Elaine Koretsky was the quintessential busy person, infusing passion, energy, and creativity in everything she did. In her Carriage House studio, unusual plant fibers, many from her garden, were spread out on a table in various states of preparation to be made into paper. In her home, projects covered every horizontal surface. A book project, with accompanying paper samples covered the entire dining room table, while a script for a documentary video occupied the kitchen table. Printed copies of emails were everywhere. When her husband Sidney retired from his medical practice in 1998, (his office was in their home) she took over the entire office wing. His file cabinets of medical records were replaced with folders with titles such as “Silkworms,” “Bark Cloth-Uganda,” and “Letters to Dard Hunter II.” Residual colorful pulp from years of pulp spraying still cover the front wall. Her playful mobile of dried colored pulp disks, peeled from the bottoms of 5-gallon buckets, continues to hang from the ceiling. Upstairs at the International Paper Museum, her latest exhibition from her vast collection is carefully displayed, accompanied by a color catalog with informative essays.
Born in Massachusetts, Elaine attended the Brookline Public Schools, where she was a precocious student. She majored in Russian linguistics at Cornell University under the tutelage of Vladimir Nabokov, and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society. At age 17 she met her future husband, Sidney, who was a physician in training at Boston City Hospital. They fell in love and began a marriage relationship that lasted 65 years. Early in her marriage, while raising three children, she started a career as a woodworker, creating elegant furniture, chess sets, and bowls, gaining national attention when her work was displayed at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.
In 1974, Elaine made her first sheet of paper at age 41, hoping to make use of the prodigious amounts of sawdust generated from her basement woodshop. But after researching this idea and reading John Mason’s book, Papermaking as an Artistic Craft (published in 1963), she concluded other plant fibers would be more suitable and was inspired to experiment with plants from her garden. She was immediately mesmerized by the process. I was a high-school junior at the time and joined her on day two of her papermaking exploits. We took over the stove, countertops, and blender, and ate our meals alongside vats of pulp. We quickly outgrew the kitchen papermaking studio, so when the next door neighbor had a garage sale, Elaine bought the garage. Carriage House Handmade Paper Works was established in 1975 in the distinctive stucco structure, built in 1904 for one of the early cars (horseless carriages) in town.
In these early years, Elaine’s papermaking curiosity was insatiable; she was constantly experimenting and researching; taking a university course in paper chemistry, and gleaning valuable information from her scientist friends in the paper industry. After exhausting her supply of samples that she kept receiving from these paper mills, she recognized that she had to start purchasing the pulps, additives, and colorants herself. We soon realized we had no idea what to do with our lifetime supply of newly purchased materials—a 275-pound bale of pulp and a 55-gallon drum of sizing, so sharing it with other papermakers seemed the logical thing to do; our papermaking supplies business was born out of necessity. Our first “catalog” issued in the late 70s was a xeroxed 8½ x 11-inch sheet of paper.
In the ensuing years Elaine became an authority on handmade paper, combining her interest in papermaking and horticulture and producing paper from every plant imaginable (she grew cannabis in her garden in the 1980s); she pulp sprayed a 16-foot square sheet of decorative paper; she conducted workshops at her studio; and taught as an invited guest lecturer all over the world. Her works in paper were displayed worldwide. As her career in papermaking blossomed Elaine developed an interest in the history of handmade paper. Her particular focus was seeking out isolated hamlets of papermaking, usually involving a family or families in a village which had passed on their unique methodology of papermaking for generations. Elaine correctly reasoned that as modernity brought roads to formerly isolated villages, the young generation would move to the cities or develop other interests and be unwilling to continue the family’s papermaking traditions, and that hand papermaking would die out.
For the past 30 years she traveled all over the world, concentrating on China and Southeast Asia, and painstakingly ferreted out remote locations of hand papermaking, traveled to those villages, and studied the specific indigenous techniques of making paper in that area, often forming lifelong friendships with the papermakers and her guides. Elaine, with the help of Sidney and myself, documented in writing, photography, and video the specific techniques of each location. She would invariably acquire not only the unique papers made but also the tools used in the process. She used her witty persuasion to convince the flight crew to allow her to carry fragile and unwieldy items onto the plane including a Tibetan butter churner (for dispersing pulp), and Burmese deer antlers (for smoothing pulp).
In 1994, Elaine established The Research Institute of Paper History and Technology, a nonprofit organization, also known as the International Paper Museum, located in her carriage house, which exhibits her vast collection of papermaking books, handmade paper, and papermaking tools and artifacts from all over the world. She used the Dewey Decimal System to classify her enormous book collection and every item was methodically entered into a database. Elaine was the author or editor of seven books and numerous articles, and produced seventeen documentaries. In 2001 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Friends of Dard Hunter, and in 2008 she became an Honorary Member of the International Association of Paper Historians.
