaceable tools or even the tight constriction in the chest we call grief.
Her website that catalogues over forty-four of her publications is peppered with the comment “out of print due to 8/20 fire.”
Felicia never ended up renting out her Mendocino house to her new tenant. Instead, she and her husband Jim began living there. There was no “moving in” to do because they had nothing—everything they owned had burned.
As word circulated rapidly in the book arts and printmaking communities, the response was equally quick. Friends and colleagues, artists and activists, writers and book makers, librarians, publishers, book lovers, and booksellers—the vast and deep network of people she had touched, published, and collaborated with over the course of her four-decade career—rose up in support. A GoFundMe campaign was started by friends to help her rebuild. When I spoke to her not one week later, she was busy planning and taking care of myriad practical details. I was astonished at her emotional resilience, her fortitude. But then, you can trace her tenacious nature in her lifelong habit of moving steadily against the expected, breaking rules and codes that do not suit her need to communicate, to continue her work of making heard those voices which have been stifled.
This is her story, which she now understands as a climate crisis story and a California wildfire story. It is also the story of her full circle journey from her childhood in Mendocino to Santa Cruz and back again.
raised by a feminist and an artist
Felicia is the daughter of the artists Ray and Miriam Rice, both of whom were founding faculty of the Mendocino Arts Center.
It was in 1960 that Miriam and Ray began teaching at the newly created art center. Miriam taught children’s and adult art classes for forty years. By the mid-1970s Miriam was researching the extraction of the full spectrum of color from the wide variety of mushrooms on the north coast. She became an authority on mushroom dyes and traveled internationally to lecture and teach. Miriam published three books based on her revolutionary research, most recently Mushrooms for Dyes, Paper, Pigments and Myco-Stix. In 2008 the thirteenth International Fungi and Fibre Symposium met in Mendocino to enthusiastically honor Miriam on her ninetieth birthday. Felicia is currently the president of the International Mushroom Dye Institute, which Miriam founded in 1985.
Though Felicia’s father, Ray, was first and foremost a painter, it was the medium of film that allowed him to successfully combine his talents as artist, poet, and musician. Between 1965 and 1985 he produced more than forty short experimental animated art films. Along the way, he created his own filmmaking process of stop-motion animation—a combination of live footage with colored inks applied to acetate, then shot one cel at a time using his own handmade equipment. His films won numerous awards and were shown in such venues as UC Berkeley and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, as well as on national public television.
In his final years Ray was in his studio every day—a small shed on the family property. Among his projects were limited-edition artists’ books of poetry that featured his drawings made in collaboration with his daughter, Felicia, and a series of paintings on strips of redwood anywhere from seven inches to sixteen feet in length. Felicia’s career and background in printmaking, letterpress printing, and fine press publishing arose out of this combined artistic heritage of her parents. Raised in her mother’s art classes, Felicia spent mornings during the summer session at the Mendocino Art Center, five days a week, in class. As she says, “Wake up, roll out of bed, make art—no problem. What great practice for a lifetime in the arts.”
Theresa Whitehill, Summer 2021
Moving Parts Press
As a printer, my job is to confront complex issues and render my response in book form. As an artist, my job is to do so with profound integrity. As a publisher, my job is to make these issues public. As printers have done every decade since Gutenberg, I’m here to argue for a more just society. —Felicia Rice
I am a native Californian rarely found far from the coast. Born in San Francisco and raised in the Bay Area art world of the 1950s and 60s, at nineteen I discovered my vocation: the art of the book. My mother had accidentally sent me a newspaper clipping intended for my older sister about the fine printers of the San Francisco Bay Area. Fine printers are the folks who make beautiful books and their world is rich with history, literature, art, and fine craft. In 1974 I moved to Santa Cruz to study typography and letterpress printing under designer-printer Jack Stauffacher and poet-printer William Everson at UCSC. In 1981 I inherited the press and library of Sherwood Grover, pressman for thirty years for the Grabhorn Press, the preeminent fine press in San Francisco. The library, along with the Moving Parts Press archive, now resides at the UC Santa Barbara Library.
In 1977 I founded Moving Parts Press in Santa Cruz where I began printing and publishing. I entertained clients and authors, artists, and students for over a decade before moving the press to the mountains of Bonny Doon. My letterpress printshop and printmaking studio, including Sherwood’s 1940s German press and over two hundred cases of irreplaceable metal type, along with my entire inventory of artists’ books were destroyed in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire last August. I have been fortunate to relocate to my family home and with the help of over 750 supporters, I have begun reestablishing Moving Parts Press in Mendocino.
