I was very sorry to learn this week that Hugh Barclay, proprietor of Thee Hellbox Press, has passed away.
I had the great pleasure of interacting with Hugh at small press book fairs in Ottawa and Toronto, where he was a regular exhibitor, and it was an unfailing joy to speak to him and look at the beautiful books he made. I treasure my small trove of Thee Hellbox publications.
In his work, I especially love how he often printed text over top of exuberantly coloured abstract art. Here are a few examples of what I mean, including prints by Michele LaRose in Phil Hall’s X, wood-type ligatures printed under Susan Gillis’ poems in The Sky These Days, and an abstract image by Hugh himself (I believe) from Jim Johnstone’s Microaggressions.
Of this choice, Hugh said, “I like to think that if the artwork is entirely illustrative, it is like saying to the reader, ‘I know you are a bit dull so I thought I would draw a picture so you could understand what the author is saying.’ Whereas if I use colour with some abstract art, it speaks in several tongues and may well speak differently to different readers […] Hopefully I will make them ask questions and interpret the artwork any way they like, as there are no right or wrong answers. If it makes them reread the text, it has done its job.” (Devil’s Artisan 78, p. 71).
He also emphasized the value of collaboration in printing and in art generally, and the openness of that approach is a defining characteristic of his printing: “I have realized for a long time the importance of collaboration. We do ourselves a disservice by establishing boundaries. Our job is one of publishing a book. This objective is held by me, the artists and the writer. In the end, it becomes impossible to credit anyone specifically and this is what I call collaboration” (Devil’s Artisan 78, p.73).
Hugh’s work shows up in places in the written history of the small and fine press in Canada. Here is a brief paragraph about Thee Hellbox from Fine Printing: The Private Press in Canada (1995):
There is also a lovely and long interview with Hugh by Shane Neilson in issue 78 of The Devil’s Artisan, from which the long quotations above come.
Most substantially, in 2017, Merilyn Simonds published the book Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: Paper, Pixels, and the Lasting Impression of Books, a meditation on print and digital books and a loving memoir of her time spent working with Hugh when he published her book The Paradise Project through Thee Hellbox. The Paradise Project, incidentally, was displayed at the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library in 2013 as part of an exhibition titled A Death Greatly Exaggerated: Canada’s Thriving Small and Fine Press.
In addition to being a printer, Hugh was an orthotist and developed a tilting wheelchair, artificial limbs, and braces.
Hugh’s work was consistently beautiful, unique, collaborative, and full of joy, and that is the overriding memory I will have of Hugh from our few conversations. I will miss seeing him at the next Ottawa Small Press Book Fair, and each one after that, and I am grateful to have a few examples of his fine work on my shelves to which I can return.