Detroit Performs


Inspired by Tradition

Henna artist Hannah Lydia Wilson; Samah Kthar creates to spread inspiration within others; and artist Erin Beckloff keeps the history and tradition of the letterpress alive.

Plus, host DJ Oliver head to Jo’s Gallery on Detroit’s Avenue of Fashion.

Episode 912

AIRED: November 12, 2019 | 0:24:34

- In this episode of Detroit Performs, a henna artist.

An artist creates to spread inspiration with others.

And the history of the letter press.

It's all ahead on this edition of Detroit Performs.

- [Narrator] Funding for Detroit Performs

is provided by the Fred A. and Barbara M.

Erb Family Foundation, the Kresge Foundation,

the A. Paul and Carol C. Schaap Foundation,

the Michigan Council for Arts & Cultural Affairs,

the National Endowment for the Arts,

and by contributions to your PBS station

from viewers like you.

Thank you.

(bright piano music)

- Hello, and welcome to Detroit Performs.

I'm your host, DJ Oliver, and today,

I'm at Jo's Gallery, the oldest art gallery

on the Livernois Avenue of fashion.

Owner, Garnette Archer took over the space

from her Mother, and namesake, Jo.

I'll be exploring this space throughout the show.

But right now, let's get to our opening segment.

Henna artist, Lydia Hannah Wilson,

moved to the US from India, a couple of years ago.

And with her, she brought our community

the tradition of henna.

And she said Metro Detroit gave her a creative space

to explore every creative avenue she's ever thought of.

Check it out.

(gentle music)

- I think any field, any art, it has to give hope,

a sense of living to the person who is seeing it.

Not depress them, but encourage them.

(gentle music)

I grew up in a place called Hubli in Karnataka, South India.

In India, it's not really common that people

study fine arts, but for me, I always loved design,

and any empty space me designing was my thing.

Later it taught me so much more than

what textbooks taught me.

The way how wind moves, the way how Psalms describes

nature really well in the Bible,

and that really moved me.

I mean, if he was able to make songs out of it,

why was I not able to do something with paint?

That really triggered my brain.

(gentle music)

Henna is an ancient art form.

In Indian culture, all the brides apply that,

like up to here, it's really crazy.

But it takes about seven to eight hours

just to work on their hands and their feet.

The reason why they do it is,

they think it enhances the bride.

It's just like an adornment to yourself,

and it has a lot of health benefits too.

It cools down your body temperature,

and it's more like a spa treatment,

because of the oils and all of the beautiful aromas

you get in the henna.

There is a chemical reaction that happens in the paste.

After 5/10 minutes, the stain starts releasing.

So it reacts with your skin, which is perfectly normal

and organic, it's nothing to be alarmed of.

So the longer I keep the henna paste on my skin,

the longer the dye releases.

I started doing henna when I was 10 years old.

My neighbor was a Muslim, and it was her wedding,

and she got her hands all decked up with henna up till here,

and that amazed me, and after two days,

her stain was still there.

And I was like, "Oh, this is cool, I mean,

"it just doesn't go off."

And I want to do that too.

There are different applications also.

People use a needle based tube to do henna here.

I prefer a cone.

Cone is nothing but a plastic roll,

that you roll and then you tape it with a pin.

So the pin gives a proper diameter,

like for the thickness and thinness.

I like to work with a fusion of thin and thick lines,

so it gives a lot of depth, I feel.

There are a few traditional designs, for brides especially,

we do a lot of portraits in henna.

Like the bride with a pattern on her head.

The rich heritage and the rich culture that is in India,

many people don't know in Detroit.

So when I do those designs, they're like,

"Oh, what is this?

"What kind of design is this?

"What kind of an art from is this?"

So when I explain them, they're aware of the culture,

they're aware from where it came.

Other forms are like the Arabic forms,

more like contemporary forms.

When I do brides, I use the embroidery

which is on her dress.

So I use those as my inspiration,

and the love story of the bride.

I mean, how the bride met the groom,

where did they meet, what is the common thing between them?

