Yoshiko Yamamoto of The Arts & Crafts Press believes we all deserve to interact with beautiful, hand-made objects in our homes every day. To accomplish this goal, she has hybridized Japanese-style woodcut prints and Western letterpress printing techniques, combining high quality craftsmanship with the cost effectiveness of machinery. Yoshiko’s creative drive makes her take every opportunity to keep her art moving forward.
Born and raised in Tokyo, Yoshiko studied sculpture and fine arts. But in Japan, the rigidly structured field offered slim prospects for moving up in the art world. Before she turned twenty-one, she met her future husband, American-born Bruce Smith, a writer and an expert in the history of the Arts & Crafts movement and moved with him to Berkeley, California, to study history.
The Arts and Crafts movement of the nineteenth century challenged an emerging culture of mass produced objects that lacked originality and quality. The movement advocated economic and social reform focusing on the artful production of beautiful objects and paying artists a fair price. Yoshiko and Bruce started a magazine documenting the contemporary revival of this historical movement, which maintains its relevance today. Modern consumer culture continues to find easy reward in mass-produced, low quality decorative objects.
The entrepreneurial couple hoped to create a publication that was as carefully crafted as the philosophy it described. They acquired what would be the first of several letterpress printing presses. Bruce worked as the editor, while Yoshiko learned how to operate the machinery and used her talents to create cover art and original illustrations. Launching in 1996, The Arts & Crafts Press served as publishing house for the small magazine highlighting articles and works of the Arts & Crafts movement in America. But the labor-intensive process made it difficult to continue production. Though artfully printed and bound, the hand-crafted magazine couldn’t compete with the digital printing technology that made other publications inexpensive, glamorous and widely available. Focusing on her art, Yoshiko turned to printing note cards and limited edition block prints featuring natural imagery. With the philosophy of the movement in mind, the artist envisioned her artworks displayed in bungalows, dwellings that merge simple architecture with nature.
Traditional woodblocks are complex and time-consuming producing a limited run. Yoshiko creates upward of twenty layers of color and detail for her fine prints. Using the printing press, however, facilitates production of larger editions and reduces costs, making the prints more available for anyone’s home. Though the proportions of the press limit the scale of artworks, Yoshiko creatively solved this problem by creating triptychs that appear to transcend the borders of their frames. Finding her inspiration at an intersection of cultures, Yoshiko merges the North American Arts & Crafts aesthetic with the dimensionality of traditional Japanese prints. Like windows into nature, her poetic images invite the audience into a world within.
One of the bigger break-throughs came about when The Arts & Crafts Press began working with a distributor who now handles all their wholesale needs. “When we were able to focus on perfection, to me that’s when my business turned around,” Yoshiko remembers.
A few years after launching the magazine, Yoshiko and Bruce relocated to the Northwest, settling first in Port Orchard. Then, hearing about the emerging arts community, city’s encouragement for arts businesses, and fellow letterpress artists in Tacoma, they decided to move to the City of Destiny. While researching housing and business opportunities, Bruce reached out to the City of Tacoma which recommended Spaceworks. Along with providing opportunities for artists, Spaceworks empowers creative entrepreneurs with training and resources to grow their businesses. Yoshiko had operated The Arts & Crafts Press for 18 years at that point. Confident she knew her business, she worried the training might prove to be a waste of her time, but she wanted to connect with the local arts community. The printmaker applied to Spaceworks’ Creative Enterprise program in 2014. She found her experience deeply enriching because it encompassed so many aspects of running a small business.
With a fresh understanding of the business of retailing art, Bruce and Yoshiko searched for a place that would accommodate a workspace and storefront. They found the perfect place in the old Tillicum Toy Company building on South Tacoma Way. Once the largest wooden toy manufacturer in the Pacific Northwest, the company ceased operation due to the Great Depression. Today this historic building houses multiple businesses, once again contributing to the cultural and economic revitalization of Tacoma. After a three-month renovation, The Arts & Crafts Press turned their location into an efficient and inviting studio and shop. Using her space to promote creativity, Yoshiko hosts regular open studio days and workshops, in which local adults and school children alike learn creative discipline through the art of printmaking. Carving the images they draw, the artists work in silence because they are so focused on their work.
For many years Yoshiko’s prints, cards, mugs and ceramic tiles have been sold internationally via their website and distributing company. However, Yoshiko wanted to step back from her day-to-day tasks of running a business while trying to design, draw, and print her works and rethink about her business directions. After nearly twenty years of business experience, The Arts & Crafts Press was ready for a new and improved strategy. To help them along, in 2016 Spaceworks’ invited them to participate in the Creative Enterprise Tier III program with peer-to-peer support, a business microgrant and individualized coaching.
Guided by her coach Miriam Works of Works Consulting, the artist delved into the nuts and bolts of how to streamline the business, restructure the creative process, and specialize workers. Though she originally preferred all members of her team to know multiple jobs in the workshop, Yoshiko found that specialization actually helps her team work more confidently with clearly defined responsibilities. With help from Miriam, Yoshiko is working on developing hiring and training procedures, intending to grow the business to several full-time employees working both collaboratively and on their own projects. With input from another coach, Nona Jensen of Professional Business Services, she now watches accounting more closely using detailed reports from QuickBooks to keep the business sustainable. “Spaceworks forced me to get out of the daily grind. Now we are systematically changing our approach to our finances and [Miriam] is showing us where we are really making money and profit,” commented Yoshiko. She wants her art to support the staff, offering salaries to both owners as well as their current employee who also receives health benefits and paid time off. This full time studio assistant helps carve the many printing plates that it takes to create each image and also works on independent projects. “I have never wanted to have a studio just for myself, I like to work with others,” says Yoshiko.
There are fewer Arts & Crafts fairs than twenty years ago, but Yoshiko observes that there are more people enjoying making things by hand, whether it’s crocheting, pottery, letterpress-printing, or woodworking. Perhaps it’s an effect of the digital age. In Tacoma, The Arts & Crafts Press has established an outpost of the imagination using some of the last letterpresses ever produced. One of them bas built in 1891, while another is part of a final series made in the 1950’s before the manufacturing stopped. On these presses Yoshiko prints images and objects that help us say “thank you” or “congratulations”, or simply celebrate a life of beauty. With more stories to tell with her images, the printmaker’s goal is to open her studio to a few dedicated employees who want to learn the craft of printing and practice their art. Over time, Yoshiko wants to leave a legacy, passing the business on to someone with the same care and love of arts and crafts. “As people stay longer with the business I want them to be happy. I want to be a vehicle for others’ success.”
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The Arts & Crafts Press
2515 S Tacoma Way, Ste. B
Tacoma, WA 98409
All photos by Patrick Hagerty
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