Earning A Seat at the Table

Earning A Seat at the Table

Hope Rovelto and the Little Chair Printing Company

Photo courtesy of Hope Rovelto.

For nearly twenty years, Portland called to Hope Rovelto. The four-foot, ten-inch artist answered willingly, but she wasn’t able to commit to settling down in the city with a working waterfront on Casco Bay. Hope visited for the first time in 1996. That’s when, as a teenager, she enrolled at the Maine College of Art (MECA). Upon graduation, she left Portland heading westward without any solid commitment to return.

Hope was in her early 20s when she drove cross country to Seattle with an idea of working in a t-shirt shop. Although she had focused on studying sculptural art at MECA, her imagination was captured by a class in screen printing. As she headed west, the recently graduated art student had no solid sense of what working in a t-shirt shop meant. However, she was driven by passion and a conviction that Seattle was the ideal place to transform her dreams into a tangible reality. Seattle, in Hope’s mind, was the epicenter for music and t-shirts. She was going to seize an opportunity and make the most of it when she arrived.

“I approached this shop called Torpedo Screen Printing. Guys were in there thrashing out to heavy metal, and I was like ‘Hey, are you hiring?’”

They weren’t. But the printer wanna-be wasn’t going to be dissuaded. Hope offered to clean and sweep the shop for free if the folks at Torpedo Printing would let her hang out, watch, and learn. Eventually the young apprentice was paid for her work, and within six months Hope had learned the business. The downside was that she was struggling financially. That’s about the time she made her second trip to Portland, Maine. This, too, was only a way point to another destination.

Hope had enrolled in a graduate program at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Upon earning a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture, she set off for Philadelphia where she stayed for more than a dozen years. While there, Hope made and taught ceramic art and worked at numerous service industry jobs in order to supplement her income. Every year, she managed to squeeze in a visit to Maine. Then in 2017, the artist reevaluated what she was doing.

“I was overworked and underpaid. I had sold a house, got divorced, and lost a dog. I was like, ‘Maybe it’s time to go back to Maine to see if I can restart and have a healthier life and push my own business.’”

There had been precious little time for Hope to pursue her passion for screen printing. She had managed to acquire a small screen-printing press. It had been set up in a basement, but her screen- printing activities were confined to nighttime and early morning hours. She decided the time had come for her to head back to Maine, this time for good. Hope packed a 16-foot truck with her belongings and headed north. She had no job and no place to live or print.

“I guess I always knew I’d come back to Maine. I just didn’t realize that running a t-shirt shop was going to be my focus. But then I realized there weren’t that many t-shirt shops in Portland, especially a woman-run shop, and I thought, ‘I can do this.’”

What is it about Portland that kept calling to her? Hope says it’s the community, it’s the people. It’s a community of people who work together and in doing so lift each other. It’s why Hope’s Little Chair Printing Company welcomes small businesses, artists, musicians, and everyone who comes through its doors at 648 Congress Street. The name of the print shop harkens back to Hope’s days as a student at MECA.

“When I was an undergrad, I was a full-time student and I worked full-time. I could never find the time to sit down. Everything I did denied me a chance to sit, and if I did, I fell asleep.”

Photo courtesy of Hope Rovelto.

There is an additional and even more personal story behind the shop’s name—relating to Hope’s mother. Before Hope’s mom died of cancer, Hope took a semester off from her undergraduate studies in Maine to care for her. 

“I quickly saw a full adult go through the stages of life. She’d cared for me in a highchair, and I cared for her in the last stage when she was in a wheelchair.”

Tattooed on Hope’s right arm is an oval that frames the outline of a highchair. The chair symbolizes the first stage of life. On her back, also framed in an oval, is a tattoo of a small school chair. It’s the same chair that serves as the logo for Little Chair Printing. 

 “The first is the chair of life. I’m in the middle,” Hope explains about the chair tattoo on her back. There’s an empty oval frame on her left arm. It’s empty because the artisan printer hasn’t decided what kind of chair should be tattooed inside. Hope laughs when she says, “I guess I’m kind of a walking metaphor.” 

Operating a screen print t-shirt shop is a challenging enterprise, particularly as the work is physically demanding. Every screen print is hand-pulled, meaning that a squeegee of ink is pulled across the surface of a screen etched with a design. For every color in a design, a separate pull must be done. The process is therefore slow compared to a printer that uses an automated machine. The difference is that the hand-pulled process results in a t-shirt that is an original. And, for Hope, the process and the result are both magical.

“I’ve printed thousands of shirts, and I still love doing it. It’s so exciting. I love the different designs and getting to be a part of it.”

The commercial end of the business is far more challenging for Little Chair’s owner and operator. Financial record keeping and website maintenance aren’t practices she enjoys. But the most difficult aspects of the business are things that are hard to quantify.

“The hardest part is to believe in your services. You have to work hard and sometimes harder than what you get paid, especially in the beginning. A lot of it—and I still have to work on it—is having confidence. Keeping your confidence is probably the most important.”

Many miles had to be traveled before Hope Rovelto settled permanently in Portland. While the destination always seemed important, it’s the journey that has been the most rewarding.

“It feels really good to know that I’ve earned every single part of where I’m at today.”

For more information, please visit Little Chair Printing, 648 Congress Street, Portland, Maine 04101, www.littlechairprinting.com, (585) 615-2184.

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Pam Ferris-Olson

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