Under the Moving Parts Press imprint, I have printed and published hundreds of books, broadsides, and prints. These editions of new literature, works in translation, and contemporary art explore the relationship of word and image, typography and the visual arts, the fine arts and popular culture, political criticism and social impact. As an artist, I bring my heart and soul to the page through an iterative printing process that allows for endless exploration of visual solutions. I am interested in complex pages of layered type and image. Laying down multiple elements in many colors may require that the sheet pass through the press twenty to thirty times in order to produce just a single page of a whole book. An edition of fifty copies requires that this process be repeated over fifty times on a handfed press. The work is exhausting, exacting, and incredibly rewarding.
With one foot firmly planted in the nineteenth century and the other in the twenty-first, I employ traditional typography and bookmaking methods together with digital technology to bring the flexibility of screen-based design to the texture and history of the letterpress-printed page. Close collaborations with artists, writers, and philosophers produce book structures in which word and image meet and merge.
As a publisher, my challenge is to make these works widely available. I have spent thirty years on the frontlines of the digital revolution in graphic design, digital art, and new media. Artists’ books themselves can be precious and expensive, but their contents can be adapted to diverse forms, from commercially printed books to projected images. Two Moving Parts Press books have been reproduced and co-published with City Lights Books, founded in San Francisco by the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1955: CODEX ESPANGLIENSIS and DOC/UNDOC (see links at end of story). I see my website, movingpartspress.com, as a broadcast medium, a means to spread the word using new technologies and distribution tactics. Developments in the dissemination of digitized books, prints, posters, and videos, shared online and reproduced freely, can send a critical call to action in these difficult times.
Early exposure through my first teachers, my parents, to the artists of the Mexican Art Movement and their American apprentices led me to collaborate with Latinx writers and artists of my own generation. The Moving Parts Press Chicanx/Latinx Series has fed the editorial and artistic direction of the Press for over thirty years. Featuring contemporary Chicanx/Latinx artists and writers, the series examines the intersection of cultures, disciplines, book structures, and multiple media.
The Red House, Mendocino, and a New Studio
I am establishing a new studio for my work as a letterpress printmaker and book artist in Mendocino, using the same shed on my family property that my artist father Ray Rice used as his studio for forty years. Though prompted by very unfortunate circumstances, I am so happy to be back, having left Mendocino fifty years ago after graduating from Mendocino High School. I am making my home here as an artist and working to recreate a studio for printing artists’ books as I have done throughout my adult life.
I am upholding the legacy of artists inhabiting the house and making art on the property dating back to 1961—sixty years ago—when my parents purchased the Red House. To this day this represents a bit of old Mendocino, a simple remnant of the logging era perched above the headlands, with a long history that includes successive waves of immigrants to the area over more than 100 years.
The house was originally known as the King House, for Joe King Jr., who created it in 1916 from three bunkhouses, originally used for Chinese immigrant workers for the Mendocino Lumber Company. He moved them to the northeast corner of Calpella and Heeser Streets where his father had purchased property from William Heeser in 1904. The house is on a small promontory overlooking the Mendocino headlands with a 200-degree view of the ocean. Old sea captains used to come here to watch the shipping lanes. The Rices are the fourth owners of the property. Behind the small house is the shed that my father used as his studio and which I am adapting for my work.
My father had a dream to build a new studio on the site of the existing shed. In 1981, he applied to the Mendocino Historical Review Board (MHRB) with drawings similar to the ones I presented to them this past year. At the time, he received a permit to build but never did. After getting my own approval from MHRB in early 2021, I proceeded to put my newly acquired press in storage and prepare for the shed to be torn down for the new construction. However, I was blindsided by the permit process. The difficulties I encountered with the Mendocino County Planning and Building Department could be considered almost humorous; I wish they were. Months of endless bureaucratic complications and delays have left me depleted, but not defeated.
To add insult to injury, due to the scarcity of building materials amid the shutdown of lumber mills during the pandemic and the slow progress in fulfilling a surge of orders, the price of construction has taken this project to new levels. I have put the building project on hold while I continue to fundraise to realize my vision of an artist’s studio, a letterpress workshop in Mendocino. In the meantime, I am maintaining access to my press so that I can do my work while this plays out.
