Sonia Farmer: Freedom of her press

Philip Sander introduces Bahamian writer and book artist Sonia Farmer of Poinciana Paper Press

Sonia Farmer. Photograph by Patricia Santos

Some artists’ tools are more portable than others. Paints and brushes can fit in a bag, and the average photographer’s neck can accommodate two or three cameras. But when Bahamian Sonia Farmer needed to transport her tools into her new studio in Nassau, she had to hire a moving company with a crane. You can’t move a printing press casually.

Farmer is the founder of Poinciana Paper Press, specialising in elegant limited-edition literary publications — books that are art objects, using fine papers and printed through the craft of letterpress. From the time of Gutenburg until the twentieth century, letterpress was how all books were printed. A skilled typesetter would compose each page from lead alloy type, which was then coated with ink and impressed on a sheet of paper. Expert printers refined the process to an industrial scale, until offset printing and digital typesetting made these venerable skills all but obsolete — except at small presses like Farmer’s, which preserve the art of letterpress to create printed objects with unique tactile qualities.

Born in Nassau in 1987, Farmer grew up loving both art and writing. When the time came to head off to university, she was torn between two paths, the literary and the visual. Her solution was a sort of compromise. She was accepted into the Pratt Institute, an art college in New York — specifically, into its creative writing programme. “I went to art school to study writing.” At Pratt, Farmer was introduced to letterpress in a course called “The Art of the Book”. She was the only writer in a class of visual artists studying printmaking techniques. “I loved it,” she says. “I felt really challenged.”

Bitten by the letterpress bug, Farmer did specialised classes and started exploring the small press scene in New York, home to dozens if not hundreds of letterpress studios. And she used Pratt’s equipment to make her first books, designing, printing, and binding small editions of poems and prose by writer friends back in Nassau. Poinciana Paper Press was born, in her final semester in 2009.

Farmer’s journey back to the Bahamas after graduation was complicated — it involved finding then losing a studio space in New York, and a short stint at an art school in London. By the end of 2010, she decided it was time to come home. “I didn’t have any more time to waste.” She knew setting up a letterpress studio in Nassau wouldn’t be easy — she’d have to ship in a used press from the US.

Then she made a lucky discovery. For decades, a businessman named Oscar Johnson had run the Craftsman Press, a printery that was part commercial, part hobby. Thirty years after his death, the contents of his studio — including four presses and two hundred cases of type — remained exactly as he left them. Farmer began talking to the Johnson family, and they agreed to sell her most of the equipment — in need of restoration, but in salvageable condition. The movers with their crane arrived, and finally Poinciana Paper Press had a fully equipped Nassau studio.

“I want my books to be a really tactile experience,” Farmer says. “I want the book to be part of the story.” She has several books of poems in the works — including, perhaps, one of her own writing: Farmer is a winner of the poetry prize in the Small Axe Literary Competition. And she’s keen to work on collaborations with visual artists, on “books that have to do with language and art.” Collaboration “is the spirit of small presses,” she explains — breathing new life into an old art.

Philip Sander

Find out more about Poinciana Paper Press at www.poincianapaperpress.blogspot.com