Entertainment

Wood and Stone: The Cool Artistry of Hatch Show Print and Master Printer Jim Sherraden

The walls of Hatch Show Print, Nashville’s leading letterpress print company, are full of typeface and blocks for printing—some dating back to the 1870s. PHOTO BY RUSS CORLEY

The walls of Hatch Show Print, Nashville’s leading letterpress print company, are full of typeface and blocks for printing—some dating back to the 1870s. PHOTO BY RUSS CORLEY

Most people will recognize the vintage style of posters that adorn the walls of the Hatch Show Print, but few may realize the extent to which this industry represents our city, our music and our culture.  What started as a small family-owned business in the 1870s, Hatch Show Print has come to represent, in the words of Master Printer Jim Sherraden, “the antithesis of digital design.”

Brothers Charles and Herbert Hatch began today’s modern Hatch Show Print in 1879, and its work was continued by and thrived under the leadership of Will Hatch, the second-generation letterpress designer and son of Charles Hatch. “This is a thriving, vibrant letterpress poster and design company, and we’re on our 135th year here,” related Sherraden.

Throughout the history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, show posters began to dot the landscape even more predominantly when more accessible means of travel meant that physical advertising could reach a wider audience. In the golden age of country music and vaudeville, Hatch Show Print was there. “Historically, in the old South, pre-World War II, to get folks out of the cotton field, out of the coal mine, you needed a big great poster that was designed so that it wasn’t condescending to the rural population,” explains Sherraden. “You carve them once, you carve them well, and you can use them year after year, town after town.” This practical use of poster making continued through the mid-20th century, growing year by year.

Master Printer Jim Sherraden has loyally steered the ship at Hatch Show Print for over 30 years. PHOTO BY RUSS CORLEY

Master Printer Jim Sherraden has loyally steered the ship at Hatch Show Print for over 30 years. PHOTO BY RUSS CORLEY

As the years went on, the “dark days” of poster printing came with the dawn of the digital age.  But with all technologies, there is an inverse reaction at times, and the very surge in popularity of the compact disc era resulted in a surprising increase in the demand for Hatch Show Print’s work. The re-release of classic country music on compact disc in the late ‘80s and ‘90s necessitated that comparable art would accompany such classic artists.

“In the late 80s and early 90s, the next great thing happens,” described Sherraden. “The compact disc is invented, and that means that all those vaults on Music Row open up, and they want art for it—especially re-releasing Ernest Tubb, re-releasing Bill Monroe, re-releasing Kitty Wells.  And I would carve blocks like Mr. Hatch.”

Sherraden’s own connection to Hatch Show Print began over thirty years ago, when, like so many others before him and since, he came to Nashville in 1977, seeking fame and fortune in the country music business.  “I moved here because I gave my song lyrics to the lead guitarist for Waylon Jennings.” He had success with songwriting for Jennings and for studios around town, and, like many talented artists both then and now, he had glimpses of commercial success. Yet fame was fleeting, as it can so often be today. Like the lyrics of a classic country song, he “never got there,” Sherraden reflected. “There I was, 35 years old, looking for more ways to be creative.”

Sherraden’s experience and craftsmanship has inspired a generation of younger artisans, hungry for the authenticity that letterpress art engenders. PHOTO BY RUSS CORLEY

Sherraden’s experience and craftsmanship has inspired a generation of younger artisans, hungry for the authenticity that letterpress art engenders. PHOTO BY RUSS CORLEY

Enter Hatch Show Print.

After having his work locally exhibited, Sherraden’s skills with letterpress and printmaking were discovered.  “I took printmaking because I wanted to get out of college fast. In a family of educators, I’m waiting tables in Hillsboro Village, and I fell in love with it.”

It was not the type of “discovery” Sherraden had come to Nashville as a songwriter to find, but I daresay that his impact on Nashville, on music and on art on a national level has been far greater than his dreams of songwriting success could have ever been.

Hatch has thrived under Sherraden’s involvement, which began in 1984.  Hatch begins work that ranged from “Bessie Smith to the Beastie Boys,” with projects on the books that were the result of their newfound popularity from the re-release of classic country during the ‘80s and ‘90s.  “We started doing Fossil Watch tin designs and Jack Daniel’s ads,” commented Sherraden. “Oh, so much. I’m not going to remember a third of the stuff we’ve done in the 31 years I’ve been here.”

In today’s modern digital age, Hatch still creates its product by hand, using letters and carved blocks to create the visual product, as seen here in a design crafted for the 2014 Tennessee State Fair. PHOTO BY RUSS CORLEY

In today’s modern digital age, Hatch still creates its product by hand, using letters and carved blocks to create the visual product, as seen here in a design crafted for the 2014 Tennessee State Fair. PHOTO BY RUSS CORLEY

The work continued, and Hatch revived from the period in which everyone worried that the outdated show poster company would quietly fold. Now a part of the venerable Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, Hatch has continued its role as Nashville’s leading letterpress company, but it also serves as a historical record to Nashville’s seminal role in country music and music as a whole.