In the mid-seventies, I bought the Mendocino Beacon’s 1906 Colts Armory platen press when the newspaper was vacating its original building in town. The two thousand pound press, made of cast iron in 1906 by the Colts Armory gun manufacturer, was lowered by a crane into the bed of a pickup for transport to Santa Cruz. It was so heavy the rear wheels of a forklift came off the ground as we tried to lift it from the truck bed one Super Bowl Sunday. We had to wait until after the game was over for the owner of King Crane to come over and swing the press into my shop. Rule of thumb for moving heavy equipment: don’t do something at one end that you can’t duplicate at the other.
There is a history of letterpress printing on the Mendocino Coast that includes Al Moise and the old Redwood Coast Printers, Black Bear Press, the Mendocino Art Center, Noyo Printworks, and a healthy number of both new and old book arts practitioners who call this place home. The press I recently acquired came from Judy and Jan Detrick’s studio in Caspar. I share this legacy of local book arts with letterpress printers Zida Borcich and Theresa Whitehill. I am currently working with Theresa, a Mendocino County poet, on a collaborative artists’ book to be completed and published by Moving Parts Press in 2022. It is being produced out of the ashes of my Santa Cruz studio and out of the abundant past of my family and this place. Felicia Rice, Summer 2021
Three Letterpress Printers Walk into a Shed
Actually, they were both already in there when I arrived: My friend, poet/graphic designer/letterpress printer Theresa Whitehill sat talking shop with the newly arrived back in Mendocino, book artist/activist/letterpress printer Felicia Rice in Felicia’s dad’s dinky shed. A window took up the greater part of the west wall, letting in a mind-bending panorama of the Pacific. Were there crackers on the little table? Some kind of semi-ignored food? The brilliant conversation dimmed all that, though light streamed in from the north and south windows, too, and pages from an artist’s book-in-progress leaned against the walls for inspection—ravens all over them in varying bird-ish postures. I don’t know, I was so dazzled by being in there with these two beauties, these daring exemplars who lived for art and worked for art and whose art was nothing but art that called out what needed to be paid attention to and was supported by the other art, the art of business, an art that wasn’t selfish, that shared, that inspired.
You might not know what letterpress is. There is a definition in Theresa’s piece of this triptych, but I will reiterate so you don’t get lost: In almost all the printing you see nowadays (on paper) the ink sits flat on the sheet. Text is put on to paper by a number of different methods, from your house inkjet to digital printers, to screen printers, offset machines, flexographic presses, and so on—lots of ways to lay ink on a sheet. Letterpress printing is something else again. History gives credit to Johannes Gutenberg, who, it’s said, created it in the mid-1400s, but there are examples of ceramic type from China from 1040 AD or so, so Gutenberg was possibly a late bloomer. That’s not to say he didn’t revolutionize the world by developing the ability to make multiple copies of printed works using movable type, beginning with 180 copies of the Bible (which took more than twenty years to produce). Every word was set by hand, using the lead type Gutenberg had founded using his expertise as a jeweler to get the precision exhibited in this opus that was seemingly born full-grown. In this form of printing, the text and images are raised surfaces that are pressed down into the paper, so you see an indentation in the sheet, with a little shadow surrounding each bit—it’s called relief printing. You may or may not have encountered this type of printing in your everyday life—maybe you got a wedding invitation with the telltale impression?—but almost always, when it is encountered, there is a reaction of, WoW! Why does it look like this? Lots of old books were printed by letterpress, and if you run your finger over the type, you will feel the indent, the tactile proof of the words’ existence. May I just say, it’s usually incredibly beautiful, this kind of printing. But I digress.
So, there we were, we three letterpress printers in a shed-with-a-view who had spent most of our lives surrounded by lead type nestled into “California cases,” by routine references to “depth of impression,” “makeready,” “quoins,” and “pica poles,” and “kerning” and the “chase” and the “platen” and other arcane lingo from Gutenberg’s Black Art, which is what letterpress printing used to be called. The chit chat ranged from what was on the press now to our shared and unshared histories, but a lot about Felicia’s recent life upheavals; the vibe was one of a mutual background where we all intersected (or at least glanced off one another obliquely)—comfortable and in cahoots, joyous.