I sit with them for 8/9 hours,

and they explain me their entire story.

And as they explain their story,

on the spot, I build their story up in the henna.

I think that lightens them and they feel good about it.

(gentle music)

For me, the time has to stand still when I paint.

I want people to see hope when they see my paintings.

(gentle music)

I recently learned this fluid based acrylic,

so I wet my entire canvas, and I play soft music.

This is therapeutic to me.

I just put a lot of water on the canvas,

and just release a little bit of paint,

and let the paint move in the way it wants to move.

It creates its own form, and it's not bound

by any thought or any imagination or something,

it just moves freely, and I love the freedom of it.

I like painting faces of people.

Just to capture that emotion,

just to capture what they feel at that moment.

Capturing that story, it's challenging to me,

and I love to take the challenge.

There are a lot of new things I've seen

that really saddens my heart.

I was inspired by the persecution that's happening in China.

So that's like a lady, she is tired,

she is fed up of all the chaos of this world,

and all the disappointments and heartaches everywhere.

And she is longing for a place which is just serene,

which is pure.

But she's not finding it.

And she's just wondering one day, will there be one day?

So I like to capture that will there be one day on her face.

(gentle music)

In India, not many people know about fonts,

so in my final college, I came across this beautiful

handwriting, and it was calligraphy.

I was like, "It's so gorgeous, I would want to learn that."

But I never found the supplies to learn

how to do calligraphy.

When I moved to US, I found the proper techniques

of calligraphy, and the Thailand calligraphy.

The thin and the thickness,

it's more like pen and and ink dancing.

Calligraphy and handwriting is a ballet for me.

It's just beautiful the way it curls,

and perfect sleek lines, and then the way it's elaborated,

I just love it.

(gentle music)

If my paintings are hung anywhere, even in the window,

or somewhere on the street, if one person is walking by,

and if he's having a hard time in his life,

and if my painting could speak life,

or hope to him, that's all I need.

(gentle music)

- You can learn more about Lydia Hannah Wilson

as well as all the artists that we feature


Sam Kthar's Iraqi roots are mirrored

in her abstract paintings.

The intention of her artwork is to create a pronounced

effect that is memorable enough to leave the viewer

to decipher their own feelings.

Check it out.

- When creating, I'm always trying to be as honest,

genuine and transparent as possible.

And then have a platform for people to take a look

at the piece and then really reflect what's within them.

And then have someone be able to connect with that piece,

just providing that energy that I put for myself

into the piece.

It really, really tells a lot.

My family is from Iraq, and my Dad came to this country

in the '80's.

Our family comes from a jewelers,

and so when I was 12, I was working with my Dad,

around all this gold, and all this jewelry,

and he was always telling me to sell,

and at 12, you're just like, "Okay, but."

So, gold is something I'm very drawn to,

and this piece has that.

And you know, the mood, the weather,

the food, all of that impacts how a piece gets created.

And specifically, looking at this piece,

my mood, I was content, I was at a very, very,

peaceful state of mind.

And, I'm drawn to blues.

Another aspect of this piece is learning about dimensions.

I'm working my way to understand perspectives

of dimensions, and allowing depth to come through the piece.

And then also applying techniques along the way,

so incorporating techniques that I've learned,

and then exploring new techniques within the piece as well.

My background is actually in biology.

I discovered painting, it was quite spontaneous.

There was a time where I was really going through

some life transitions, and I just ended up having

the opportunity to explore myself through painting,

and it's been quite a healing process for me.

In order to include truth in a painting,

you have to be honest with yourself,

it starts with yourself.

How can you be able to connect with others

if you haven't connected with yourself?

You have to be able to be open, accepting of yourself.

And to be able to really look at yourself inside

and just be proud of that, not prideful,

but be proud that you deserve to be here,

you have a gift, and that you can connect

with as many people.

I think, ideally, it's the intent,

it's your intention, it's your energy.

What kind of energy are you putting out there?

Because people sense it.

I create abstracts, and there are so many people

that tell me that they sense it,

a certain thing about a piece, and they're spot on.

