The Alcuin Society

Amphora Magazine

Amphora Issue 145No. 145 February 2007

Celebrating Jim Rimmer's Magic

Friends and fans of Vancouver's master of all things letterpress gathered for an evening to celebrate his 50 years of magic.

More than 160 people gathered at Simon Fraser University's downtown campus last November to celebrate the career and work of Jim Rimmer, the master of all things letterpress, whose reputation extends-according to one of the evening's speakers-all the way to Italy. Dubbed Rimmerfest, the evening followed the recent publication of Rimmer's new book Leaves from the Pie Tree.

Scores of printers, both new and established, have come to Rimmer's door over the years asking for help, whether it be casting type or figuring out a way to fix some piece of archaic machinery. His career began as an apprentice typesetter at a Vancouver print shop in the 1950s. A childhood artistic bent eventually allowed him to expand into graphic design, but always with a passion for type. In the 1970s he was type director at the Lanston Monotype Corportion during its brief incarnation in Vancouver. Over the years he has created 190 digital and seven metal typefaces, the latter engraved and cast in his own studio. Although his book output has been limited-Leaves is just the third book from his Pie Tree Press & Type Foundry imprint-his broadsides are widely seen, and he printed a number of pamphlets and books for Colophon Books in the 1980s.


Jim Rimmer


The evening was organized as the annual Josef Wosk-Friends of Special Collections-Alcuin Society Lecture. Eric Swanick, Simon Fraser University Library's head of special collections, spearheaded the evening, inviting four speakers with unique connections to Rimmer's career. (SFU, which has assembled a large archive of Rimmer's work and personal papers, is interested in adding any ephemeral pieces Alcuin Society members might care to donate.) Swanick also successfully solicited celebratory broadsides from 19 presses and artists from across North America, and even one in England, all of which were on display.

The first speaker was typography guru Robert Bringhurst, who began by admitting he had been "in a tragic frame of mind recently." He used the opportunity to speak about the natures of institutions and individuals, using the Monotype Corportion and Rimmer as his exemplars. The early Monotype faces-produced beginning in 1900-were "like the names of churches," he said, a record of "generations of artistic achievement." But with metal composition now a technology two generations past, the remaining machines are cared for by "a few people shouldering the responsibility, people like Jim Rimmer."


Robert Bringhurst


Dick Kouwenhoven, owner of a large commercial printing business, spoke of his own apprenticeship in typography and printing in Delft, a Dutch town with "a history of brewing beer and printing Bibles." (His Hemlock Printers printed the photographic section in Rimmer's Leaves from the Pie Tree.) As Kouwenhoven's business has followed the industry's advances into photo offset and, more recently, digital printing, he commented on how Jim's work has helped him remain connected to the trade's origins.

Having grown up in Vancouver, renowned artist Charles van Sandwyk shared early memories of meeting Rimmer at an annual craft fair in the '70s. The budding artist showed Rimmer some of his early attempts at etching and bemoaned his efforts to improvise a press by using his father's woodworking vise. "Presses are for pressing. Why don't you drive the car over it?" was Rimmer's suggestion, which van Sandwyk did. (The technique worked better on linocuts than etchings, he the artist commented as an aside from the stage.) Their paths crossed again when Jim taught the first-year typography course at Capilano College. Van Sandwyk called Rimmer a "fabulous teacher" and a "generous man, where everybody got an A." Charles concluded with an emotional surge that "he takes his cues from no one, Jim is Jim, and that's why we love him."

This set the tone for Denise Carson Wilde to take the stage. Now the owner of Paper-Ya, she was introduced to letterpress by Jim in the late '70s, when he was with Cobblestone Press, and later shared space in his East Vancouver storefront studio, where they "displayed broadsheets in a window for all the local winos to enjoy." While everyone had been speaking of Jim's kindness and generosity, Denise also wanted people to know about his evil side: one day she arrived at the studio to be told by Jim that Workmen's Compensation Board inspectors had come by and threatened to shut down her business if she did not start wearing a "personal protective device." The device was a modified hard hat liner, and only after she put it on (wondering what possible protection it could afford) did she look at Jim and realize she'd been had. In an emotional conclusion, Wilde said that Jim had had a "huge impact" on her, the prank notwithstanding.


Denise Carson Wilde


At this point, the microphones were opened to the floor, and a number of equally impassioned speakers gave Jim their thanks. Peter Haas of Mother Tongue Press was first up, giving heartfelt thanks to Jim for getting him started in letterpress. Next were two colleagues from Capilano College, one the current typography teacher, who shared some comments from students after a recent visit to Jim's studio. The impact Jim has had on many people over a long period of time, particularly students, was reinforced by one of the students himself. Ryan Mah, a current student at Emily Carr, told a story about his first visit to Jim's studio, how Jim joked about sticking a finger in a pot of molten lead to impress the ladies, and watching Jim shield himself with a wood plank while advancing on a caster shooting streams of hot lead. The result of this visit was that Mah started his own printing shop, Unison Printing, and contributed one of the most dramatic broadsides to Rimmerfest.

Crispin Elsted of Barbarian Press was invited to present Jim with a portfolio of all the broadsides created for the evening. Taking the opportunity to say a few words, Elsted mentioned having been in Venice last fall and meeting a local printer. Struggling with their mutually limited English and Italian, the local struck on Crispin's mention of Vancouver, which he knew as the home of that "magic man," Giovanni Rimmer.

To conclude the evening, the stage was handed over to Jim, whose comments were characteristically brief and self-effacing. He humbly thanked his parents, and simply said, "I don't know what I've done to deserve this."

A boisterous reception was held in the foyer, surrounded by the broadsides on display. An excellent table of food and drink was laid out, and the buzz of conversation rose as old friends reunited, acquaintances were refreshed and new friends made. Jim had published a free keepsake for Rimmerfest featuring an impressive typographic display sheet, and the stacks quickly disappeared.


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