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Screen Printing: Graphics + Design
The Apprentice: A Screen-Printing Journey
The On Design: Road Trip feature about Route 66 in the Impressions March issue reminded me of my screen-printing experiences in Albuquerque, N.M., many years ago. I worked for six months at a shop less than a quarter mile from the route. I didn’t make much money—the minimum wage of $2.20 an hour at the time, but I learned a lot about the trade, and a few things about New Mexico, while I was there. I learned a few things about life when I visited the shop decades later.
A Novice in Training
I went to New Mexico after graduating from college in May of 1976. Unable to find work in Santa Fe, I trekked to Albuquerque, where I got a job as a screen printer’s apprentice. I worked for Curtis “Stubby” Stubblefield at the Stubblefield Screen Print Company (SSPC). Originally from Tennessee, Stubby had contracted TB in the swamps of Louisiana while in basic training for World War II and came to New Mexico for the cure. With a background in printing, he had opened SSPC, shortly thereafter.
Stubby specialized in multi-colored decals, some of them for branches of the service—mostly the US Air Force—in the area. He also made posters for the windows of groceries and other stores. A fellow named Felix would come in regularly to drop off and pick up orders for the grocery where he worked. Stubby and Felix got along well together: they would laugh and tell stories like old friends. Stubby also did T-shirts, hats, and anything else people wanted screen printed.
I learned a lot about screen printing from Stubby. I would answer the phone if he was out, but he would negotiate with customers and work up the orders. He would do the artwork himself, drawing images by hand or using stock art and setting the necessary type. He showed me how different letters take up different amounts of space in most fonts (for example, an I takes up less space than a W) so you could not just put letters at equal distances from each other: you had to position them so that the space between them was equal to make the type look right.
We would shoot the artwork (in the dark room) against a screen made of albumen. After the screen was exposed to the light, we would rinse it off, leaving the stencil. Then we would attach the screen to the press. We would set guides on the vacuum table to hold the stock we were using; the vacuum would hold it on the table. After we let the screen down, we would fill it with ink and use the squeegee to print on the stock. The press would lift the screen, and we would remove the printed piece and put it on the conveyor belt. After the pieces had gone through the dryer, we would collect them and hang them if they needed additional time to dry. If a piece needed additional colors, we would repeat the same process.
Before the stock, whether card or paper, could be printed on, it had to be cut. For that we used a hydraulic paper cutter. The deck of the massive machine was perhaps four feet wide and three feet off the floor. The back, which held the wide, sharp blade, was another two feet high. The machine that we used had a safety so you could not bring down the blade without occupying both hands. Older machines lacked the safety, and Stubby told me that some men had paid the price for it. If they had lost one finger to the blade, sometimes they would instinctively reach to retrieve it and lose another finger in the process.
The paper cutter helped me to make a living in Albuquerque that year, and it helped me to make a living in San Francisco the following year. (I had left New Mexico and returned to the East Coast in the interim.) I was hitchhiking with my friend Robert. As we made our way west, we talked of finding work in the Bay area and staying for a while.
“You’ll never find work in San Francisco,” more than one person told us. “There aren’t enough jobs for all the people who want to live there.” When we got to the Bay area, I answered an ad in the Chronicle for a paper cutter operator in South San Francisco and, based on my experience at SSPC, was hired on the spot.
I learned a few things about the Albuquerque area from Stubby too. He told me that the Kimo Theatre, downtown, was decorated with swastikas.
“There was a big hullabaloo when the U.S. declared war against Nazi Germany,” he said. “Some people wanted to remove the swastikas, but they failed. They’re an ancient symbol of well-being, far predating the Nazis.” I made a special trip to see the swastikas. There they were, plain as day, in a border around the theater. Their setting among other Native American cultural symbols, however, dimmed their association with Nazism.
Occasionally, thunderstorms, perhaps from the North American Monsoon, would blow through the area. I told Stubby that I had been out on the mesa when one did so.
“Stay out of those arroyos when that happens,” he said. “They can fill up quickly and sweep you away.” I never suffered that fate, but several people did when I returned to the area decades later. One of them died.
I must have impressed Stubby with my work. Later in the fall, he told me that he had been looking for someone to take over the business and asked me if I would be interested. I hated to say no, but I did. I wasn’t ready to commit myself to such a venture. I had no background in business, and I wasn’t sure if I would even stay in New Mexico. I was homesick for the East Coast and ended up leaving New Mexico in early December.
Where It All Started
I returned to Albuquerque for a vacation in 2018 and visited SSPC while I was there. I knew that it was still in business, and I wanted to see what it was like. The office was dark, so I knocked on the shop door. A younger fellow—younger than I, anyway—peered out and eyed me cautiously. After I explained who I was and why I was there, he opened the door.
“Since they built the homeless shelter,” he said, pointing across the street, “I don’t open the doors to strangers anymore.”
The fellow’s name was Patrick Segura; he was the second owner since Stubby had sold the business. Patrick told me how the business had changed—it was much more computer-based—and how he was trying to get out of it. I asked to see the shop, and he let me in. I was disappointed: there was a lot of old stuff piled up everywhere. I told him what Stubby used to do and where. Not seeing the hydraulic paper cutter, I asked him what had happened to it.
“I tried to sell it,” he said. “I even went on eBay and Craig’s List, but I got no takers. Finally, I told a couple of homeless guys that if they would take it apart, they could have the metal and sell it for scrap. It took them all day to do it.” I was sad to hear about the paper cutter: it had helped me to make a living in two different places during my 20s.
Something else about the paper cutter bothered me. It was a massive machine—at least a few feet across, a few feet deep, and several feet high; it must have weighed hundreds of pounds. It had done its job, and done it well, for decades. No doubt it had been replaced by a more efficient, powerful, and/or sophisticated machine. It seemed a shame, though —a waste of resources—to get rid of it. At least, I hoped, it had found new life as something else.
Patrick and I talked about New Mexico’s economy, crime in Albuquerque and other things. Then it was time for him to get back to work and for me to go. Although I was disappointed with what had become of the shop, especially the paper cutter, I was glad that I had stopped by. I had revisited an important place, where I had gotten my first job after college. The business had changed, but the shop was still there.
Tim Micek is Professor of Education at Ohio Dominican University, where he coordinates the TESOL program. Tim spent six months in Albuquerque, N.M., as a screen printer’s apprentice and two months in South San Francisco as a hydraulic paper cutter operator. He is currently writing about his New Mexico experiences and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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