And so I believe that there's more than five senses.

But the thing is, is that I see the artworks as memories,

you know, because, you know, as we go through,

we're taking in more memories, and more experiences,

so it's almost like, it is almost like a picture

or a snapshot that you know.

'Cause when I look back at old pieces,

I remember that time, I remember where I was,

I remember how I was feeling.

And, it is a memory in itself,

but you have to keep going, you have to move on.

We're here in the present, the present is the gift.

And so, in order for us to keep going,

yes, you appreciate your experiences,

but you still have to be present.

You can't hold onto things.

You create them and then you let them go,

and then, whoever's meant to have them,

and whoever's meant to connect with them,

is meant to connect with them.

And I truly feel like every piece is meant

to go to a specific person or place.

And that's just how I like to look at things.

The thing about abstract is it's trying to pull something

from nothing, like you are creating as you go.

There's no rules, it's just, you just keep going.

And, when I look at abstract now,

I realize it's more of the process,

and it's more of the introspection

and that's the ability to do it,

is what allowed me to understand that it has nothing

to do with, the techniques and all of that,

yes that's one thing, but abstract is more of the inner

and the unknowing.

That there is no rules, that it can go any which way.

And that it works for you, or whoever is viewing it.

(bright music)

- Now check out some upcoming events happening

in and around the D.

(bright music)

Our final segment features Erin Beckloff,

who loves the history and tradition of the letter press

so much, that she did something to make sure the craft

sticks around for a very long time.

Here's her story.

(gentle music)

- Letterpress printing is a method

of relief printing.

While technology shifted, letterpress printing

was the method of printing for over 500 years.

And it's no longer economically the fastest way to print,

but there's something that people are still

connecting to, and I think that's why it's become

an art and a craft.

My in-laws gave me a small printing press as a wedding gift.

So I got this little printing press,

and I didn't know how to use it.

And so I started reaching out to people in the letterpress

community for help, because you can search

for it on the internet, and there are some videos,

but it's so much better to go and meet with someone.

And I started to find that there were other people

that cared about this, and there were other people

that had printing presses in their basements or garages,

and it wasn't just people in their 20s and 30s.

It was also people in their 80s, so it was fantastic to find

this community that wanted to help each other.

There aren't really secrets.

It's everyone wants to help letterpress printing survive,

and so everyone's willing to help each other out,

be it by finding equipment, or teaching a technique,

or learning a new process, or talking about how to mix ink.

Everybody helps each other.

(gentle music)

Letterpress printing, as it became an art form or a craft,

it still has that limited constraint of working

with the wood and the metal, and the wood and metal type,

and the ornaments.

And your collection tends to influence

your aesthetic as a shop.

If you think of someone like Hatch Show Print

down in Nashville, Tennessee, they're using blocks

that might have been used on a Johnny Cash poster

and now they're being used on a contemporary

country music poster.

And to think about that collection is then influencing

your aesthetic, when I started to acquire type,

I became very interested in wood type.

I love the beauty of the letters.

I love that so many of the wood type fonts were made

over a hundred years ago,

and we're still able to use them today.

I like how big and bold they are,

and that was just something I really connected with.

My dad actually makes wood type the same way

that it was produced for hundreds of years by all the wood

type manufacturers.

So Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum,

most people have seen Hamilton on a little drawer pull,

that's that group.

They made type using this pantograph method,

which is a dual tracer and router.

And so you trace the pattern of the letter

or the decorative ornament, and then it cuts the type

out of end grain maple.

A lot of my style and aesthetic came from the fact

that my dad, Scott, of Moore Wood Type,

started making type the historic way.

And so I started really exploring how these ornaments

could be used to create form and solids,

and even letter forms and characters.

And so I really like to use my dad's ornaments

as a main component of my work.

But I love the traditional tools of letterpress printing.

The wood and the metal type, the metal type's really small

and can get this very crisp line.

And some of the fonts are only available in wood and metal.

They never made it to the computer, which is just special.

And I just love the history that you know is in every letter

that you're setting.

