By: Jarrett Van Meter
While neither rats nor bees are immediately visible, a visit to Sally Anne Morgan’s farm in Alexander does yield sheep, dog, cat, steer, and chicken sightings. The menagerie, curated by Morgan and her husband, Andrew Zinn, constellate her Ratbee Press and Design workshop as though assigned to protect it. Inside the building, the vintage platen and cylinder presses that she uses for her work — as well as a guillotine paper cutter that’s as imposing in stature as it is in name — give the space an air of antiquity. The windowsills are full of plants and flowers, the ceiling made of rough-cut pine. Several stacks of recent prints sit atop her desk. Her work, like her homestead and the company’s name itself, is infused with plants and animals.
“I am definitely inspired by the natural world, being outside, going for hikes,” says Morgan. “I’m really intrigued by animals and plants that exist with humanity in a kind of way. Rats, for example, have thrived and prospered and have way higher population densities than they would have without humans because they are able to adapt to a human-built environment. Nobody wants a rat infestation, I get that, but to me it just challenges what we think of wild animals or wilderness or nature.”
An accomplished banjo and fiddle player, Morgan was introduced to letterpress — a form of relief printing where raised, inked surfaces imprint designs or lettering on paper — through vintage-look promotional posters, trendy for roots-music concerts and music festivals. Upon first moving to Asheville in 2011, Morgan sought out an apprenticeship with Mark Olson at Innerer Klang Letterpress, which specializes in small-run poetry books. She learned how to set type and clean, organize, and store equipment. In 2012, while still assisting Olson, she began creating her own work that would ultimately serve as the foundation for Ratbee, which produces letterpress printing, illustration, and design. She spurned time-consuming, expensive-to-reproduce concert posters for wholesome greeting cards, one-off wedding invitations, and commissioned prints that possess a quirky old-time aesthetic and discernible craftsmanship.
“One of my more popular cards is a squirrel with a balloon that says Happy Birthday, and I calculated that I printed about 3,000 copies of it … just imagining 3,000 people getting this for their birthday is kind of cool,” says Morgan. “I like that it’s artwork, but it’s affordable.” The squirrel is a recurring species in her work; another popular print depicts a squirrel playing a banjo. As for how Ratbee’s growth has affected her own musical pursuits on the folk-drone circuit — including playing with Black Twig Pickers and House and Land — Morgan says the financial freedom yielded from letterpress has alleviated some of her creative pressure.
“This has allowed for me to pursue music more as pure art, where I don’t worry too much about whether it’s going to pay me for my time, and I have sort of modeled this around making a living,” she says.
Sally Anne Morgan, Ratbee Press & Design, Alexander. Work is sold locally at Whist Greetings & Gifts (444 Haywood Road, #102, West Asheville, whistshop.com) at Horse + Hero (14 Patton Ave., downtown Asheville, horse-hero.myshopify.com), and at NOON Modern Goods (509 Mill St., Sylva, noonstorefront.com). For more information, see ratbeepress.com.