On the banks of the Monoshone Creek, a tributary of Wissahickon Creek, William Rittenhouse (1644–1708) established in historic Rittenhousetown the first papermill in British North America. Like the waters flowing within these channels, the interconnection of geography and discipline has remained central to the topography of Philadelphia and the art of papermaking. The suitability of place which so attracted Rittenhouse to the location continues to this day, as the city embraces and sustains the role and propagation of the craft of hand papermaking within its institutions and through its artists. The fluid sensibility of the material alone offers unlimited realizations as the foundation for encompassing a variety of techniques, processes, and aesthetics. This dialogue of visual voices can be witnessed throughout Philadelphia, particularly renowned for its combined papermaking and printmaking history. The Friends of Dard Hunter (now known as the North American Hand Papermakers) selected the city as the site for their 2019 meeting for such reasons.
From printmaking collectives such as Second State Press, to artist-run spaces such as paperTHINKtank and Soapbox Community Printshop & Zine Library, to the Fabric Workshop and Museum, The Print Center, and the private dealers in works on paper Dolan/Maxwell, opportunities for exploration of print and paper are vast. Moreover, the prominent historical centers of Philadelphia, which provide arenas for research, academic inquiry, and creative inspiration, serve as a fluid classroom for those seeking to further their conceptual, technical, and visual acumen. These include, among others, the American Philosophical Society; the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts; the Library Company of Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA)—the first and oldest art school and museum in the United States. Personally these cultural landmarks have afforded me immense growth as an artist, curator, educator, and scholar.
An exceptional, recent addition to the community in 2018 is the Brodsky Center at PAFA. Judith K. Brodsky, an artist, author, printmaker, and founding director of the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper (RCIPP), relocated the Center and prominent archive from New Brunswick, New Jersey, to Philadelphia, as the newly named Brodsky Center at PAFA. It boasts a new papermaking facility which provides studio opportunities for both PAFA students and artists producing editions at the Brodsky Center. The Center is highly acclaimed for a prominent history of consistently and extensively supporting women artists, artists of color, and artists who have historically been under-represented in printmaking, papermaking, and contemporary art. In the production of over 300 collaborative editions in handmade paper and print with a broad range of established and emerging artists, diversity has always been the prevailing hallmark of the Center’s mission and remains a testament to Brodsky’s far-reaching dedication to inclusivity.
The Center is widely celebrated for its notable accomplishments and contributions as a vital force at the forefront of innovation in the field of collaboration and for providing a forum for the reciprocity of advancements in print and hand papermaking education and processes. The master collaborators, papermakers, printers, and artistic directors are the catalysts without whom these editions would not have transpired. Their skill, commitment to mutualism, and passion for the medium are evident in the exceptional works which comprise their prestigious archive. The Center’s director Paola Morsiani states, “One of our most distinctive features has been to encompass both printmaking and papermaking… At the Brodsky Center, papermaking is an intensely experimental practice that artists and master papermakers explore expressively and conceptually.” As a practicing papermaker and printmaker, my perspective on collaboration has been uniquely shaped by this distinct methodology throughout my career, commencing as a graduate student attending Rutgers University and also working at the RCIPP. Following my graduation, I served as a collaborator on specific artist projects. Under the exceptional tutelage of master papermaker Gail Deery, I acquired valuable conceptual, professional, and technical skills assisting numerous collaborative projects with such esteemed artists as María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Stuart Netsky, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and Juan Sánchez. My hands-on experience was extraordinary—I was able to work in a professional studio that introduced artists to the medium of papermaking and provided a fostering environment to create works that are technically and conceptually diverse, innovative and consistently flawless in craftsmanship, and above all true to each artist’s concept and vision.
