Maureen Richardson and I met in 1988 on a bus in Düren, Germany. We were heading out of the city for a tour of paper studios during a conference held by IAPMA (International Association of Hand Papermakers and Paper Artists). There was something in her that drew me in. Maybe it was her very clear eyes and quick smile, maybe just her easy manner. We ended up starting a conversation that has been going on and off for the last thirty years. Letters, books, postcards, phone calls, emails, and presents have crossed the Atlantic Ocean from England to Argentina and back, braiding our paper paths. For this conversation, we communicated long distance: Maureen in Herefordshire, UK; I in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
vicky sigwald (vs): Tell me, how did you come to work with handmade paper and plant papers.
maureen richardson (mr): All my life I have been making things. Looking back it seems as if I was searching for my craft. In turn, I have done rush work, straw work, and hedgerow basketry, delighting to work with natural materials. I have also done a good deal of fabric patchwork and wood- and stone-carving. It was only when I began papermaking with leaves and plants that all my interests came together.
In 1974 I attended a two-week bookbinding course put on by Camberwell College of Art where we were taught to make white paper from cotton linters. On the last day, the teacher brought some paper to show us which she had made from iris leaves and discarded papers. I had never seen anything like it before and, as a gardener and recycler, the idea of making paper from plants combined with materials other people throw away was instantly appealing.
It turned out to be fortunate that in those early years I could only get traditional papermaking materials in small quantities. My first efforts were restricted to recycling paper offcuts by soaking and pulping in a kitchen blender. To this, I added plant fibers left over from my previous craftwork. The papers that I made were so thin that I left them on the net-covered frames to dry. Because they were restraint-dried, they didn’t cockle and this pleased me so much that I continued to work like this.
vs: You have a very unusual setting for your papermaking.
mr: When I began to sell my paper the slow rate of production could only be overcome by having many softwood frames made for me to which I stapled Terylene net-curtain fabric. The pure plant papers had limited uses and so my range included a high proportion of recycled papers. These I could have couched off the mould, but by then I liked the surface texture I was getting by drying on the frame. I thought I had invented this method; it was only afterward that I learned that it was the traditional way paper is made in Nepal.
A Hollander beater, essential for producing a decent pulp, was an expensive item so I adapted a domestic sink waste-disposal unit which worked brilliantly. I cooked the vegetable in wood-ash liquor and, after rinsing, ran it through the disposal unit for four minutes. I then dipped the net-covered moulds into the pulp and placed them on several ladders in my open-sided studio where they dripped and start to dry. I moved the ladders under the building overnight or, if it rained, I let the sheets finish drying in a shed with a huge domestic dehumidifier housed in a specially built cupboard with slatted shelves which held the moulds. The paper dried in eight hours.
vs: What was happening with your craft work during your exploration of the papermaking process?
mr: I started as a craft person and have devoted almost four decades of my life to the main task of producing handmade sheets for sale, but there has always been experimental work alongside the repetitive making, particularly concerning my research for the widest possible range of plant fibers. Faced with an unfamiliar plant I would always be thinking about its potential as raw material for craft papermaking: bluebells, phormium, horsetail, leek, anemone, tulip, rush, onion skins, bracken, goosegrass, straw of rye, bracket tree fungus…they are amongst the 150 species that I have pulped and turned into richly colored and textured paper. I made two ranges of paper: small sheets of pure plant papers and six sizes of sheets made with a pulp of acid-free mount board and plants. If there is a boundary between papermaking as a craft process and paper art I have somehow drifted across it without intention. Some of these locally gathered plant materials made a paper of such beauty that I was drawn to exploit them solely for their aesthetic effect and to manipulate the pulps in certain ways to produce paper objects that seemed to me to live in a different realm.
vs: How did you come to make your objects of vegetable papyrus?
mr: During a visit to Egypt, at the Cairo Papyrus Institute, I met Dr. Ragab who had rediscovered the lost technique of making papyrus from the river reeds and had also found it could be applied to other vegetable fibers. On my return to England, I blanched, sliced, pressed, and dried all kind of fruits and vegetables. Surprisingly, practically everything I tried cohered into a sheet and nearly all of them had beautiful qualities of translucency and color. The full beauty of what I call ‘vegetable papyrus’ is seen to best advantage in front of a light source; the translucent membranes reveal the intricately veined internal structure of common fruits and vegetables. This may seem a departure from the craft of papermaking but it is based on my love of uniting unusual elements, recycling and giving back value to humble materials by taking them out of their usual context.
vs: What are you working on now?
mr: I supplied Falkiner Fine Papers with a monthly consignment of my plant papers until I gave up making paper in 2012. I still make my vegetable papyrus and papyrus bowls. More recently, I have developed a line of jewelry upcycling found buttons. I am now 89, and have just taught a vegetable-papyrus workshop at The Story of Books Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye, UK. Handmade paper is a fascinating field of study and, as my husband used to say, there are many discoveries yet ahead.
Author’s note: For more about Maureen Richardson’s work or her workshops, visit www.maureenrichardson.co.uk. You can also contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to her at Maureen Richardson, Romilly, Brilley, Hereford HR3 6HE.