The age-old craft of hand paper making traces
its roots from China through the Mideast to Europe. The equipment
used to transform the raw material into paper has been improved
by modern technology, but the process and principles remain virtually
unchanged. The possibilities for what can be accomplished with
handmade paper and paper pulp are limitless. Like many
crafts which have enjoyed a revival, modern paper making does
not necessarily end with the production of a utilitarian item.
Hand paper making is an energetic creative outlet and paper pulp
has become not only a vehicle, but an artistic medium in itself.
Just one of the beautiful aspects of handmade
paper is that no tree needs to be harvested to make it--handmade
paper is a stunning example of recycling at work. It was, in
fact, concern about the disappearance of forests, coupled with
renewed interest in the quality of papers, that generated new
study of the paper maker's materials, especially the pulps and
fibers. The raw materials used in handmade papers range from
all manner of vegetable matter (including leaves, tree moss,
potatoes, flowers), old ropes, canvas, linen and cotton rags. Any raw
material can be used as long as it has fibers capable of forming
a continuous sheet. Also important is proper acidic/alkaline
balance which will assure that the paper is archival and will
last virtually forever.
To learn more about the process and potential
of hand paper making, we visited Watson Paper Company in Albuquerque,
where the ancient process is repeated every day. Watson uses
primarily 100 percent cotton rag, or unspun cotton which is washed
and bleached. The cotton and water are placed in a beater which
macerates and hydrates the fibers into pulp. The pulp is then
put into a large vat of water. A framed screen is dipped into
this pulpy liquid, scooping the pulp onto the screen-mold with
a rocking action, front to back and left to right, moving the
fibers in four different directions.
At this point, the "deckle" is flipped off,
and here we must digress. The screen-mold has a separate frame,
the deckle, which fits closely onto the screen and determines
the size of the sheet of paper. The term "deckle" also describes
the rough, ragged edges on handmade paper which result from small
amounts of fiber being trapped between the deckle and the mold.
Until the 19th century, the deckle-edge was usually cut away
because it caused problems in binding and printing. With the
decline of handmade paper production in the 19th century and
thereafter, an increasingly scarce deckle-edge became the prized
symbol of a handmade product.
To return to the process . . . After the deckle
is flipped off, the wet mass of fibers is rocked off the mold
in one continuous action without disturbing the formation of
the sheet. The sheets are layered between wool felts and excess
water is pressed out of the freshly made sheets. The immense
pressure exerted also bonds the fibers. Individual sheets are
then dried. Among these sheets are monotype papers, watercolor
papers, archival drawing and printmaking papers, writing papers
and papers customized to fit an artist's personality!
Contemporary artists have begun to experiment
with paper and to confront this medium's potential with their
own visions of an end result. In addition to the endless variety
of sheets of paper that can be made, paper pulp is a versatile
and flexible medium limited only by the user's imagination. As
Nancy Young says, "If the artist can figure out how to
do it, the paper pulp says 'OK, I will'"! Paper casting allows
artists to work in three dimensions and still achieve effects
possible only with paper. In addition, paper pulp can be made
for the purpose of sculpting without losing the distinctive
properties of paper . . . e.g. a paper-cast bowl bounces rather
than breaks if it's dropped; a cast paper relief sculpture weighs
a fraction of its counterpart in clay or wood or other material.
The following are examples of pieces created by four artists,
each of whom has discovered and experimented with the novel properties
of paper. Using that intriguing medium of paper, each creates
a thoroughly unique end result.