Letterpress printer Amy Constable Shares her story: from starting her career in a flailing industry and dealing with self-doubt to juggling her thriving business with motherhood.
After a few years working in the print industry, Amy Constable received some pretty disheartening advice.
“This guy at my work was like, ‘You know, you’re going to have to skill up or drown because print is over’,” Constable says.
Working at an ad agency as a print designer in the late 2000s, Constable wasn’t far into her career when the industry began to fall apart around her. Magazines and newspapers were folding in droves, and a move into digital didn’t just seem like a smart option—it was, according to many at the time, the only option.
But Constable had different ideas.
Emphatically describing herself as “not a Kindle type of girl”, Constable says her emotional connection to print was so strong she felt she had no option than to pursue the craft—sinking print industry be damned.
So, in 2008, she bought a small desktop press from the 1950s—one that still takes pride of place in her studio, and which she likens to an entry-level Canon printer—to teach herself printing.
It was risk that grew into what’s now known as Saint Gertrude, Constable’s thriving letterpress business.
Now operating out of Little Gold Studios in Brunswick, Saint Gertrude began life as many creative enterprises do: in Constable’s backyard.
“One minute I was quitting my job in design because I believed in print, and the next thing I was a fully-fledged printer,” Constable says.
“Suddenly it was just a business. I don’t even remember it happening. And it’s kind of taken over ever since.”
In those early years, Constable held down a part-time job while working on Saint Gertrude, in an approach she describes as “one great big experiment”.
“For the first two to three years there was just nothing to compare it to—there were only one or two other people doing letterpress in Australia,” Constable says.
“I got a good couple of years in really early where I could just be completely crazy with it and learn on the go.
“I’m very lucky I had it that way. I think if I was starting out now I’d be intimidated.”
Constable did, however, experience some fear when it came time to grow Saint Gertrude from a low-risk backyard operation into a studio-based business.
“Moving was a risk. But it was a little bit ‘if you built it they will come’,” she says.
“I met all these people that I then got to work with and work for. You don’t meet people in your backyard the way you meet people when you’re out in the community.”
Constable’s position as the founder and operator of a boutique letterpress business is a far cry from her early ambitions. At university, she enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English with the view to becoming an author—but, she says, it was a romanticised idea she hadn’t fully thought through.
“I don’t think I really thought about what my job would look like, what my day-to-day would be,” Constable says.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with writers now and that isn’t the kind of work I ever want to do. It’s very solitary, [whereas] I like engaging with people.”
After two years pursuing that dream at uni, Constable hit pause to go travelling. But upon her return, she realised she not only didn’t want to continue her degree, she didn’t want to study at university at all.
Constable was then offered a job in copyediting, performing proof-reading work at an ad agency, before moving into other areas of copywriting.
“Then, I started working with a designer and we would do concepts together, and from there I dabbled in a bit of design and ended up building a self-initiated portfolio,” she says.
“I kind of got in the side door and I haven’t looked back. I don’t think I could ever do anything else.
“This is it for me—I’m going to be a printer for the rest of my life.”
In the years since establishing Saint Gertrude, the Australian letterpress industry has well and truly boomed—so does Constable ever compare herself to the other talented craftspeople out there?
“It’s hard not to sometimes, as we’re all going for the same jobs,” she says.
“But the only element we’re competing for is the business part, [and] I find it easy to disengage emotionally from that because it really isn’t personal.
“But every now and again you think you had something really going with a client and then they go somewhere else and you’re like, ‘Aw, man—I really wanted that job; that looked really sweet!’”
But despite Constable’s confidence in her work and the admission she’s lucky to have never experienced imposter syndrome (“I don’t think highly enough of myself to think that low of myself”), she says there was a period a few years ago when she really doubted her ability to compete with other letterpress printers—particularly those using machines more advanced than her trusty old manual presses.
“As more studios started popping up and their work was just so slick, I was like, ‘Oh man, I’ve been doing this for twice as long—why doesn’t mine look like that?’” Constable remembers.
But while she’s well and truly gotten over that feeling—and no one could argue her work isn’t slick—Constable’s no stranger to the odd creative block that plagues even the most seasoned maker. It’s something she says usually pops up when she’s “got [her] design-y hat on”.
“I’m too busy thinking, ‘How well will this be received? How much will this sell? How much can I reasonably charge for this? Will it work in five different colourways? Is this going to break the internet?’“ she says.
On top of her commitments to Saint Gertrude, Constable is also a mother to two young (and spunky AF!) children Hazel and Fred. While the elder Hazel came into the picture a couple of years after Saint Gertrude was established, Constable says she didn’t think twice about the impact parenthood would have on the business.
The result, though? Constable describes it as a balancing act far more difficult than the ‘juggle’ it’s often labelled.
“It’s just a constant tugging between one priority and another, and I’m constantly dropping the ball on one or the other—and I just have to be OK with that,” she says.
“It’s hard. It’s really hard. And it’s going to be hard for another ten years, I’d say. But I’ll get through it. I think I’ll be OK.”
Earlier this year, Constable enrolled in a Bachelor of Fine Art in printmaking, adding to her already full plate—and taking the former university drop-out full circle.
It’s part of her larger goal to transition Saint Gertrude into full-time vehicle for her own art, which she currently balances with corporate work, artist collaborations and letterpress classes.
“I’ve built something around this really pragmatic printing business, whereas I’m now moving into this intangible thing—like, what can I honestly make money from?” Constable says.
“I’m terrified! But I feel like I need to do it.
“I’ve got a lot of fears around where things are going next, but it’s less about the business and more about the vulnerability of doing something artistic.”
virtual pep talk
“Make lots of friends in the creative industry. Talk to everyone. Be really nice to everybody—
it gets around when you’re not! Be really genuine.
Offer them whatever you’ve got—everyone needs something, especially in creative fields. I’ve made a lot of friends by going ‘come in, I’ll do your business cards’ and the more people you connect with on that level, the more they talk about you as someone that’s worth knowing.”