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A Kind of Alchemy

Summer 2016
Summer 2016
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Margaret Mahan is co-founder of the Peace Paper Project and Panty Pulping. She is pursuing her MA in literature at the Florida State University with focus on the history of the book. Mahan's work is archived in the collections of the Library of Congress, Yale University, and the Newberry Library among others. I am living in a lovely, little apartment in Tallahassee. For the past seven months I haven't stayed in a hotel, in a car, an art center, a guest house, tent, or train, and I have to say, it has been renewing to reside in one place. I am pursuing my MA in literature with a concentration in the history of text technologies at the Florida State University. Through this program of study, I describe and analyze all of the material and textual features of books down to the fine details. I analyze type faces, mis-en-page, format, variations, bindings, and of course, the features and characteristics of paper. While descriptive bibliography and analytical bibliography might read as a bit quiet and clinical in contrast with Panty Pulping and some of my other papermaking projects, they are, for me, equally exciting points of access to what I value most in the book arts—the material and social significance of texts.

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I did not always consider these values when approaching literature. In 2010, when I received my BA in English, I thought that I would have to choose one day between papermaking and the written word. The two seemed isolated, perhaps because I learned to value Modernist poetry in the context of Norton anthologies, rather than through a format that drew attention to its own materiality, like a hand-press book for instance. Now I recognize that this initial reception of poetry was in every way influenced by the materiality of the book in my hand, by the decisions made by editors for which poems to include in the book, where to position them so they might be received in a certain way with the turning of the page, and which paper to print them on. Mass-produced books do not spontaneously produce themselves—there are always social, material factors at play. So it is hard for me now to separate words from their vessels, but this is because I have had years of training in the art of materiality via hand papermaking. I first came into contact with the process through a friend in Burlington, Vermont in 2008. He kept a practice of transforming military uniforms into paper as a way of expelling his anxieties, of coping with posttraumatic stress, and of holding up his military experience and looking at it from evolving angles. I was moved by the process, and by the fact that his pulpy journey was interwoven in a larger movement of veterans deconstructing their uniforms in order to make sense of their own experiences. From my first encounters with handmade paper, the significance of the fiber source has been invaluable. I appreciate the interplay of human experience and materiality, and the way that paper embodies that relationship so intrinsically. In 2010, I joined Combat Paper Project to facilitate creative writing and eventually printmaking workshops for veterans. Working alongside Drew Matott was an inspiring experience, as his enthusiasm for the book arts as tools for social action effortlessly brings traditional hand papermaking to a seat of relevance in a world that feels like it could explode at any moment. In 2011, Drew and I cofounded Peace Paper Project in order to bring the therapeutic benefits of hand papermaking to healing populations. Leaving one successful project to create a new one from the ground up gave us butterflies; we had the freedom to create what we wanted and the necessity of feeding ourselves to pressure us to make it work. Our vision for the project, and for ourselves as facilitators, remains to be inclusive, wide-reaching, yet specific and effective. We have seen first-hand the way that the process of deconstructing an article of clothing with personal significance and reforming that pulp into fresh sheets of paper empowers individuals. The process borders on the miraculous, at times enabling those living with trauma and pain to exist outside of that suffering—yet not outside of themselves—while producing something reflective of their resilience. We want as many people as possible to experience that opportunity for lightness and awe that comes with papermaking; I use the word "light" because the process ignites creativity in those who would not consider themselves to be "artistic." By streamlining the hand papermaking process and its tools, by making these processes summer 2016 - 31 Margaret Mahan and Drew Matott, pages of New Life New Beauty, 2013, 8 x 7 x ½ inches (closed), letterpress and inkjet printing on paper made from the artists' underwear, edition of 20, published by Soybean Press. Photo: Drew Matott. immediately accessible and portable, and by tailoring workshops geared to meet the needs of each community specifically, we have been able to help individuals recognize their creative potential. One of our projects that I am particularly fond of is Panty Pulping, because I believe it speaks to the potential for papermaking to have a personal and social impact. In 2012, while we were on residency in Istanbul, Turkey, I accepted a ride from a stranger back to the municipal paper studio which we were helping to build. The driver attacked me and I managed to escape the car, and while those few minutes were horrifying, they forced me to meditate on violence against women and to develop a strategy for coping with my traumatic experience. I chose to make paper out of underwear, because the intimate nature of the garment speaks to the often private and hidden experience of sexual and domestic violence. I am indebted to my mother for giving me a solid one-liner when I told her my story: "You're using unmentionables to address the unmentionable." In Istanbul, I was fortunate to have the near and long-distance support of friends and colleagues. When John Risseeuw—one of my heroes for his work in using paper and print to address the devastation caused by landmines—expressed enthusiasm for Panty Pulping, I felt like it could go somewhere. Upon our return to the US, Drew and I began campaigning for the project via workshops, the (un)mentionables portfolio, and a university tour to get students to stand in solidarity against sexual and domestic violence. The funding we received enabled us to hold private papermaking workshops as trauma interventions for abuse shelters. This model of operating on a level of raising public awareness in order to privately service those who are coping with such trauma is one that we continue today. Right now I am twenty-seven years old. I want to say I am on the cusp of turning thirty, but I recognize what a significant difference several years can make in a lifetime. I don't want to get ahead of myself. I never imagined myself as a traveling paper artist, as a socially engaged artist, or as a bibliophile for that matter. But my relationship with paper has wrapped me around the globe in the company of thousands of amazing individuals who all agree that there is something monumental to be said for the materiality of paper. I have had people tell me that I must hate office paper, newspaper, industrially manufactured paper, but I explain that I love it all because it is generated by the work of individuals whose stories go into the making of it. Perhaps papermaking is a kind of alchemy, as every fiber and every memory manipulated through this process shifts in composition and is handled like gold in the grip of new papermakers. This substance, this pulp, this material has undoubtedly enriched my engagement with paper, books, and ultimately, with people.