Shop PortfoliosVolunteers

Friends Through Thread: Three Paper Artists and a Few Thousand Kilometers in Between

Summer 2017
Summer 2017
, Number
Article starts on page

Mandy Coppes-Martin  is one of the founding members of the Phumani Paper Project, a poverty alleviation program in South Africa. She has been involved in various outreach and paper-training initiatives in South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Germany, and Belgium since 1999. Her MA in fine art focused on the research and development of local and invasive plant fibers. Coppes-Martin is a full-time paper artist based at the Nugget Square Studios in Johannesburg, South Africa. It took our family (my husband, our two daughters, and me) just short of four days to get to Asao Shimura's village of Poking, Benguet province, in the Philippines. We travelled by plane, then by taxi, and for the last stretch by Jeepney, along very windy roads.  Along the way we met up with Atsuko Yamagata, a Japanese artist currently living in Manila. Atsuko also works with paper thread, and decided to join Asao and me in our long-running conversation about our shared mediums. I was struck throughout the journey by how lucky I was to have this opportunity to meet with these two people. Asao I have known for many years, while Atsuko and I have just met. But she too, like us, has been immersed in paper and thread for most of her life.

Purchase Issue

Other Articles in this Issue

Asao and I have only had a handful of face-to-face encounters in our fourteen-year relationship. We do not speak the same mother tongues, and we are separated by some 11,500 kilometers as well as the Indian Ocean. Most of our dialogue has thus found form not through words, but via the conduit of a few hundred meters of paper thread.  I first met Asao in 2002, in South Africa, where he facilitated a paper-thread workshop. This was a real treat for us, as there are few master papermakers in South Africa, and no suppliers of pa¬per chemicals, fiber, and equipment for hand papermaking. Asao adapted our local equipment and utilized tools and indigenous ma-terials. His innovation allowed us to continue to make paper with South African fiber, using Eastern methodologies. Because many of the communities I was teaching papermaking to had little or no electricity, I was especially interested in modifying Eastern tech¬niques for our local context. Asao visited again in 2010. This time we went on a joint research trip to KwaZulu Natal, where we investi¬gated locally grown piña (pineapple leaf) fiber as a viable option for hand papermaking and thread making in South Africa. And so, fourteen years later in 2016, I finally visit Asao in his own context. While we do not see much of each other physically, we have maintained our friendship through the buying and selling of paper thread, the swapping of art and ideas, and through paper collaborations and exhibitions. The longer this conversation goes on between us, the richer it gets.  Over the next few days, Asao, Atsuko, and I hike through rice paddies, drink freshly ground home-brewed coffee, and enjoy Asao's famous konnyaku (konjac) ice cream. It is an amazing fact that kon¬nyaku paste, made from starchy tubers, is so versatile that it is used as an adhesive, improves paper's water resistance and strength, and can also be eaten in soups and ice cream! As the three of us chat in broken tongues around the worktable, it becomes clear that while we all use paper thread and fabric as a means of creative expression, we each do it in different ways.  Atsuko, for example, uses ink, paper, and paper thread. She has a special interest in how the ink and paper react with each other or¬ganically. "When I stain the paper with ink, it always shows a differ¬ent mark or outline," she says. "No sheet of paper is the same. The ink bleeds differently every time creating interesting and unique marks."  She goes on to explain that paper threads made from handmade piña paper also have their own individuality. The distinct character¬istics of the thread, the paper, and her mark-making create a rela¬tionship between the paper, each single fiber, and the artist's creative intent. Atsuko halts the process of thread making midstream and creates patterns with the semi-spun thread. For her, the act of thread making becomes part of the artwork, creating marks that are fasci¬nating and three-dimensional.  Asao makes the finest paper thread and fabric, and exports it all over the world. He recently started exploring different methods of manipulation using paper thread, paper fabric, and konnyaku. He has a sensibility towards the material that can only come through many years experience. He is, as a result, an amazing person to watch at work.  Asao is currently creating konnyaku intaglio prints on piña pa¬per and moro shifu. Moro shifu is fabric made using paper thread for the warp and weft; most shifu includes silk or cotton in either the warp or the weft. Once his prints are dried, Asao boils them in a lime-powder solution to render them waterproof. This process gives the print a rubbery feeling, and ensures it is also incredibly durable. And me...well, I use paper thread in my art for many reasons. It is beautiful and malleable, but it also provides a compelling back¬story to the end form. I have always been intrigued by tree rings and what they represent. In the natural world, life evolves and new layers are developed, covering the old. I repeat these layers in paper thread, not only because the process of making paper thread marks a passage of time, but also because new thread is created when dif¬ferent materials are intertwined with old ones. In the process the thread is reincarnated—it takes on a new life, while paying testa¬ment to the drift of time.  I crochet tree rings with paper thread, from the inside out, much the same way that a tree develops its life rings. I am also interested in deconstructing the warp and weft of moro shifu, as a symbol of the breaking down of a process or an object that is representative of the inevitable cycle of life. And then, suddenly, our time together is over, and we head our separate ways. Our creative conversation has been brilliantly organ¬ic and unfolded naturally, mostly I suspect, because we speak largely through the physical process of making paper thread. As we part, we express an interest in continuing our strange way of communicat¬ing, perhaps in the form of an exhibition in which our work could travel together to all of our countries. Regardless, we agree that we must keep talking. Which really means we must keep making art, and sharing it.  What a lucky and wonderful thing.