Montserrat Alumni Open Printshop in Rockport

September 30, 2020

“So when Montserrat put out the call for Art in the Moment and Artrageous! we sort of jumped on it. And we’re like, yeah, let’s bring a press down and do a collaborative piece. And that was the firestarter for all this.”

Jackson Haley and Chelsea MacDowell (’18) are talking with me over video call. Their computer sits on the counter of their new printshop in Rockport, MA. Saphead Printshop aims to be officially open for weekends starting the first week of October. The new spot, which also functions as their studio space, is a joint effort from a couple that has been a couple almost from the moment they arrived at Montserrat.

“I think it was kind of funny,” Chelsea says. “I mean we started dating 10 days into freshman year. Which is stupid.”

“It shouldn’t have worked out the way it did, in hindsight. Like, that was a bad decision.” Jackson laughs, and the couple share a look that makes it clear they haven’t regretted that decision at all.

Both studied printmaking during their time at Montserrat, though they pursued different expressions of the craft. Chelsea gravitated to the more drawing-based practices like monoprinting and lithography, while Jackson was drawn to letterpress printing and “more traditional graphic design typesetting.”

The two of them spent a lot of time under the separate-but-parallel tutelage of noted Montserrat power couple, Len and Stacy Thomas-Vickory.

“Stacy was my FX teacher,” Chelsea says. “When I was a freshman she became my advisor, and then my senior advisor. She helped me get an internship with FX so I became like the Teaching Assistant for them. She’s always just been great, leading me along. I’ve always just loved her class and everything she’s had to say.”

Nodding, Jackson picks up the thought like a passed baton. “Len was the first print teacher I had when I started. I went in knowing I wanted to do printmaking and he was very engaged in helping freshman year Jackson figure out what the hell I was doing—and he was also my advisor right out of the gate.

“And then, between my junior and senior year, I did an internship at Union Press in Somerville, and Eli Epstein, who runs that shop, taught after I interned with him. He taught an advanced class we were both in and he was my senior advisor. So I sort of shifting away from the fine art printmaking straight into working with a former graphic designer turned letterpress printer who understood where I was coming from. That was a key moment for me.”

After graduating together in 2018, Jackson and Chelsea moved to Nashville, Tennessee for six weeks while Jackson interned (as Eli once did) at Hatch Show Print. Once that was over, they came back to their native Massachusetts (Jackson is from Pembroke and Chelsea is from Rockport).

“When we returned,” Jackson says, “I started working professionally at Albertine Press, which is in Innman Square, Cambridge. I’m still the printer there. So I’ve been professionally running prints for two years.”

Chelsea started working in a coffee shop once they got back from Tennessee.

“I’m actually still there. It’s just enough to get money, but I ended up meeting a lot of people from Rockport, all the locals and then the people at the downtown businesses. So we have a connection to them right now. We do postcards and stuff for them, I kept working on a bunch of commissions, regular paintings, portraiture, for people through the holidays, and doing my own work. I’ve still been constantly drawing.

“And so I met Lindsay Porter , I think she used to go to Montserrat for—”

“I think it was art ed?” Jackson offers. (He’s right.)

“I met her first through Montserrat and then again at the coffee shop. And we got talking more and she commissioned me to do these big mural paintings for hew new shop in downtown Rockport. Sea & Cellar. And then we ended up bringing down some business cards because people were asking about the paintings. We just did some postcards for them.”

Not long after that, the couple got the call to see if they’d like to contribute to Artrageous.

“It was our first serious kind of professional collaboration,” Chelsea says.

Jackson nods. “We’ve made stupid prints and an obscenity laden holiday card.”

“Nothing serious.”

“Nothing really serious. And it’s like—this is a really good show of what we know how to do.”

Artrageous didn’t end up happening the way Jackson, Chelsea, or anyone else had expected—as a result of state and federal guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the March date was moved to June and the event became all-digital. They ended up producing two separate prints. Jackson’s was sent to those who had bought tickets for the event and Chelsea’s was included as an auction piece.

“That’s not to make it sound like we worked independently of each other,” Jackson says. “We were throwing ideas back and forth. I was at one press, Chelsea was at the other, and we were still working together and collaboratively figuring out how we’re working… I think we needed to sort of start pushing towards working together on a more serious level.”

In April a former employer of Jackson’s, Goosefish Press, decided to close permanently. Jackson was one of the last people to work there, and the owned reached out offering to sell him the presses and type.

“We were quarantining at my parents’ house and had no actual studio space and nowhere to put anything, and then I was like ‘I’ll buy the 1000 pound press and the 500 pounds of type… where are we gonna put all this?’ and then we drove by this space at the Whistletop Mall .”

“We saw the ‘For Lease’ sign,” Chelsea says, “and ended up just kind of contacting someone. Just like out of curiosity. And then we’re like, yeah, we’re gonna have to do that.”

So Saphead Printshop moved in to the Whistlestop Mall. They get coy when asked what the word “Saphead” means. Jackson explains:

“We both worked under separate names prior to this, and we didn’t think it made sense to be one of ours versus the other because we want to be seen as equal. So we found ‘Saphead,’ which on like a surface level sounds kind of nice. Maybe a little botanical. And Chelsea does a lot of like plant based drawings.

“But it’s a slang term from the 20s. It just means ‘an idiot.’ We felt like that captured who we are as people a bit because we’re not trying to take ourselves way seriously. We like to have fun with what we’re doing. But it’s also not like we’re just two idiots fumbling around. The work we’re making is good, consistent, and pretty serious. But there’s a little like, fun sort of edge to what we’re planning.”

So now they’re set up, taking visitors in by appointment (email [email protected] if you’d like one) and getting ready for a bigger opening. Rockport is Chelsea’s home town, but the shop is already starting to feel like it’s fit comfortably into the community.

“It’s also been a really good spot to put a print shop,” Chelsea says, “because there was already one here previously that neither of us knew about. We’ve had people come in and say, ‘Oh, did you know about the shop that was here a few years ago?’ That’s amazing.”

“Having the local community sort of already know about printmaking is a huge boost,” Jackson adds. They’re very aware of how lucky they’ve been in a whirlwind of a year. They’re keeping their relationship to the broader community in mind as they get Saphead running.

“I think,” Jackson says. “I think that when all of this started, places started shutting down, there was a rallying cry to support small brick-and-mortar businesses and support artists. And I don’t think that’s gone away. So, keeping in line with 2020, it feels very weird to be entering into the space as a new business where people are already sort of gathered around the idea of helping everybody else out. I’ve always been a fan of community print shops and things that give back to the community that they’re in. While we’re not like that at this point, I think there are other ways we can engage.”

Chelsea nods and continues. “I think it’s been really important for some of our work. Especially because a lot of people can’t go and see their loved ones. Mail has been a top priority for a lot of people. Sending cards and sharing community in some type of way has been really important. We’re really happy to be able to share that.”

This semester Jackson’s work up in President Kurt Steinberg’s office and viewable by appointment to those who are interested.

Reach out to Saphead’s email to make an appointment, or drop by Saturday and Sunday beginning the first weekend of October at 15 Whistlestop Mall, Rockport, MA. If you’d rather browse digitally, check out Saphead’s new Etsy page!

by Lucas Olson, College Relations Assistant