Portland is definitely one of the best places to be an American artist today. Last May at National Stationery Show, I was a little surprised to realize that the majority of the exhibitors in the juried Fresh section were from either Brooklyn or Portland. One joked that an underground tunnel connects the two cities so you can easily move from place to place, while another told me that artists in Portland can still get by there without a day job — and that all the rain is actually conducive to creativity!
But my favorite hipsters are those that pave the way for everyone else and suddenly find themselves the Old Guard. So long before Portland’s artistic rebirth, one very special ‘presser launched there. Yep, for a quarter of a century Oblation Papers & Press, a papermaking studio, letterpress print shop, hand-bindery and old-world paper boutique, has been quietly thriving in the city’s Pearl District — and they are well-deserving of a tip of the TPC hat.
Oblation’s story began on Jennifer and Ron Rich’s honeymoon, when they began making paper by hand, macerating sea pods and grasses and forming rough, organic paper sheets which they sold at the Eugene Saturday Market. Soon they were off on a bicycle tour of France to visit historic hand paper mills before setting up studios on Vashon Island. After exhibiting for years at craft fairs and selling in a few retail venues around the northwest, they opened their own shop.
Recycling has been integral to Oblation from the start. Concerns for the environment affects everything they do, so tear-off rsvp postcards, PCW envelopes and tree-free substrates, such as bamboo papers, are the rule rather than the exception. In the papermaking studio, sheets of cotton paper are made by hand using recycled remnants from the garment industry. The paper is strong, acid-free and, with its soft surface qualities, perfect for letterpress printing.
The hand-papermaking studio and letterpress print shop are on view from the retail store, which also features an ample supply of refurbished manual typewriters, a colorful spinning wheel of hand-dyed silk ribbons and even a gift wrap toppings bar, featuring unexpected elements like vintage buttons, fishing weights, and tree twigs.
Letterpress printing reflects an era of quality and craftsmanship. Some of Oblation’s presses date back over 100 years. For each order the production staff creates individual plates on location and finishes every piece by hand. Any work outsourced remains in the local area, and care is taken to support American making.
When not in the shop, Ron and Jennifer live the pastoral life on a small farm west of Portland. Along with fixing everything, everywhere, every time, Ron has apprenticed as a renaissance lute maker, repairs guitars and occasionally performs his original music with their daughters. Meanwhile Jennifer makes parchment from their St. Croix sheep skins, and binds medieval prayer books with handmade paper, letterpress printed pages and a type face she helped design from the earliest surviving new testament codex.
They are a fascinating pair, and incredibly inspiring; for me, no visit to NSS is complete without a visit (punctuated with lots of laughter) with them. You can shop their products online, and be sure to check out their blog — they just exhibited at London’s Top Drawer and looking at their travelogue, I’m quite jealous.
Oblation products can also be found in paper and gift shops across the US the UK, Japan, and Australia. Perusing their offerings, it’s not hard to see why!
So happy birthday Oblation, and thank you Jennifer & Ron for sharing your artistry with us all! If you are fortunate enough to be in Portland this Saturday, October 4th, they’ll be toasting their good fortune and longevity with champagne — and offering 25% off all products in the store. There will also be studio tours and a letterpress demo, in addition to their papermaker and printers on view doing what they do best!