Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Print
Ryan Thelen's quest for real-sized reproductions of America's most important documents.
Ryan Thelen had suffered enough. A history teacher in Cincinnati, he was on a quest to be free of the tyranny of having to resort to the common 12 x 18-inch souvenir copies of the US Declaration of Independence to show his students. He wanted a full-size, calfskin reproduction of the document to exhibit in his classroom, to better reflect reality.
“Unfortunately, most people’s perception of the Declaration and other ‘founding documents,’ including the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is that of the small paper reproductions,” says Thelen. “Many aren’t even aware that the actual documents consist of six separate, very large parchment skins.”
Thelen’s quest to produce realistically sized copies of these historical documents onto parchment has taken years. But he’s finally been able to turn his aspirations into reality.
A dance of traditional craftsmanship and digital technology
To create the reproductions, Thelen began with 35mm transparencies of the original documents secured from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). He had these images printed out full-size with increased contrast, covered them with tracing paper, and brought in calligrapher Holly Monroe to hand-trace the lettering. Monroe put in more than 200 hours of calligraphy work to bring the historical scripts up to snuff, particularly when the original image was unclear.
Thelen then turned to ARC Document Solutions in Cincinnati to have Monroe’s work digitized. The documents were scanned in at 600-dpi, loaded into Photoshop, and passed back to Monroe. Then, with the aid of a Wacom Cintiq HD pen display, Monroe “proofed and adjusted every letter to correct for calligraphic mistakes and for accuracy,” says Thelen.
“It was a dance of traditional craftsmanship with digital technology. Relying solely on craftsmanship would have sacrificed accuracy, while relying solely on technology would have sacrificed not only accuracy but the humanity of the originals. Imperfection is beautiful ¬ I didn’t want Holly’s calligraphy to simply be turned into a font.”
Capturing the detail
Meanwhile, his search for a print provider who could accommodate the output portion of his project had led to a lot of dead ends.
“I became frustrated calling around and trying to explain the project to print shops, only to find out that they couldn’t do it. Size was a factor but so was resolution. I had to be able to capture the detail of the fine calligraphic lines without pixelization,” he says.
Eventually, however, he found a print provider in his own back yard: Cincinnati-based Harlan Graphics, which was able to accommodate his requirements for printing on parchment, utilizing its Fujifilm Acuity Advance HS-X2 printer.
The output process started with small printouts, says Thelen, because the parchment is so expensive – he uses only manuscript-grade calfskin vellum from Pergamena Parchment. After several proofs and adjustments, they were ready for a full-sized print, which average about 26 x 29 inches each.
“However, we ran into problems trying to keep such a large sheet flat – the calfskin parchment reacts to moisture and heat and is very stubborn,” he recalls. “Eventually, Harlan had to use a very strong adhesive to attach the parchment to a backing sheet to keep it from ‘bubbling up’ and causing head strikes.”
The backing adhesive leads to some additional finishing work: When the backing is removed, a residue of adhesive remains on the parchment. So Thelen powders the back of the printed skin with plaster of Paris (gypsum plaster), then uses an orbit sander with 80-grit paper to remove the adhesive; he follows up with 220-grit to smooth it out. He’s working with Harlan on better ways to mount the product.
Along the way, Thelen decided to have reproductions made of not just the Declaration of Independence, but the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well. He now sells his reproductions of the three documents through his company, Patrigraphica (www.patrigraphica.com; teachers are able to purchase the documents at cost).