“Twenty years go by, and we’re given to the Hall of Fame as a gift from Gaylord Entertainment.” When business grew too plentiful to continue in their current location at the time, “we outgrew the Broadway building, where we were only located since 1992 and moved over here.”  Nothing was lost to history, down to the actual footprint of the shop. “This is literally Mr. Hatch’s space,” confirmed Sherraden. “We recreated it over here in this location.  I took pictures in the ‘80s so when we moved over here, we knew where everything should go.”

Sherraden was honest about his goals for Hatch—for rescuing this hallmark of music and its treasures of vintage artwork and block design. “The goal was to create a revenue stream so that they didn’t end up in the flea markets and antique stores, and we pulled it off,” Sherraden says humbly. “The further we accelerate into a screen-centrist society, the more valuable I think these are.”

Sherraden’s support of this industry goes far beyond mere business savvy and commercial success. He has turned his artistic attention to work that incorporates the history of Hatch Show Print throughout the years.  His line of monoprints, which are on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Haley Gallery, are a “celebration of all the great blocks that were cut in this place.” Creating blocks using vintage Hatch blocks as a reference, Sherraden recreates art that indeed does celebrate Hatch’s history in Nashville.  Pieces of blocks that once celebrated Hank Williams, Sr. and Bill Monroe have now been incorporated into stunning works of art. Ever one to downplay his vital role, Sherraden points to the success of his monoprints as being the result of classic Hatch’s hand-carved blocks. “Either those things are going to rot on that shelf, or I can do something with them here and re-cut them and celebrate this great tradition. Everything from the eyes to the mouth to the shoes to the etch we cut of Hank Williams.”

In a world where “zoom out” is not available, a big poster requires a big block, as seen here in these waist-high wooden designs. PHOTO BY RUSS CORLEY

In a world where “zoom out” is not available, a big poster requires a big block, as seen here in these waist-high wooden designs. PHOTO BY RUSS CORLEY

Another novel way to draw an artistic contrast between the history of Hatch and today’s modern society is a series of work that Sherraden has titled “The Day at Hatch.” These works, of which Sherraden “only makes two or three a year,” have an interesting twist. “This is a very popular series,” related Sherraden. “This is unique, this style.  It goes from my notes. I call them ‘The Day at Hatch.’ It’s the antithesis of email,” commented Sherraden.  This use of his handwritten schedules and notes are combined into a rendering that is both intriguing and beautiful. “About one out of every 10 of my notes make it to the paper here.” This comment on today’s hurried pace and digital interconnection, sandwiched between the vaults of the Hall of Fame and Hatch’s venerable wood blocks across the hall, Sherraden’s artistic work on display in the Haley Gallery is a worthy destination in and of itself. “I’m fond of saying that the computer is the best thing that ever happened to Hatch.”

Hatch Show Prints own slogan “Preservation through Production,” has never been more apt. Letterpress design, along with other aspects of our modern culture, is an industry that many would consider outdated, vintage or antique. But with other similar industries, Hatch has seen a revival in recent years in the attraction it provides to those who have grown to adulthood in an era where a rotary telephone is an unrecognizable object. “Why is distressed type so popular?” mused Sherraden. “Why is Hatch so popular? Why are records so popular again? Why are cassettes making a comeback? Why are kids wanting to learn about sign painting?” His answer is thought provoking. Young adults in particular are “hardwired for process,” says Sherraden. “The digital era robs us of all of that.”

Even the tiniest of etched blocks receive the utmost of care at Hatch, with shelves full of designs hand-made and processed, some no bigger than the palm of your hand. PHOTO BY RUSS CORLEY

Even the tiniest of etched blocks receive the utmost of care at Hatch, with shelves full of designs hand-made and processed, some no bigger than the palm of your hand. PHOTO BY RUSS CORLEY

It is clear from a visit to Hatch Show Print that Sherraden is a wise man.  The creativity and enthusiasm from his youthful, artistic team is undeniable. “This generation has a fascination for outmoded technology. I can’t stress enough – look how young everybody is here.  And they get it.  I mean, they really, really get it and do great jobs. There is a romanticism attached to it.” Ever the team player, Sherraden stressed how vital his team was to the successes of Hatch Show Print.

From his efforts to preserve the art of Hatch in his own creations to the efforts he makes to stress the value of his team, Sherraden’s humility and graciousness is apparent to anyone lucky enough to spend time with the master printer. “I’ve always wanted to make a living in the creative arts. And I’m able to do that, and I want to say that out of gratitude but also to let other people know that it’s possible to do that,” encouraged Sherraden. “I’m grateful. I say that ten times a day.” He finished with a reflection back to the history of Hatch Show Print. “Every one of these prints has a story.”