So I’m just here to talk about my part:
When I moved to Fort Bragg in 1971, I’d been on the road for a couple of years with my then-partner Gary Bachelor, who was born and raised in Fort Bragg. Soon after we got back from Europe and Israel, he introduced me to his old friends, the parents of one of his high school classmates, Al and Lotte Moise. Some of you might remember that Al had a print shop on Main Street called Redwood Coast Printers, which put out commercial printing for all the businesses around the coast: business cards and stationery, lots of posters for local theater and events and nonprofits’ fundraisers, funeral notices, too. The shop chugged, with both offset and letterpresses heaving away all day. When you walked in, it looked like a mess, with paper stacked up everywhere you looked, and often, if it was around one o’clock, you might be surprised to find Al taking his daily nap at his desk, his great head resting on crossed arms. I don’t know how he kept it all straight, but if I ever asked him about a job, he would rifle through a yard-high stack on his desk and pull out the necessary document. Al and Lotte were energetic community members, political activists (Al kept the “McGovern for President” slogan up on his exterior sign for years after McGovern lost); even the building itself leaned left. Lotte tirelessly advocated for people with disabilities in the most effective ways, helping to institute laws that enabled otherly-abled people to live independent lives with dignity and pride. They were both amazing.
One day, someone who thought I was an artist, I don’t know why, wanted me to design and print an invitation to her husband’s boat launching party. I gamely drew an illustration of Paul Bunyan hoisting a boat into Noyo Harbor and took it to Al to get it printed. He said that if I set the type myself, it would save some time on his part and I would make more money, so he sat me down in front of a type case and gave me a map of the little compartments where each letter was meticulously kept, a composing stick, and let me have at it. A couple of days later, he called to see if I wanted to work for him, “…because there were no loose lines…” Before this, I had never once wondered where printing came from. Inveterate reader that I was, it had somehow never occurred to me to ask the question. But here I was, being invited to participate in this completely unknown form of work. All I knew was that from the moment I sat down in front of that case of Craw Modern (which I still own), I couldn’t stop thinking about type, couldn’t stop dreaming about it. Did I want to work there?
That was the beginning of my apprenticeship under Al Moise, master printer, for ten or eleven years. I met Felicia Rice a few times during the time I worked for Al. Felicia filled in one summer for his presswoman when she was away, and I was working upstairs. Al was an incredible teacher, and I learned to do almost everything in that shop, from hand-setting lead type, to running the Heidelberg Windmill press, too, for a couple of years, moving upstairs to do stripping and plating for the offset “department.” I learned what it took to run a job, from customer relations to design and typesetting, figuring out how to cut big sheets of paper to the right size for a job and running the big Polar paper cutter, to production on the press. For a year or so, I was the interim editor for the Mendocino Art Center magazine, Arts and Entertainment, which happened upstairs and which I set on a Selectric Composer, the state-of-the-art typewriter of the day—It used a golf-ball-sized “type ball” that spun to the letter you typed on the keyboard and used proportional spacing instead of the clunky, one-space-for-one-letter spacing regular typewriters employed. With it, you could create camera-ready copy and I set the magazine and a lot of books and documents on it. Chuck Hathaway, founding father of this magazine, illustrated the cover and most of the pages of A&E, and John Roberdeau Drury came to work there during my tenure, too, hot off working for Disney as a graphic designer. So many workers and customers came and went, so many amazing jobs got done. Al was the steady teacher, the amazing elder. From hand typesetting, I acquired the sense of letter spacing right in the muscles of my fingers, so that when I started using a computer years later, the spacing part was a cinch. I started setting type in Word for Windows, the clunkiest program imaginable for fine printing, but typography was in my eyes and in my hands and I did workarounds to make the type beautiful, even at the very clunkiest beginnings of computer typesetting technology.
