An Interview with Tom Leech


What is progress in publishing? Is it maximum numbers of copies sold? Speed in downloading to your portable e-book reader? When you touch a book printed by a New Mexico small press, you might change your mind.

The Palace Press is housed in the courtyard of the Palace of the Governors, the oldest public building in the United States. Since its first limited edition in 1976, they have produced award-winning books on historic printing equipment. It all began with a gift to the museum, a 10 x 15 Chandler & Price platen press built in 1907. A national treasure, this press printed the first book of cowboy songs ever published and was used to print the News Herald in the little central New Mexico town of Estancia. The museum’s print shop has continued to grow and acquire historic type and equipment. Their newest attraction is a stunning re-creation of the studio of Gustave Baumann, Santa Fe’s great woodcut artist, printer and puppet maker.

The Palace Press is a rare place. A place to focus on carefully handmade work and the power of words, images, paper. As Baumann once reminded us, hands are “God’s gift to every individual.”

Tom Leech, a printer and papermaker from Colorado, became curator of the press in 2001, focusing on broadsides and contemporary poetry, while juggling his responsibilities to educate university art students, elementary school children and the general public.

One of Leech’s defining projects is The Word Art Poetry Broadside Series, created with editor Gary Mex Glazner, featuring prominent American poets. For the series, Leech chose poems that spoke to him, deeply exploring them for months through layout, handmade paper, typography, dyeing, marbling, linoleum block printing—all in a dance of subtlety. Leech’s work is experienced subliminally, revealed on closer look. As Leech says, “Type is as much about what you don’t see as what as what you do see - it should not call attention to itself, but be subservient to the text.”

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Work for Peace

To Leech, paper and poetry are three dimensional. “A poem is a sanctuary,” he says, showing me the first series broadside, written by Naomi Shihab Nye, entitled “His Life.” A heart-breaking poem about the role of mules in mining, Leech discovered the poem descended into a dark place. To enhance the reader’s experience, Leech printed a dark band across the bottom of the rough page. When making the paper, he added the glint of mica, reminding us of why we sacrifice human and animal life to a mine.

While working on the next broadside in the series, Tom Leech told poet Renée Gregorio something she had never heard; “I can’t wait to get my hands on your poem.” Gregorio’s poem, “Transforming the Strange,” is about travelling in Viet Nam, full of images from a peaceful day. Leech’s experiences with Viet Nam (his brother served; he protested), inspired his approach to a poem he describes as ‘feminine, healing….it says nothing about war.” He used a Japanese paper technique for dyeing and folding paper called orizomegami. The indigo dye evokes the wet, soupy, tangible atmosphere Leech experienced during his own frequent travels throughout Asia. The orizomegami blooms through the paper like a Rorschach test, unique to each individual printing of this broadside.

Contemporary typography ranges from the superfine, with elements measured down to the microscopic, to what Leech calls “grunge printing,” exemplified by his friends at Hatch Show Print in Nashville, Tennessee. Leech describes their approach to letterpress printing as being from the Ben Franklin school: “Can you read it?” In this era of computer graphic design, a home-generated flyer may baffle the reader with umpteen fonts, a cardinal sin. Leech implores do-it-yourself designers to avoid the temptation to overgraze the font menu.

Gary Mex Glazner
Maps and Wings (detail)

Leech shows me a collaboration he did with Hatch Show Print, a broadside of the Dalai Lama’s quote, “Never Give Up.” For the large work, oversized for the Palace’s presses, Leech supplied rare Tibetan handmade paper. The typographers at Hatch used huge block letters to create an in your face, political-shout of a poster. The phrases “DEVELOP THE HEART,” “WORK FOR PEACE” and “BE COMPASSIONATE,” are fresh and immediate.

All letterpress work is delicate and time intensive. The Palace Press embraces many traditions, especially when it comes to “working with what you’ve got”. In terms of presses, paper, inks and, at times, a relative scarcity of type, each project is an exercise in problem solving. Leech finds this work refreshing after his background in commercial printing, where he would print 100,000 sheets a night. It had “no soul,” he sighs. His assistant at the press, James Bourland, is also a “refugee” from the commercial trade. Both printers agree their shop is a sanctuary.


Every choice Leech makes in the Word Art series is soulful. Gary Mex Glazner’s poem, about his family’s impoverished travels along Route 66 during the thirties inspired Leech to cut maps into very small pieces and let them float amongst the paper pulp, making patterns as he made the paper that reminded him of ‘panning for gold.’ A series of “un-haiku haiku” by DJ Renegade about jazz and the blues led Leech to work with inventive type, a string graphic and paper made with old blue jeans. In “Grandmother” by Sherman Alexie, the line ‘sifting through dump,’ encouraged Leech to make a new kind of paper, recycling scraps of everything from ‘junky’ packing paper to the finest Italian stationaries. “The Fish” by Jane Hirschfield prompted use of suminagashi, an early Japanese form of marbling that gives a sense of flowing water. Kim Addonizio’s poem, “Sanctuario at Chimayo” brought Leech to Chimayo itself, where he found an abstract design on an altar panel that he enlarged and used as a background image. In the paper, he incorporates old hospital linens and the dirt from Chimayo, which pilgrims find as important and healing as Lourdes.

Gary Mex Glazner writes that Leech gives poems a place to live. Leech says, “poetry, like kids, should be seen and heard.” He bemoans small, poorly printed poetry books that get lost on shelves, where the poems can’t come to life. Poems, to him, should be seen every day so the words can stick in your mind.

Leech shows me his next project, a broadside series of the poetry of Santa Fe’s first poet laureate, Arthur Sze, whose poems contain lines like “no chart can depict how imagination unfolds, endlessly branching,” and “No one restores papyrus once it has erupted into flame.” Leech says, “It’s not cerebral, it’s real.” Metaphors echo in the subtle marbled papers made for the series —if you look closely you will see a winged heart floating behind the words “heartbeat of a swallow in flight.”

Leech’s most recent project is a bound book, with Valerie Martinez, Santa Fe’s second poet laureate. Leech used papers inspired by all the colors of skin of the people who live in New Mexico. “Before we were born/before anyone called anything tierra…” writes Martinez, in a poem that covers the history of Santa Fe from the “Big Bang to the waitress you met last week.”

You don’t need to give up your e-reader to experience the five hundred year old tradition of the printed book, I promise. But then again, you might want to.

The Palace Press exhibit is open to the public during regular Museum hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm, but closed on Friday evenings. The shop is occasionally closed for museum business so it is a good idea to call ahead: telephone (505)476-5096.

Elaine Avila is a playwright, art critic and holds the Robert F. Hartung Endowed Chair of Dramatic Writing at the University of New Mexico.

Originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide - Volume 25

Related Pages

Conserving Works of Art on Paper article

Handmade Paper article

Collector’s Resources


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