Bryce McCloud wants all of Nashville to be neighbors

There is a tab for “Art Projects” on the Isle of Printing website where all of their various public art endeavors are listed. One is called the “Mr. Rogers’ Sharing is Caring Project.” The project consists of Mr. Rogers T-shirts and prints emblazoned with his visage and the words “Hello Neighbor” in bold lettering.

Is it a joke? Fashionable – or ironic – nostalgia? A fabricated sense of neighborliness driven by commercial interests?

The answer to all of those questions is no. The reverence of Mr. Rogers is achingly sincere, an earnest desire for a little more kindness, a little more generosity, a little more neighborliness in the world. As noted in the description: “If the art on a shirt tells a story about the person wearing it, we hope everyone in the world will soon be wearing a Mr. Rogers shirt. He is one of our heroes here at IOP…”

The purpose of the T-shirt and prints is for people to purchase one – either a print or T – and get a print to give to someone else. “We’d like to think generosity is contagious and that it can someday trounce greed. And of course, whether you purchase a shirt/print or not, we hope that you can help us spread his message of kindness in your own world – by being kind.”

This mentality – this yearning for kindness, to make the world a little bit better with everything they do – permeates every aspect of Isle of Printing. It is a commercial letterpress studio and print shop located in Nashville’s “Pie Town” neighborhood, a neighborhood so christened by Bryce McCloud, founder and “Acting Print Meister” of Isle of Printing, and also “mayor of Pie Town.”

It’s a better nickname than “Triangle of Sin,” anyway, which was how the triangle- (or pie-) shaped neighborhood was known until recent years. Previously considered to be a “challenged” area – a euphemism for low occupancy and high crime and poverty and blight and homelessness and all of the other negative associations of a struggling city – Pie Town is now a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood with urban wineries and microbreweries and mixed-use luxury condos.

And McCloud has been there for the whole transformation.

He has been running the letterpress shop for 17 years. After going away to school, McCloud moved back to Nashville and made a “conscious decision” to stay. “I just felt that Nashville needed people to stick around and make that sort of community happen here,” he says. “I thought I could make a bigger difference here rather than going to be a bigger spot where people were making it happen.”

He remembers when he first moved back to Nashville there wasn’t a building for artists to have studio spaces. He started looking around and found a lot of vacant warehouse space downtown. “Historically there had been a lot of commercial printing in Nashville, but a lot had moved out so they were all vacant buildings. The neighborhood was kind of like a spot where most folks wouldn’t go, which is what I needed because I needed a lot of space for cheap rent.”

But beyond the practicality of getting a lot of space for not a lot of money, McCloud says he really wanted to be in the city and he really wanted to be in a community again. “I felt that this was one I could help in some ways,” he says. “Nashville is in this crazy boom right now and my neighborhood [is experiencing that change]. The character has changed completely since I moved in. It was more of a supply place during the day and manufacturing at night. There were folks like me and folks who didn’t have a home, and that was it.”

The neighborhood earned its old nickname – the Triangle of Sin – for the swingers clubs on each end of the street and the liquor store on the top of the hill. “It was eye-opening for a kid from the ‘burbs with the different kinds of humanity represented here. But folks from all different walks of life have a common thread – we’re all trying to find the same pursuit of happiness, no matter what we’re doing.”

Letterpress printing wasn’t a whim for him. His uncle was a historian of industrial technology, and McCloud inherited all of his old technology when he died at a young age. So he decided to start a letterpress studio.

It may be a trendy thing now, but 17 years ago people sneered at him, not even knowing what letterpress was and helpfully reminding him that computers exist.

“It’s been kind of interesting over the last few years,” he reflects. “All these sort of blue collar, hands-on jobs were dying out over 1980s and ’90s. That knowledge was starting to die off, knowledge that had been passed on from master to apprentice. The technology had moved on for commercial printing, and the huge history of printmaking that was going on that had been going on for 500 years sort of stopped cold. I wanted to keep it going on a personal level because of my family history but also on a community level. I was always interested in public art and figuring out ways to make real fine art relevant to more people. Printmaking was a natural fit for that because it’s a medium that’s really democratic. It’s a craft that’s passed from person to person.”

McCloud has the knowledge of a historian and the soul of a storyteller.

“Printmaking liberated people’s minds when that tech came on the scene back in Gutenberg’s day” – Johannes Gutenberg, the man who introduced the printing press and mechanical movable type to Europe, kick-starting the Printing Revolution, one of the most important events of the modern period. “Printing was a commodity of the rich; you had to be rich to [own] a book. Knowledge itself was held hostage. Printmaking was a very democratic way to share knowledge and public art. That’s where Isle came out of.”

The democratization of printmaking in its earliest history is reflected in the democratization of portrait-making in Isle of Printing’s Our Town project.

Our Town asks, what does a city look like? Not the buildings, not the streets, but the people – all of the people, of all different ages and ethnicities, professions and personal backgrounds, skills and abilities, cultures and classes, all melded together, each given equal presence, every voice heard at equal volume – what does that look like?

The seeds of Our Town were planted when McCloud was asked to do a residency as an art instructor at the homeless shelter that butted up against his shop, Room In The Inn. The shelter has residencies and an art studio as well as places where people can come in to wash their clothes, repair bikes, get coffee, and “be treated like normal people.”

