Papermaking part II

One of the most interesting aspects of the hand-papermaking process has been taking raw plant fibers and turning them into paper. This is an intensely laborious process, which the class experienced firsthand. The fiber can be green or dried, but it must be cooked for up to several hours in an alkali (most commonly soda ash or lye) solution. Some fibers are helped along by first going through a “retting,” or fermentation process. This can be as simple as just leaving them outside on the ground for a couple of months through the fall and/or winter, or as complex as creating a special container that stays outside in the heat and must be monitored and stirred regularly.

The class collected iris, both fresh and dried, cattail leaves and catkins (I had to look up the word!), and a big bag of corn husks from the grocery store. I contributed a load of dried daylily leaves that I had used to store some bulbs in the basement last winter. Since I already have a large quantity of soda ash from my fabric dyeing days, I volunteered to do some cooking.

It’s best to do this outside if possible. After first experimenting with a hot plate, we found the most efficient way to get the necessary heat was on the gas burner of our propane grill. These are the cooked iris and daylily fibers, above. The iris, since it was green, took only a little over an hour to cook, while the dried daylily leaves took over 3 hours.

After that, it’s tons of rinsing to get rid of all the soda ash plus the non-cellulose materials that have cooked out of the fiber. My husband, who is incredibly supportive of all my crazy art schemes, helped me with this, and models the iris during the rinsing process, above. The color started out looking very much like asparagus. I hoped it would stay that way for the paper, but sadly, it faded to pastel. I felt really bad about all the water we used for rinsing, but at least we did most of it on the grass.

After cooking and rinsing comes beating. Some of this was done with the Hollander beater, some with blenders, but a great deal of it was done by hand with baseball bats, various mallets, and meat tenderizers. (This photo was taken by Carrol Reeves, my friend from class, who became our unofficial photographer.) The hand beating took many hours, and everyone participated in it at some point. To test for doneness, you take a pinch from a couple of different areas of your pile, put them in a jar with a lot of water, and shake it up. When all the fibers move freely without clumping, it’s done and ready to be made into paper.

<tangent alert>
Since taking this class, I’ve got my own opinion now that the terms “art quilter” and “fiber artist” are in no way synonymous. In quilting and textile work, artists are dealing pretty much only with fabrics and threads which have already been manufactured in a mill or factory somewhere else. In papermaking, we are dealing with fibers on a much lower level, working with the raw plant material in some cases, processing the fibers from scratch into a material that can then be made into art. I think that unless I start incorporating “fibers” other than fabric and thread into my work, it is not appropriate to call myself a “fiber artist.” I welcome your thoughts on this topic.

2017-10-15T16:17:00+00:00 July 31st, 2008|Art|3 Comments

Hand papermaking for fun and profit

Just kidding about that last part — monetary rewards are unlikely here! But I have been very much enjoying my papermaking class. In fact, it’s quite the all-consuming activity, involving many different materials and techniques.

Over the last several weeks, we’ve been making sheets of paper from cotton and abaca fibers which were obtained as “half stuff” (which means the fibers have been partially processed and sold as compressed dried sheets that the artist then needs to process further into usable pulp), as well as raw plant materials and recycled papers.

Here’s a selection of sheet samples:

From left to right, these are abaca, recycled bond paper printed with black inkjet ink (which turned blue when soaked), cattail mixed with abaca, daylily with abaca, green iris with abaca, kozo with bits of recycled cardboard, dried iris, and kozo papers.

There are several ways to process fiber. The preferred method is to own your own Hollander beater, a specialized machine made just for this purpose. Failing that, an ordinary household blender could be used, which works especially well with recycled paper. Plant fibers must first be cooked, and can then be processed either in a Hollander or blender, or by hand beating with some kind of mallet or a baseball bat — marvelous for releasing tension and long-suppressed aggressions.

Prepared fibers are then suspended in a vat of water, where they can then be made into paper with the use of a mold and deckle — two same-sized frames, one with a screen, which are dipped into the pulp to form the sheet.

Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve made two sizes of my own mold and deckle sets, plus acquired most of what I need for my own papermaking studio, which currently consists of outside on my deck. I don’t know how much paper work I’ll continue to do, but I do have some ideas about combining paper and textile processes for something new in the future.

I’ve been trying to develop ideas for my final project in the class. I want to use recycled paper, because the idea of making something out of another used-up thing has a huge appeal for me. I took a bunch of old unsuccessful watercolor paintings and turned these into a pulp by soaking several hours and then processing with the blender. Here’s a sheet made from this:

The chunky look of it is due to the fact that the original paper consisted of different compositions, including some good 100% cotton and some crappy student-grade stuff. The cotton breaks down better than cheap stuff, which stays chunky. The blue comes from the old placemat I pressed the wet sheet with. This is also how I got the ribbed texture.

I also have a huge stack of old maps which were rescued from a recycle bin where my husband works, and I would love to use these somehow. I need to think up some kind of a concept for them which makes sense as a finished piece, though, and that’s the stumbling block. Better get going on some brainstorming in the sketchbook.

2017-10-15T16:17:00+00:00 July 18th, 2008|Fiber / mixed media, School, Work in progress|6 Comments

Kwang-Young Chun, Aggregations

Aggregation 04-ma023, ©Kwang Young Chun

This summer I’m taking a class called Hand Papermaking for Artists. It’s being taught by one of my favorite teachers at MSCD, Bonnie Ferrill Roman, who is also a fabulous artist. She uses handmade paper, branches, and other objects from nature in her sculpture work.

The class has been a lot of fun and very informative so far. In addition to hands-on experimentation with different ways of making and using paper (who knew there were so many!), the class also requires doing research on papermaking and artists who work in this media. I had to do a short research paper on an artist of my choice, and I chose Kwang-Young Chun. For several months, I have had a page with a large image of one his works torn from an issue of Artforum pinned up on my design wall. I’ve been looking at it for a long time because I find it fascinating, but now this research paper has provided a good impetus to find out more about his work and process.

Chun is a Korean artist who makes his work by wrapping small styrofoam triangles in mulberry paper taken from old books that he buys in large quantities and stores in an air-conditioned warehouse. After wrapping, each piece is tied with more paper that has been twisted into a narrow rope. Hundreds or thousands of these units are then combined into larger constructions, which might take the form of huge free-standing sculptures or low-relief wall pieces. See more of his work here, and a fabulous close-up detail here.

The areas that look like craters are created with trompe l’oeil effects rendered by varying the size and shading of the units in different areas of the piece. This is the kind of work that I find immensely satisfying. I love to imagine the endless hours and hours of patient, meditative process, wrapping and tying, and meticulous fitting of the thousands of pieces into a coherent, cohesive whole. The idea that someone would choose to spend his time in this way instead of sitting in front of a television or in a shopping mall gives me a great sense of hope and well being.

2017-10-15T16:17:01+00:00 July 6th, 2008|Inspiration, School|3 Comments