It's been used before, and so being able to give it life

by continuing to print with it is just something

that I connect to as a tool, and as my main driving force

of my aesthetic as a printer.

(press whirs)

Letterpress printing in a lot of ways is almost meditative.

You become one with the press that you're using.

And if it's your own press, especially,

you start to hear and know the quirks of the press.

And they all have their own sound.

Each press has its own rhythm and music to it.

And especially when you're running one of the larger presses

like my Chandler & Price, C & P, with the flywheel,

you can feel that motion.

I stand against it, and you're a part of the rhythm

of the printing, and so you're feeding it the paper,

and it continues to run, and you hear the cha-chink,

cha-chink of the cast iron, or you hear the little glitches

of the gears.

And it's a wholly immersive experience.

It really makes you slow down, because you can't go faster

than the press.

After getting my very first press,

I had a business for about a year trying

to sell commercial work.

That just really wasn't for me.

I tried to do the craft fairs and the art fairs,

and I just really loved making, and I really love people.

So I came back to my alma mater where I received

my undergrad in graphic design, and they had a letterpress

shop that was sitting unused.

And so I had the opportunity to teach a class to teach

students how to be letterpress printers,

which quite honestly, I was still learning myself,

and continue to today.

I started teaching letterpress as an elective.

I had great groups of students for every semester.

So nine years, every semester, we've offered letterpress

printing, sometimes multiple sections.

It's wonderful to watch my students pull their first print,

because they pull that first print off the press,

and just kind of a light goes on.

Watching them discover how fascinating letterpress printing

can be is immensely satisfying and joyful for me.

"Pressing On: The Letterpress Film" is a documentary

about the survival of letterpress printing,

and specifically, the community that have kept it alive.

It is both the older generation that held onto the equipment

and the knowledge through a time when letterpress printing

was not popular, and also the new generation

that are continuing to keep it going.

I would say that I'm a member of the new generation,

and as I became a part of the community, and started to make

these connections with these 70 and 80-year-old printers,

I knew that that knowledge was gonna get lost if we didn't

record it in some way.

Through making the film, I got to see the way letterpress

had been a part of all of these people's lives

since they were young.

Some of the older printers in the community had become

apprentices when they were 12 or 15 years old

with their families, and so I got to hear the way that

letterpress printing had driven their life path,

and how special it is to them to know that there's a young

generation that still cares about this process, this medium,

this trade that they love.

The printers that held this knowledge, a lot of it was never

recorded in books.

I've taken on this role as educator and filmmaker,

and created a shop at a university and they seem to connect

to it, and so many of them have gone on to actually

buy their own presses, which I never imagined.

I love that it's a part of their lives,

but now they have their own presses that they're learning

how to use, and learning their presses' quirks.

I love to see that engagement,

and that they want to continue to help be a part

of the letterpress community.

Using letterpress printing equipment

is what's keeping it alive.

Having a wood type font sit in a drawer or behind glass

somewhere isn't gonna keep it going.

When you're continuing to print it,

it not only is putting oil back into the wood,

and keeping those characters in good condition,

but by printing it, you're then sharing it with more people,

which is keeping letterpress printing alive.

So it's both the use and the people that are continuing

to keep letterpress going.

- And that wraps it up for this edition of Detroit Performs.

As always, for more arts and culture,

head to, where you'll find featured

videos, blogs, and information on upcoming arts events.

Also, check us out on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

I'd like to thank Jo's Gallery for being

such a gracious host.

Check it out on the Livernois Avenue of fashion.

I promise you'll enjoy it.

Until next Tuesday, get out there and show the world

how Detroit performs, y'all.

I'm DJ Oliver.

Thanks for watching, guys.

- [Narrator] Funding for Detroit Performs

is provided by the Fred A. and Barbara M.

Erb Family Foundation,

the Kresge Foundation,

the A. Paul and Carol C Schapp Foundation,

the Michigan Council for Arts & Cultural Affairs,

the National Endowment for the Arts,

and by contributions to your PBS station,

from viewers like you.

Thank you.

(bright music)


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