Most remarkable to me was the opportunity to participate in the creation of two groundbreaking works: Man, Spirit, Mask (1999) by Willie Cole and Million Man March (1996) by Willie Birch. These editions are technically exceptional and equally poignant as they remain a witness to and a marker of historical events. Birch created his piece, a men’s suit fashioned out of handmade paper with collaged pulp-painted elements, to commemorate the Washington, DC Million Man March of 1995. Cole confronts difficult narratives of racial oppression through the iconic image of an iron and its markings, making more visible the tragic scars of racism in our country now reawakened by the current state of political unrest. The work’s central panel, resulting in the singed impression of the appliance physically burned into the sheet of handmade paper, evokes these ever-present histories.
The MFA Book Arts & Printmaking program at the University of the Arts has long maintained recognition in the disciplines of papermaking, printmaking, and book arts due to its unique pedagogy and conceptuality, pioneering faculty, and roles which its students assume upon entering the professional arena. When I became director of the program in 2014, I sought to establish the program’s educational perspective as uniquely seen through the distinct pedagogical lens of collaboration, as well as to continue the model established by Judith Brodsky, as a standard to emulate. I conceived the MFA Atelier publishing program that has realized collaborative editions with artists Nicola López, Wardell Milan, Carrie Moyer, James Siena, and most recently Didier William. We also contributed an edition in handmade paper with artist Lesley Dill to Hand Papermaking’s limited-edition portfolio titled Negative Space in Handmade Paper: Picturing the Void (2014). Students in the program are exposed to a range of points of view, practices, and techniques that provide them with significant opportunity to witness a variety of artistic methodologies on an engaged level with educators, artists, and peers of diverse backgrounds and orientations.
Philadelphia enables the program to be an active participator and observer among the numerous archives and collections contained within various historical and cultural institutions flocked across the city and its surrounding borders. Notable first achievements, in addition to Rittenhouse Papermill, include: the first map with engraver’s plate, A Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania in America, by Thomas Holmes in 1683; the first Bible and the first type specimen book printed in North America; and Old Papermaking, by author and papermaker Dard Hunter—all housed within the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The relevance and accessibility of these renowned holdings which span centuries among Philadelphia’s high-profile institutions, offer additional viewpoints of these fields and assist students in placing their work within a historical context. It is crucial for students pursuing a degree in book arts, papermaking, and printmaking to be knowledgeable in the historical precedence of the disciplines in order to more fully realize a contemporary visual voice. This approach acknowledges the internal and external associations of advanced learning through significant engagements and dialogues among artists, curators, and critics in the field.
Opportunities to interact and learn from the depth of these collections remain an emblem of the city, to which PAFA’s recent announcement of its partnership with Paulson Fontaine Press to become the only East Coast repository for all of its editions by African American artists, is a welcomed addition. Together with the Brodsky Center at PAFA, this newly formed alliance with one of the most experimental presses in the country establishes a holding that chronicles the significant advances in the field of printmaking and modern hand papermaking. These acquisitions represent an array of influential present-day African American artists such as Radcliffe Bailey, Kerry James Marshall, and Gary Simmons, demonstrating an immense commitment to expanding the collection with artists addressing personal and collective narratives of history, culture, race, and identity. Thirty-five prints produced by the Brandywine Workshop, one of the leading printmaking workshops in Philadelphia (established in 1972 by founder and director Allan Edmunds) were also recently gifted to PAFA. Concurrently in 2020, PAFA hosted an exhibition organized by Morsiani titled “MAKING COMMUNITY: Prints from Brandywine Workshop and Archives, Brodsky Center at PAFA, and Paulson Fontaine Press.” Furthering such dialogue, The African American Museum of Philadelphia will host an exhibition of acclaimed African American printmaker Dox Thrash in September 2021. Living in Philadelphia for a significant portion of his career, Thrash was the first African American artist employed at the Fine Print Workshop of Philadelphia, the only Work Projects Administration community center focused on the art of printmaking, another meaningful representation of the city’s commitment to this medium.
The spirit of Rittenhouse, an interconnection of geography and discipline, and the burgeoning role of hand papermaking in Philadelphia endure. It remains my privilege to have worked professionally for, and with, many of these academic institutions, artists, master collaborators, and professional studios throughout my career. I warmly thank each for these interactions and for the advancement and enrichment they have contributed to the city of Philadelphia.