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Hands, Brain, Soul, Heart: Gangolf Ulbricht on Making Paper

Winter 2019
Winter 2019
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Helen Hiebert is a Colorado artist who constructs installations, sculptures, films, artist books, and works in paper using handmade paper as her primary medium. She teaches, lectures, and exhibits her work internationally and online, and is the author of the books Papermaking with Plants, The Papermaker’s Companion, Paper Illuminated, Playing With Paper, and Playing With Pop-Ups. Hiebert maintains a weekly blog called The Sunday Paper and holds an annual paper retreat in her Red Cliff studio each September.

Gangolf Ulbricht and I had a lovely meandering video interview one afternoon in April 2019. A quote on his website sums up a feeling I share: “I am fascinated by paper and the creative potential inherent in its production.” It is my passion as well as a source of constant challenge. I had heard about Ulbricht for years, knew of his work with watermarks (a passion of mine as well), and although I have been to Germany several times, my travels have not taken me close enough, so meeting him virtually seemed like the next best thing.

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helen hiebert (hh): Gangolf, how did you get interested in paper and what was your training?
gangolf ulbricht (gu): I grew up in East Germany before the Wall fell. I couldn’t go to the school I wanted to because of the political climate in the 1980s, so I did an apprenticeship in a paper factory and then studied paper engineering. This work wasn’t fulfilling, so I began reading about hand papermaking. I was looking for a way into the future by exploring the past.
I wanted to find a niche where I could be independent, and I dreamt of having a paper studio. When the Wall came down in 1989, I moved from Dresden to Berlin, where I was free to study what I was interested in. Soon, I was drawn back to hand papermaking, because it allowed me to work with my hands, my brain, my soul, and my heart. I traveled around Europe, visiting paper mills, like the one in Basel, and I met John
Gerard (an American) who was living in Berlin. When I first visited John’s studio, I felt right at home. I worked with John for a year, and when he moved to another part of Germany, I took over his Berlin studio space, where I am still working today. I also spent a month with Jacques Brejoux at Moulin de Verger in France, and a few years later, I spent a year in Japan when I received funding from the German government to study papermaking there. I was like a cook, trying to learn about a different tradition, and then adapting it to suit my own needs.
hh: What a great metaphor. I often think of papermaking in terms of cooking, and agree that it’s important to immerse yourself into a process to truly understand the fibers. How did you equip your studio?
gu: When I was working for John (Gerard) I found a beater that he took to his new studio, leaving me his old beater. I visited defunct East German paper factories where I found raw materials, industrial felts, lab beaters, dandy rolls, and more. I got my first moulds from Ron MacDonald in England, and soon he was putting me in touch with people in Britain who were selling old moulds found in garages and basements. I was also able to purchase a large collection of moulds from Wookey Hole Mill, and I have about seventy moulds and deckles in my studio today.
hh: How did you start your business?
gu: I have been in business for 27 years, and most of my work still comes through word of mouth. In the beginning, I was trying to sell my paper to artists, I offered classes, created paper art, and made paper for conservators. It was difficult to make ends meet. I wasn’t smiling a lot at this time in my life! At a certain point, I stopped making my own art and focused on making high-quality handmade paper. I also connected with artists who had money to pay for studio projects.
And then I had a lucky break from an unfortunate event. The Anna Amalia Bibliothek in Weimar, Germany, had a catastrophic fire in 2004. The director and head of conservation developed a restoration project that attracted media attention. Because of this, they were able to raise money and developed a master conservation plan. I was contracted to produce several conservation papers for the library, and through this project, I was introduced to the conservation field in Europe, and I began attending the International Association of Book & Paper Conservators (IADA).
hh: Tell me about your teaching.
gu: After becoming involved with IADA, I realized that conservators do not know much about the historical technology of paper. They were using certain papers based only on their size and color. I began offering workshops at various paper conservation schools in Europe (which I still do today) to show conservators how to read sheets of paper. I teach them how to make paper too. When I can drive, I bring papermaking equipment in my van. When I fly (last year I visited Armenia) I teach Asian papermaking, which requires less equipment. I also teach workshops at art academies, where I introduce students to the potential of paper as a medium for art.
hh: I understand that you have developed a line of conservation papers. Describe one.
gu: I create an extremely thin paper called Berlin Tissue. This was originally developed by Frank Mowery at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. It is the thinnest, non-visible restoration handmade tissue in the world, and it is made from the purest bast fibers, imported from Japan.
hh: What other types of projects are you involved in?
gu: I have a client who does professional wallpaper restoration. I make the paper for his projects, and we are currently working on an estate that we are papering room by room. My client recreates old printing blocks using digital techniques, prepares the ink, prints the sheets, and applies the wallpaper adhesive one sheet at a time. The papers I make for each project are unique, because the width, thickness, and color of the historic papers that we are replicating vary.
hh: I know you work with artists in your studio as well.
gu: Yes, I contact artists whose work I see and think that they could push the limits of paper, and sometimes artists contact me with an idea. For one project, I used a light-sensitive liquid to create watermarks using a photographic process for British artist Sian Bowen, who wanted to create paper for new drawings that had similar qualities to stacks of frozen prints that were found on Nova Zembla in the Arctic. I pulled sheets of hemp paper on historic wove moulds that contained watermarked hand-written text and imagery. Another project involved beating, washing, and bleaching European paper currency to create large monochromatic 2 x 3-meter sheets in various colors for the artist Christodoulus Panayoutis from Cyprus.
hh: Do you have employees?
gu: I have one long-term assistant who works part time on research projects, and I also have occasional interns who are studying art or paper conservation. I finance part of the studio with government-funded research projects and have received several rounds of three-year funding. One of these projects involved creating customized 3D-printed cellulose medical strips.
hh: I understand your seventeen-year-old son helps you in the studio from time to time to earn extra money.
gu: Recently, after working for me he proclaimed: “The horrible thing about papermaking is that you have to wait a day or two to see the finished product. Only after the sheets are dried, calendered, and sorted, do you know which sheets are good and which aren’t.”
To become a full-time papermaker, you have to have the passion. Working at the vat is back-breaking, and you have to pay attention to quality all the time.
Identifying a good papermaker is like finding a good car mechanic. Most mechanics can fix your car, but only one out of ten will have the commitment to go the extra mile and find the specific problem and fix just the part that is broken, while still charging you a fair price.
hh: What has kept you working with paper for so many years?
gu: If you work in a specific field, as I have for more than two decades, it expands like the universe. I discover intricacies about paper that I want to know more about. I know what I don’t know, and I am still light years from pulling the sheets of paper that I would like to make. There is something about fourteenth-to-fifteenth-century paper that attracts me, a kind of refinement. But this is tricky to replicate, because I don’t have the same tools and raw materials they had. I hope to have the time to come close to creating this type of paper one day.
When I see a well-made sheet created by another contemporary papermaker, I have an innate understanding, because I make paper. This gives me great satisfaction. If you like to make cheesecake, and you taste someone else’s cheesecake that has a unique flavor, you think about how it was done, what spice the cook added to get that taste. You can appreciate it in on a deeper level.
Growing up in a political prison did something to me. I can close my eyes and feel the way I did 30 years ago when there was still a wall between East and West Germany. I felt I had to break through the wall. And I was able to hold onto the vision that paper could give me most of the things I was searching for.