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College Papermaking: Pulling Sheets in Different Directions

Winter 2010
Winter 2010
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Lee S. McDonald first started making paper as an apprentice at Twinrocker in 1974. He knows many instructors of paper from his years designing and building papermaking equipment. He is the studio manager for Industrial Design and Architecture at Mass College of Art and Design.  Laurence Barker founded the first college papermaking program at Cranbrook Academy in 1963. Since then, papermaking has found a home in the academic realm. Paper as a creative medium is a new phenomenon of the last fifty years. Students do not take papermaking classes in their college art departments to learn vocational skills but instead to develop the expressive means that put ideas into action. Barker, influenced by the work of Douglass Howell, saw the possibilities for paper as a fine art medium on its own. With this revolutionary concept, coupled with the development of small-scale equipment, paper evolved from an industrial craft into a material ripe for artistic expression. Colleges and universities have played a crucial role in this progression by providing supportive resources. Through experimentation, early teachers of papermaking developed materials and techniques, which deviated from the industrial methods, and explored the remaining lineage of hand papermaking throughout the world.  

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These innovators shared new information and ideas, building momentum for a creative movement. In the academic world, papermaking must fit into the standards and values of the supporting institution.2 At most schools, paper is a fiber, printmaking, or book arts department elective. It has never been a required course. Occasionally, paper classes operate under library science and literary presses. There are a few graduate programs where papermaking is an integral part of the studies. Some programs are greatly popular amongst students if they perceive them to be relevant to their interests. Students quickly know by informal networks if it is worth taking. Present participants become future advocates. The success of papermaking in the academic environment usually depends on the efforts of individual professors who are deeply involved with making paper personally for their own art. Professors committed to paper and its instruction are generally the ones who get the best work out of students. It is the role of faculty to advocate for paper especially amongst colleagues and to demonstrate how it benefits the institution in the long term. This is a College Papermaking: Pulling difficult task during times of economic constraints. At the College of New Jersey, plans for a new art building included a paper facility. During construction, the paper studio lost support after much of the faculty campaigned for other uses for the studio space. The college ordered moulds, but not a beater and presses.3 At another institution, an established paper program, with recent investments to its equipment holdings, was abruptly closed down when the adjunct professor teaching the course left the institution. This reliance on individual professors who champion papermaking can leave paper programs vulnerable. Many times no one knows what to do with the paper facilities when key instructors leave. It is not a new problem. Cranbrook Academy immediately sold off all of their papermaking equipment after Laurence Barker left in 1970. Their Valley beater, which came from the Dard Hunter Paper Museum, was purchased by Walter Hamady, and became the foundation of paper at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.4 For papermaking programs to succeed in the long term and prove their worth, they cannot focus on technique alone. It is important to introduce students to conceptual applications of paper. In his vision of paper pedagogy, artist and educator Drew Matott bridges concept and technique by linking the physical and emotional components of paper. Matott says, "conceptual endeavors fall short without thorough technical considerations and vice versa…In today's world of complex systems, it is increasingly difficult to accurately express ideas clearly without an understanding of how the processes are used."5 Specifically physical considerations contain an understanding of paper science, awareness of historical methods, technical aptitude, and good studio practice. Emotional considerations contain personal narrative, historical reference, conceptual development, and community interaction. Matott relies heavily on the student's creation of a "paper recipe and sample workbook." It takes the form of a three-ring binder containing paper samples with detailed production notes. The binder serves as a reference book, allowing the student to engage in critical discussion around paper science and paper's artistic applications. This approach ensures that students become knowledgeable and passionate carriers of the papermaking lineage. For paper artist Lynn Sures, the academic environment is the most effective forum for introducing paper to artists. She argues that technique is the key to enabling students to contextualize and integrate paper into their artistic practice. "Students want to fabricate something but don't know how to do it," explains Sures. "There is satisfaction in trying to hook them up to paper as a possible solution to getting their ideas physically made. A lot of the time paper allows the idea to turn into reality."6 Whether the work is 2-D or 3-D, traditional or innovative, what matters is that students understand how to translate their ideas into physical matter. There are very few institutions with dedicated facilities that can fully support papermaking. Papermaking is often conducted in shared space where equipment has to be stored off-site. Many instructors work hard to overcome these limitations, developing curricula to encourage the creation of engaging work. While the Hollander beater continues to be the golden piece of equipment, students can learn about the production of early papers from traditional bark fibers which require cooking and hand beating. In the 1980s and '90s, the increasing popularity of hand papermaking reduced expectations of quality. Books on making your own handmade paper described it as easy to do with everyday home kitchen implements. The growing interest in hand papermaking did create some demand at the college level, but it did so with less grounding in the basic science that the first practitioners understood. It is important to grasp the concepts of how paper works (e.g., hydrogen bonding) and how these principals affect fibers in order to produce specific types of paper. A good paper instructor balances the teaching of science and techniques with artistic expression of content and emotion. A learning environment that addresses both aspects of paper provides students with a sophisticated arena to create paper art, far beyond making blank sheets of paper. At present, papermaking exists in college art departments under less-than-desirable conditions. Until institutions commit more space and better facilities for papermaking, there is a critical need for the field to develop portable equipment. For papermaking to become a thriving, lasting discipline in academia, college instructors must continue to articulate paper's intrinsic value to art and future artists. They need to educate colleagues about how paper can be used across disciplines, develop classes which excite students, and facilitate the production of quality student work, all of which can contribute to finding and securing departmental, student, and community support. The first generation of college-level papermaking instructors is now retiring. Without a pedagogical model for the institutions to follow when key instructors leave, papermaking has a tentative place in the college art department. As a field it is our responsibility to work together to develop instructional guidelines that will ensure the continued presence of papermaking on college campuses and the training of future paper artists knowledgeable and skilled in the full spectrum of the techniques and artistic applications of paper. If you are an instructor concerned about the ongoing existence of college-level papermaking, go to a Friends of Dard Hunter meeting; join the International Association of Papermakers and Paper Artists (IAPMA); enroll in Paper Book Intensive (PBI) next summer; and get involved with other papermakers on Facebook. Create your own support network. ___________ notes 1. From Laurence Barker's website, (accessed August 12, 2010). 2. Johanna Branson, VP Academic Affairs, Mass College of Art and Design, interview by the author, March 2010. 3. Elizabeth Mackie, conversation with the author, April 2010. 4. Laurence Barker, conversation with the author, August 16, 2010. 5. Drew Matott, interview by the author, February 2010. 6. Lynn Sures, interview by the author, May 2010.