Huntington, West Virginia native Joseph “Joe” Cox owns and operate Joe Public Press, a small printmaking business in his hometown. His 1902 Potter proof press, a large, cast iron machine with gripping cylinders, mechanical gears and a sturdy lever, has become a tool not only for Joe’s artistic expression but also as a representation of his life. Through the power of printmaking, Joe transformed his life and revitalized his community. He said he first discovered the power of art in the face of a personal tragedy.

“I guess for me, it kind of started with my first daughter, Pipa,” he said. “She was born prematurely, like 24 weeks early, and I remember the doctors coming in and asking if we wanted to hold her until she passed.”

He found solace in art, initially through music, after facing the possibility of losing his daughter. Miraculously, Pipa survived. As she struggled with non-verbal communication, Joe saw a reflection of himself in her and realized that art could be a guiding light, the pull he needed to get through this dark time.

“That gave me a broader understanding of like, people who don’t communicate effectively resort to deviant behavior. And if I wasn’t communicating effectively, by being an artist, no wonder I was doing all this dumb stuff,” Joe said.

Joe’s parents were in the military, so throughout his childhood, he moved around a lot. He lived in different places all over the world, including Germany and all across the United States. He noticed early in his life that he had a co-dependency disorder, causing him to fall victim to drugs and other poor influences. He said there were many turning points in his life where he would find himself looking to art.

Over the years, Joe constantly sought an artistic outlet as a way of expression, even when he did not know it was considered art. Beginning as early as second grade, Joe would make “creations,” and his mother would compile them into books. In his 30s, Joe found an interest in fashioning historic marker rubbings, learning the history of the area while creating — what he didn’t know then — was a form of printmaking.

Joe said that his creativity was as strong as the cast iron handle of his press, and the push he needed to get through the darkest parts of his life, like overcoming Substance Use Disorder (SUD) and being a father to a disabled daughter. Beyond his childhood art, Joe officially began his artistic journey by learning to play the drums so his daughter could have a musical influence, but he yearned for more. Feeling unfulfilled in his life and career and still battling SUD, he decided to seize his passion and go to art school at Marshall University. It was there he discovered his true niche in printmaking.

During his time in college, he mastered the use of the printing press on a similar model to his current Potter proof press. Joe learned how to create prints by letterpress or printing plates, which he designs and sets himself. He explained that the paper is laid on the bed of the machine, and when the handle is pulled, the cylinder “grippers” and iron gears pull the paper in, allowing the inked letterpress or printing plate design to stick to the paper. Once the paper comes out on the other side of the press, a beautiful design is left behind.

Today, Joe is one of the few who still know the ins and outs of operating this unique machine. As he prepared his next print, he looked at the blank printing surface, carefully planning his design and placing his newly created plate on the open canvas. He pulled the handle, which applies the needed pressure to create the print. Joe explained that printmaking is more than creating meaningful designs — it is also a representation of his life.

“For me, printmaking is a part of a broader miracle.”

Joe goes beyond creating designs and operating a classic press by looking for ways to make art affordable and accessible to other marginalized Appalachians.

His printing press has become a tool for community connection. Through it, he has made new friends who opened his eyes to new forms of printmaking. He was able to learn how to take his most valued college lessons and make them accessible to other people who were interested in the practice.

“I noticed early on that art can be subsidized,” he said. “I wanted it to become a part of my mission to make art more affordable and accessible to people who were just like me.”

Joe added that he understood being a non-traditional college student who faced mental and financial struggles.

“I am sure I am not the only person to think to come up with a DIY bookbinding or gelli printing workshop, but I am really proud of it,” Joe said.

He explains that through Joe Public Press, he uses his knowledge to create easy, affordable printmaking workshops. Wanting others to experience the magic of turning the gears on a vintage press, he began hosting “Print After Dark” events every other Friday, allowing community visitors and residents to pull the handle and create prints for a low cost.

Joe continues to look for ways to foster a sense of belonging for those who have felt marginalized. He wants others to look at his press as a tool for assistance in the same way he did. He said that he is working on creating a “printmaking version of Alcoholics Anonymous” which would operate similarly to other AA meetings while also teaching attendees how to print using different parts of the AA book as a muse. He also wants to find organizations to partner with to offer subsidized printmaking workshops. Joe emphasizes that he is just in the beginning phases of his journey with Joe Public Press.

In Joe’s story, the press isn’t just printing custom and unique designs — it’s printing a narrative of resilience, recovery and the transformative power of art. As Joe continues to turn the gears of his press, he is not just creating prints, but crafting a future where art is a guiding light for those in need, proving that the magic is hidden not just in the machinery of the press, but in the long journey of self-discovery.