I am grateful to have been in the unique position of having my mother as my best friend, papermaking compadre, and business partner. We had a symbiotic relationship, constantly bouncing ideas off one another and discussing ongoing projects. We spoke on the telephone at least once a day for the last 38 years. Her unstoppable energy, perseverance, and scholarship in everything she did was contagious. Finally, her sense of humor combined with her strong Boston accent made for entertaining lectures at papermaking conferences.
Upon learning of my mother’s passing, my best friend from elementary school Laurie Hoch Rietsema summed it up when she wrote, “You really were the kid with the cool mom!”
Daughter of Elaine Koretsky
Brooklyn, New York
Elaine Koretsky was the epitome of generosity. Indefatigable curiosity, fearless persistence in pursuing it, and enthusiastic sharing of what she learned are what made Elaine so outstanding. When she began the research that produced her book Color for the Hand Papermaker, Elaine told me she contacted a chemist who initially rebuffed her as ignorant about science, but she persisted. The result of her study and research benefited the nascent hand-papermaking community not only because it provided a comprehensive survey of methods and chemistry, but it also was the impetus for Elaine to become a supply source for the hand papermaker.
Elaine was equally generous and untiring in facilitating situations to amplify direct sharing of hand-papermaking techniques and materials. Elaine spearheaded two key projects that had a huge impact early on, including the 1980 Boston International Papermakers Conference and the 1985 Gathering of Papermakers. These events and the publications that documented them greatly enlarged our knowledge base in those early times, as did the workshops she invited so many of us to give at Carriage House Handmade Paper Works. I was grateful for the opportunity to share information that otherwise may have just remained in my studio.
I think Elaine, an avid gardener, was furthering her gardening instincts by propagating papermaking know-how. Finding information, recording it, and sharing it through writing and teaching, all with enthusiasm, were Elaine’s MO. Coupled with her being a fearless adventurer documenting hand papermaking traditions in many countries, Elaine was, in essence, our female version of Dard Hunter.
Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania
I first met Elaine Koretsky in Burma when she visited with Donna and Sidney Koretsky in 1987. I was Elaine’s tour guide, and together we visited papermaking villages, went on oxcart rides on rough roads, and enjoyed the fresh food that the village papermakers offered. My trips with Elaine were marvelous, and in 1991, she sponsored me to come to the United States. From the start she took care of me as if I were her own daughter. As an immigrant, I needed to learn a new lifestyle. Every step along the way, Elaine was there to guide me, bringing me to family events and social events as her Burmese daughter. She knew me, appreciated me, and encouraged me like my Burmese mother always did. When I created flower papers in Carriage House studio, she advertised it in their Carriage House Paper catalogue as “Tin Tin’s Flower Paper.” I learned from her not only the papermaking arts, but also how to resettle successfully in this land of opportunity. When my Burmese mother passed away, Elaine was traveling in China. She sent me a postcard saying “Count on me as your American mother, I am here for you.” I am fortunate to have met such a kind soul, and I’m sure she would be very proud of me and happy for me. I miss my American Mother, Elaine.
Tin Tin Nyo
“Burmese Daughter” of Elaine Koretsky
I first met Elaine Koretsky, and her husband Sidney, on November 5, 2000, when I picked them up from the Guiyang Airport. My first impression was that they were in such good spirits despite their age! I served as their guide on their travels through Southeast Guizhou province.
Hidden in undeveloped mountainous areas with bad transportation conditions, Southeast Guizhou’s minority villages had been isolated for many years. This helped to preserve the region’s rich, unique culture, with its many traditional techniques including hand papermaking in very old ways. Elaine was attracted to all of these resources, searching from one village to the next. She and Sidney found many unexpected “new” things and they kept coming back to Guizhou very often, almost every year, sometimes with groups and sometimes just by themselves.
Together we visited almost every corner of Guizhou province, and discovered many, if not all, of the hand papermaking spots; some were still in use, while some had just relics. “Unbelievable,” Elaine would say when we discovered nearly all kinds of papermaking by hand, especially techniques she had never seen in other parts of the world.
Besides Guizhou province, I accompanied Elaine and Sidney to Anhui and southern Sichuan provinces to visit xuanzhi production areas, and to western Sichuan and Yunnan provinces to track down Tibetan papermaking. Many of the villages, where the most traditional techniques were being practiced, were quite remote. Often we had to walk on foot to get there. I was amazed by their power of determination. Their advanced age and poor eyesight made it difficult, but they managed to climb the hills and walk rugged, narrow paths, sometimes in the dark!
Traveling with Elaine for so many years, I have learned a lot from her, not only about papermaking history, which I now offer to my subsequent tourist groups, but also about faith and commitment to a lifetime passion, so strong, that I feel as if Elaine is still alive, and that she will never pass away!!
Wu Zeng Ou
Tour Operator, China International Travel Services (CITS)
Southeast Guizhou, China