Prior to this residency, he says, he had interacted with people in the neighborhood on a completely different level, both good and bad. “I found people breaking into my car and had to chase people off, but I also developed really cool relationships with other homeless folks who become my friends. I thought I knew what homelessness looked like because I had been immersed in it [in this neighborhood], but teaching this class I realized homelessness is not a definition of who a person is. Some people I would see in the city that I never would have thought were homeless – the stereotypical schizophrenic/manic. [These were] people who had had a run of bad luck and no support structure; people who were lawyers, artists.”

He thought portraiture would be an interesting way for people to get to know each other. “Words and pictures have a truth to them, but art is a separate language that sometimes we discount because it’s a little more formless. The arts – visual art, dance, music – allows us to get at ideas that maybe you can’t make clear any other way. I’m on a lifelong mission to get people to embrace that and make use of this language a lot of us have but haven’t used since we were 11 or 12 years old, whenever you stopped drawing pictures.”

A self-portrait allows people to show themselves in the way they want to appear to other people – what they hope you see rather than what you see from the outside.

“What you see on the surface might not touch at all on who this person is beneath that,” McCloud says.

In an effort to further democratize the process – to focus not on drawing skills but on ways in which people choose to represent themselves – McCloud decided to bring in stamp pads in different shapes and textures for people to use to make their self-portraits instead of using pens and pencils.

“To use these tools they had to concentrate and be 100% present,” he says. “Just for a few minutes they were for sure with us and working out, ‘How do I make what’s in my head happen here?’ The goal of that is to get people to look carefully and be careful observers, so it put everybody on a level playing field – suddenly a novice and a professional are at the same level trying to figure out how to use these tools.”

He told his students at Room In The Inn, “If you take this seriously I’m going to try to figure out a way to make what you’re doing count and make people hear your voice.”

Upon reflection, he jokes, “At the time I had no idea what that meant, but I knew that I meant it!”

McCloud was able to make multiple prints of several of the pieces his students created, and had the idea of giving them away to other people – any people, just regular people out on the street – in Nashville…in exchange for creating a self-portrait of their own.

“I think one of the worst parts of being homeless is that people don’t take you seriously and your voice is marginalized,” he says. “Because we had multiples of [the prints] I could go out into Nashville [and tell people], ‘Imagine this is a conversation, but instead of words we’re using our own self-portraits to get to know each other.’ I was going up to people and saying, ‘If you look at our art and make one yourself in response to these, you’ll get to take an original piece of art home.'”

This was how Our Town began in 2013. One of the goals was to get the people of Nashville to get to know each other through art and self-portraits.

“We really just want to get people to be more active observers. When people start to see stereotypes they’re not actually looking at the world carefully and seeing its nuances. It was important to me to really keep people’s eyes open, that prosperity is not just for one person – it needs to be for everybody. It’s not as simple as sweeping things that are [undesirable] under the rug and pushing those people out now that the property is valuable.”

The first phase of Our Town brought them to over 50 different locations in Nashville, experiencing both the highs and the lows of the city. They went to places that are difficult for people to go, or difficult for the people in those places to leave. Places like the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution’s Death Row.

“They’re Nashvillians, whether people want them to be or not. They’re a part of our city. It was a really powerful experience to talk to people who had been in isolation 24 hours a day and ask them, ‘Hey, what do you want to share about yourself as a Nashvillian?'”

On the opposite end of the social spectrum, Our Town also paid a visit to Third Man Records – better known in relation to its founder, Detroit native and Nashville resident Jack White. “We really had a pretty wide range of people in society. After Death Row we went to a police precinct and some of the portraits we had to trade to police officers were guys who were on Death Row. When you look at the art, you don’t know the person’s story. You just see what they’re giving you.”

From the thousands of portraits they collected, Isle of Printing made 120 letterpress prints and traded them around. “We put artwork in the hands of thousands of people in Nashville. It’s been an interesting public art project in a sense that traditional public art is a statue or an installation or something else you have to go to see it. We were intentionally going to places where they could not come to us and have no experience of fine art, and giving them a piece of fine art – telling them ‘Here, it’s yours, do with it what you want.’ It’s a different model of dissemination. This project lives on in the hearts and minds and houses of all the people we’ve interacted with.”

This year they moved into the second phase of the project, focusing more on the creative process with unrehearsed portrait-making performances. In the future, McCloud would like to take Our Town to other cities.

Most of Isle of Printing’s public art projects prior to Our Town had been self-funded, but the Metro Nashville Arts Commission was eager to support this project, allowing McCloud to focus on it almost full-time for the last two years.

For McCloud, Isle of Printing is a means of continuing the five-century legacy of a craft – as well as the academic legacy of his family – but also a means for him and his co-conspirators to share public art with the people of Nashville.

“We made a conscious decision that we are really focused on getting public art in Nashville and beyond,” he explains. “We still continue to do commercial work, but our partners in the commercial work know that they’re our backers for these bigger things that aren’t necessarily money makers, but we think are really important for bringing art to the community.”

He pauses on that last word. “When you say ‘community art’ you get a lot of groans and eye rolling. It has a bad connotation in a lot of circles, but we can elevate community art to a level that would be at a gallery or a museum, and that can happen out in the real world with people who aren’t necessarily around fine art and find use in it and find meaning in their lives. We’re trying to be a bridge for that.”

McCloud’s goal, he says, is to make fine art as popular as NFL football.

“It has a place in everyone’s lives and it doesn’t need to be for just one small group of people. It’s a huge part of what makes a city livable and interesting and a place that people want to be. Art and music, those are things that bring people together from all walks of life to become friends and community members together, and can be used as a common language for folks that don’t really have one otherwise.”

In other words, the question McCloud is ultimately asking is: “Won’t you be my neighbor?”