A man of letters | AspenTimes.com

A man of letters

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspenite Lloyd Schermer, who once used type to print newspapers, now makes sculptures of the obsolete material. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)

Lloyd Schermer’s first newspaper job was at The Daily Times, of Davenport, Iowa. It was 1954, and the paper was in the midst of a strike, so Schermer found himself saddled with a multitude of tasks.

“I had to do everything ” printing, engraving, reporting,” said Schermer, a sharp-minded and able-bodied 79-year-old who, since the early ’90s, has lived most of the year in Aspen’s West End. “I got my hands dirty.”

The bulk of Schermer’s ensuing newspaper career didn’t involve too much dirt under the fingernails. After stints in management at several papers, Schermer rose to become CEO of Lee Enterprises, a good-sized media company, also based in Davenport. The experience he gained through that dirt and those active hands became crucial, however, during his years as publisher of the Missoulian. In the mid-’60s, the paper became one of the first to convert from hot metal, letter-press printing, a process that had lasted essentially from the time Johann Gutenberg invented the movable press in the 15th century, to offset, flat-surface printing. Lee Enterprises, which owned the Missoulian, was an industry leader in the conversion, and Schermer’s intimacy with the tools and machinery of printing was put to good use.

Type, made either of wood or metal, became more than a functional instrument for Schermer. “It was beautiful stuff. An art form,” he said. Such was his appreciation that, when the Missoulian was about to rid itself of the bulky, outdated material, Schermer rescued a cabinet-full from a future in the dump. He hauled the type to Davenport, where it sat untouched throughout his nearly three-decade career as CEO of Lee. And he towed it once again when he and his wife Betty moved to Aspen.

In Aspen, retired, and after years of keeping it out of sight in his basement, Schermer finally found a use for that “beautiful stuff.” He built a door out of the print for his new house. Schermer was surprised at the number of positive comments he got for his one-of-a-kind door made of blocks of letters, numbers and engravings.

Schermer might have tried his hand at more type works. But type was in tight supply; the door had exhausted his stash, and most newspapers had tossed their collections when type became obsolete.

One thing that Schermer did have, in abundance, was a budding interest in art. During his time in the corporate suite, his artistic interest was limited to collecting: He collected some European art during visits he made soon after World War II and Chinese art, beginning just after Mao’s Cultural Revolution ended. (Schermer was among the first American businessmen in China after the days of Mao. His joint ventures included the first official tour guide of China, dating to 1978, and he helped launch the China Daily, China’s main English-language newspaper.)

Betty was a board member of Snowmass Village’s Anderson Ranch Arts Center and talked often about the work that went on there. In 1993, Schermer took a course in drawing, then one in watercolor. His instructors offered enough positive reinforcement that he took more classes, eventually branching into monotypes.

Schermer’s first monotype was modeled after a Chinese sculpture of a goose. Then he began using the type leftover from his door, stamping images into the paper. Schermer, aided by local master printer Craig O’Brien, had found his voice as an artist, and sold between 250 and 300 prints.

Among his admirers was David McLaughlin, the former head of the Aspen Institute, who commissioned Schermer to make a sculpture out of the remaining type. Schermer made the piece, mounted on heavy wood, in the shape of an aspen leaf. From the original, Schermer made a bronze sculpture, which is installed at the entrance to Paepcke Auditorium. With the three-dimensional works, Schermer had another hit.

“People wanted to buy the big wooden aspen leaf,” he said. “But I didn’t have enough type; it was too hard to find. So I made prints out of it. And I made bronzes ” and sold a lot of them.”

Schermer’s sculpting career seemed to be at an end. Then he got a call from Irv Silverman, who had run a magazine in New York. Silverman had a stock of type wasting away in Bernard, Maine, near Bar Harbor. In 1998, in the coldest winter in Maine history, the Schermers spent hours checking out the type, stored in an ancient lighthouse. They had the entire collection, some 11,000 pounds of it, shipped to Aspen.

“That’s a lot of type,” said Schermer, who lives five months of the year in Tucson. “I knew it was enough type to do something.”

It doesn’t appear as if Schermer will run out of type again anytime soon. He bought two more large collections, one from Printer’s Row in Chicago and another from Toronto. His studio in Basalt contains nearly a thousand drawers full of type; a storage space behind the studio is likewise packed. Schermer reasons his is the largest collection in the States ” and possibly the world.

Then again, at the rate he’s going, Schermer might have to think about more purchases. (Schermer should probably plan on being around awhile longer; not only is he fit, his mother died last year at the age of 103.)

Schermer has sculptures in the headquarters of many of the country’s large news-related organizations: the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum in Chicago, the Knight Foundation in Miami, the Montana School of Journalism and the lobby of Lee Enterprises. Donald Graham, CEO of The Washington Post Company, has complained that the door Schermer made for his office has drawn too many viewers. Schermer also has a piece in the Smithsonian American Art Museum (where he is a board member and former chairman of the board).

His current project is a sculpture, two 12.5-by-3.5-foot pieces, for the conference center of the new New York Times building, opening in midtown Manhattan in the spring. (The eternally good-natured Schermer flashed his sense of humor when the Times commission dragged on to its fifth meeting: “You’ve got to hurry up,” Schermer told the Times executives. “You’re dealing with two diminishing resources: wood type and me.”) On his studio wall is a finished piece for the Reynolds Foundation’s headquarters in Las Vegas. Also in the works is a piece for the Newseum, in Washington, D.C., also opening next spring.

Schermer is busy enough that he works almost exclusively on commissioned works. The one exception is Aspen’s Magidson Fine Art, where several smaller type sculptures are currently being exhibited. (His prints, which he has stopped making in favor of the sculptures, are handled by galleries in Boulder and Scottsdale.)

The sculptures bring out the hands-on craftsman in Schermer. Each piece requires extensive sanding to bring out the luster in the woods and metals. The pieces are enormously heavy, and Schermer seems to enjoy the work he does with local furniture-maker Brad Nelson, constructing the sturdy undercarriages from which the art hangs. Schermer also likes how working with the type itself connects him to the people who made the material.

“Designing type was an art form. Making the type was an art form,” said Schermer, who serves on the boards of Anderson Ranch and the Aspen Institute. “I’ve got 600 pieces of solid, hand-carved wood type ” and I don’t know how the heck they did it.”

Schermer puts little touches of creativity in many of his pieces. Embedded in the pieces for Donald Graham and The New York Times are words familiar in the newspaper business: scoop, edit. The New York Times piece has an engraving of a linotype machine; another sculpture features an engraving of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, including the “freedom of speech” and “freedom of the press” clauses.

What gives the art depth, however, is how the sculptures hold on to old materials and ideas and, reassembled, form something new. Schermer jokingly refers to what he does as “geezer art,” but that is only a reference to his age, and the ancient quality of his materials. In fact, the work is anything but old to look at. The pieces bring the viewer into a realm where symbols, how we use them, and the very act of communication can be examined.

“With everything that’s going on in this information age, we still come back to how you communicate,” said Schermer. “There are several ways we communicate: one is with letters and words we put together. Art. Music. Body language. And before this” ” and here he puts his hands, as he often does, square on the type in one of his creations ” “is lost, I want to remind people, this is where we started. Before we get all fuzzed up with communication, it all started here, with Gutenberg. What he did lasted hundreds of years. We’re into something new, but we still read type.

“It’s fundamental to living.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com