The years I spent learning-while-doing at Al’s shop prepared me—not emotionally, but certainly—for what came after Al died of a heart attack, to my everlasting sorrow. I eventually bought a derelict print shop from the stepson of a printer in Antioch, California, who’d put a classified in the San Francisco Chronicle for it. It was the most cramped little shop behind the house the old printer had lived in. He had worked for Fiberboard and I think maybe had gotten his type from the company. He was the official printer for The Antioch Smooth Dancers Society and there were piles of samples of his tickets and announcements and invitations left all over the place. One little sign said, “No Dancing.” Friends Jaco and Lauren Stedman went down with my then-husband Rob and me to get the press, a great dinosaur of a C & P (Chandler & Price) handfed press that Jaco ended up having to take out in pieces with a come-along. There were impossibly heavy cabinets, face-to-face and full of ancient lead and wood type that I couldn’t open the cases to get into, but I bought the whole thing for fifteen hundred dollars and arranged to pay the gentleman a hundred dollars a month till it was paid off. He was happy to get it off the property and supported my crazy folly by extending credit for a year and a half, so I could open a letterpress print shop long after offset had become the worldwide printing method of choice. Hardly anybody was doing letterpress at the time, much less a woman, but I went ahead and did it, scared as a rabbit and antediluvian…what if you open a print shop and nobody comes? I lost fifteen pounds and was hallucinating by the time I moved into the six-hundred-square-foot shop across from Mendo Litho, on Franklin Street. A bit later, after realizing there was no way I could do commercial production on The Dinosaur hand-fed press, I bought a Heidelberg Windmill from my friend, printer Larry Rafferty, which had to be side-jacked in through the front window. The day they pushed the three-thousand-pound press through on a forklift and cribbed it down to the floor, I was so jumpy, I started smoking! But I had a lot of help and support and encouragement for this whole escapade. When I called my friend Bob Ross to tell him I was doing it, he said, “yeh, yeeeehhh”…and assured me I was going to have “a real style-y little shop.” Larry Rafferty took me all over San Francisco to meet a bunch of gnarly old guys with missing fingers and Bronx accents who dealt in letterpress type and equipment. He introduced me to Jim Heagy, a chemist and opera buff, who had a gargantuan warehouse at Hunter’s Point crammed with letterpress type and equipment and unimaginable treasures. Jaco and Lauren and other friends helped me move the heavy cases of type one by one and put them into their slots in the type cabinets. My fears increased as the moment neared to open my doors, but the “village” it took to birth it held me up. Before my desk got moved in, artist Ricia Araiza came in to see if I would print an announcement for her art show; we had to sit on the floor so I could write up her job ticket. We are friends to this day. I officially opened on November 1, 1984, Zida Borcich Letterpress. Rick Sacks painted my logo on the front window, and I was in business.
That’s how it started. I was there for four or five years, slowly building up a little clientele and producing my brand of graphic design and printing and making the tiniest amount of money you can imagine. One day, Theresa Whitehill came in to interview for a job. Theresa had just spent two years in the Mills College book arts program, which taught, curiously, letterpress printing. She couldn’t believe there was a letterpress shop around when she moved to Elk and I couldn’t believe an actual college educated printer wanted to work for me. I didn’t know if I could pay her but again, there’s a lot of power in blind faith.
Rob, Joe Rosenthal, Lee Welty, and Dan Godecke decided to buy a couple of buildings on Main Street, and I got elected to rent the smaller one. Again, it was terrifying to me, but we moved everything out of the little shop to the much huger one a few blocks north. Theresa worked with me for eight years and our letterpress adventures might deserve a TV series, in the category of Lucy and Ethel at the Candy Factory.
From that shop at 711 North Main, I began making a card line I named Studio Z Mendocino. At one point, I had a hundred reps nationwide and attended stationery shows in New York, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago several times a year, the cards sold in stores all over the country. We ran out of room and ended up jacking up the building and adding a second floor underneath, and there were eight or nine employees chugging along printing and packaging and shipping. My most popular range was called the Ladies Who Lunch line. We printed hundreds of thousands of them. I got notes from people who had gotten married because of them, who had nicknamed their baby from one of them (Pinkie-Lou). We had a lot of celebrity clients, like my favorites, Jamie Lee Curtis and Barbara Barry. We did hundreds of the glammiest wedding invitations designed by my daughter Zoe. For the twentieth anniversary of my shop opening, the San Francisco Public Library mounted an exhibit of our work in the Rare Books Room, called Twenty Years of Letterpress Printing in the Wrong Century. Altogether, I stayed on this incredible ride in my shops for twenty-seven years.
Along with this magazine, I’m still doing a bit of design and printing out of my home office and in alliance with my longtime colleague, printer Rhea Rynearson working the presses out of her shop. It fits the moment for both of us.
Walking into a shed with two such very kindred souls, Theresa and Felicia, although the forms of letterpress we followed were quite different—they more art printers and I more lowbrow-commercial—riled up these memories, and I see this is barely scratching the surface, but I will leave it here. Feeling the depths of a vicarious, fierce sorrow for Felicia’s loss of her life’s work and all her irreplaceable stuff, slinging the lingo and the memories and the comradeliness and love of this deeply shared passion filled my well, and it sparked this story to life, this three-part thing we made apart and together. That’s the way letterpress is, too, the way the creative process is: solitary and profoundly contemplative (while often hooked up with other equally obsessed artists), purely creative-visionary, purely dependent on ancient devices of the Black Art breed, purely shared in multiples, in all the stages of it, in the eyeballs and heart of it. Purely, insanely hard. Purely joyous. Zida Borcich, Summer, 2021