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Don't Call it Ritual

Winter 2011
Winter 2011
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Kendra Greene is a Jacob K. Javits fellow at the University of Iowa Center for the Book and the Nonfiction Writing Program. Her papermaking needs some attention, but she keeps spending her late nights with the letterpress. Her writing, when not printed from hand-set type in chapbooks and broadsides, can also be found in publications such as Bonefolder, Anomalous, and Defunct.  Ritual has no place in contemporary papermaking. Just ask the papermakers. Sure, it would be nice—a schedule responsive to the seasons, a spiritual connection, a significant chanting of ohm, but there's just no time. Maybe if they weren't watching the clock, getting orders out for clients, making the most of the studio time they've rented, getting back to the rest of their lives. Papermakers are flexible, adaptable, practical. They don't have time for ritual. And yet, there are things that they do. Things they always do. Things that make the work possible. And maybe even meaningful.

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Tim Barrett has never told this to anyone. Thirty years ago in Japan he saw a papermaker's cast-iron kettle, a big thing, fully one meter in diameter, the cooker for the kozo, though at that moment it was clean and cold. Tim wouldn't have remembered the kettle, but a square sheet of white paper had been folded diagonally and laid on top. It wasn't paper from the shop, maybe not even handmade, and Tim wouldn't have remembered that either, except for a single tangerine centered on top of the folded sheet. It looked to Tim like an offering. The papermaker who ran the shop said one thing. He said a mildly embarrassed gokurosama, essentially "thank you for what you did." He said it with sincerity and respect but in the phrasing one uses specifically to address an underling. He wasn't talking to Tim, mind you. He was thanking the shop itself. And because that gesture impressed him, Tim adopted it. He doesn't spend a lot of time on it, he doesn't get emotional, he doesn't carry the Shinto belief in an inanimate soul. But even now, at the end of a long work session or just before a vacation, when everything is cleaned up and the shop shut down, Tim takes a moment to marvel at it, at having the good fortune to do what he does and a place in which to do it. Nancy Cohen will insist that papermaking is not ritual, "It's what I do everyday." Which is true, of course; it is the artwork itself that compels her to make paper, not the habits that allow it to be made. If anything, papermaking is just her normal workaholic tendencies amped up: an organized chaos. Nancy will stress it's a very organized chaos, her preparation is organization, but that's all. Still, there are things she does. Once or twice a year she'll spackle the walls and re-paint. She takes the time, to clean up the studio and throw things away and re-do the walls, so she can start again, fresh. Beck Whitehead also starts by cleaning her studio. The studio opens directly to the back yard and the floor always needs to be cleaned. The motions of it—wiping down the space, putting away things she won't need—give her time to organize her thoughts as well as her tools. Making paper is different at the school studio than it is at her home, but it always begins with Beck carrying in a cup of hot tea or a glass of water. "I wouldn't call it ritual," Peter Thomas says of his own papermaking practice. "But someone else might." Peter Thomas strives to be the archetypal papermaker. He works in a Western papermaking tradition that goes back to the fifteenth century. He speaks eloquently about vatmen, their grace and the beauty of their teamwork, the way their hands never get wet past the knuckles. But he isn't sentimental. "Our tradition is a commercial tradition: guys working by the piece quota, conditions controlled by unions." Those vatmen—the apprentice-trained papermakers who filled Europe's mills for generations—were athletes in Peter's estimation. They conditioned their bodies to do the hard work. And while there is no one right way to make paper, Peter points out, there are things that make it easier to do for a long time. You can shimmy a beautiful piece of paper, but that kind of shake is hard on the body. Thirty years ago Peter found that a pivot saved stress on his back, then turned to his yoga teacher to tell him what else he might adjust. She watched him forming sheets and she noticed he went up on his toes when he dipped and held his left shoulder high in the shake. Peter now roots his practice on proper form. He keeps his knees bent, his heels down. "Don't be a Barbie," he told the Friends of Dard Hunter, having concluded that making paper is about bending. He is careful to warm up. And by the second day of making paper, muscle memory takes over. Arlene Shechet compares going into the paper studio with preparing for a marathon. Her papermaking days are long, a matter of both physical and mental endurance, and there's always a time pressure, the ticking clock of a rented studio. Arlene is not interested in over-aestheticizing the process; she doesn't believe any of this should be too touchy-feely. She's just trying to make art. Her goal is to be prolific while maintaining space for play, and so she keeps things simple, functional. She dresses in lots of layers. She brings along something visual to touch base with. She packs food items that are easy to grab—energy bars and nuts and raisins—what Arlene calls "taking a hike" snacks, the sort of fuel you would bring along if you were climbing a mountain. Sue Gosin packs similar provisions. "It always takes more time than less," she observes, and it is vital to have a good amount to eat and drink, enough water and protein to make it through. Beyond that, Sue has no one ritual. As a student at Madison she would get into a creative frenzy and not hang up her apron until 3 a.m. Her rhythms changed to fit the production work at Dieu Donné, grew regular, methodical, all of her tools and materials organized to support consistency. These days, when she can get away from her administration duties, the rhythm is more organic, like the lapping of waves. A few years ago Sue set up a studio by the beach, just a roof, really, a little protection from the sun, and from May to September she wades barefoot in the estuary, floats moulds in a pond. Normally Sue would seek out silence for thinking, the beat of R&B for energy, but when the intention of her papermaking is to learn how to look and not to think, the sounds of the birds and bugs make the ideal environment. At the end of the season Sue brings the drifting seaweed back to Dieu Donné, pulps it into hot pink and neon orange and every green you can imagine. When Victòria Rabal makes paper in Barcelona, she notes the feeling of the water on her hands and arms; it is the same sensation she has when making paper in Ecuador or Japan. "It is more or less how I feel when I take a bath in the sea: it can be the Mediterranean or the Sea of Japan or the Pacific ocean, there is an inner connection behind this marvelous liquid." Victòria drinks a morning coffee before making paper. "Not really for the taste of it," she says, "but more like a ritual, a kind of concentration, or rest or break, to think about the paper I have to do." She tries to make paper in the morning because the mill at the Paper Mill Museum of Capellades is situated in a cellar and she prefers the morning light to the afternoon light which is filtered and cold in a way that makes her feel "a little sad." What she hears on those mornings is the sound of hundreds of schoolchildren, the chirp of their voices and shuffle of their feet, the guides explaining the process from rags to paper, and all the while, the centuries-old stampers making a terrible noise. Lynn Sures, of the Corcoran Museum School, prefers to listen to the blues. Music helps dull the thoughts of other things, she finds, and lets her focus on the work at hand. Perhaps she will switch to contemporary Italian music for a while, or else some Turkish tunes; there is certainly time to work through the catalogue. It takes days to prepare the pulp, after all, a process of soaking and beating and coloring, maybe even cooking, all that fiber preparation now a kind of Pavlovian association with the treat of papermaking that will follow. Helen Hiebert lets her mind wander when she is making paper. "It is a very productive time for my brain," she says. "Like a meditation." She stops to jot down new ideas. Today Amanda Degener thought about dragons. After twentyfive years making paper, she doesn't have to think much about the work as she does it. Her mind is free to follow its fancies, to listen to the water, to muse on a particular public radio story for days at a time. But of course this freedom comes from practice, from discipline, from preparation. Every morning Amanda arrives at the Cave Paper studio in Minneapolis and spends half an hour emptying out part of the vat's fibrous water and adding hot water until the vat is just cold and not freezing. Then, right before making a sheet of paper, Amanda pauses at the vat. "I am completely present, giving it my full attention and nothing is forced." She is almost assuredly wearing a hat at that moment, her body likely snugged in a blue down jacket covered in walnut dye and patched with duct tape. The pause at the vat is a kind of object meditation, and Amanda finds that awareness results in good paper. Drew Cameron's meditation comes in cutting rags. In his words, "The movement of the hands, pulling, shredding, snipping and cutting the rags is a type of meditation into the geography and interwoven story of the fiber before it reached me." Drew finds that the ritual of breaking down rags is the first and most important step in the papermaking he does with Combat Paper. "It begins the metamorphosis." It gets people talking, about raw materials, about starting points, about transformation. Mostly they tell stories. They talk about their lives. Combat Paper works largely with veterans, turning their old uniforms or other meaningful garments into paper, and turning that paper into journals or art. Drew's initial interest in paper had to do with raw and native fibers, but it has grown to include the layered stories and relationships that clothing represent. After leaving the military, Drew rediscovered papermaking in Drew Matott's Vermont studio. There he noticed how the methodic rhythm of the process became its own background noise, how his mind was more free to wander with his body set in a pattern of motion. It was grounding and cleansing, and worth sharing with other people. Drew himself wears no shoes when making paper, weather permitting. He doesn't bother with an apron. If he has a uniform of any kind anymore, it's jeans and a t-shirt. It is as if everything extraneous has been stripped away, especially when they are on the road, where Combat Paper has made a game of making paper in the most unlikely places possible, on loading docks flanked with trash compactors. Drew's personal creative work thrives at home in Burlington, the quantity and quality of his paper strengthened by the consistency of a single studio and fewer public interactions. But both ways of working are important to him, both starting with the rhythm of the rags, the bits and scraps that build everything else.