In the winter of 2019, Victòria Rabal and I visited Anne Vilsbøll (Vilsboell) at her home and art residency in Udaipur, India, established in 2001. The three of us have traveled together in recent years to Barcelona and Capellades in Spain, and worked together at Dieu Donné in Brooklyn, New York. During our adventures together we talk often about our intersecting life paths in hand papermaking and our shared optimism about the future of the field. It is a rich and ongoing conversation.
As natives of Denmark and Spain respectively, Anne and Victòria bring a distinctly European perspective to their lives as artists and hand papermakers. Both were introduced to hand papermaking in 1982 through the work of American colleagues and have subsequently devoted their life work to developing their art and hand papermaking throughout the world.
For this article, we started our conversation by talking about when they first met in 1986, in Düren, Germany, where they were both exhibiting art and attending the opening of the First International Paper Biennale at the Leopold Hoesch Museum. At that time, Fred Siegenthaler (from Switzerland) and Geza Meszaros (from Hungary) reached out to paper colleagues and artists to establish an international association of hand papermakers with a focus on papermaking as an art form. IAPMA, The International Association of Hand Papermakers and Paper Artists, was born. Both Anne and Victòria were elected for the founding committee.1
At their first meeting at the Leopold Hoesch Museum, Anne and Victòria embraced each other immediately as artists and pioneering papermakers excited to share their discoveries and passion with each other and with their international colleagues. With the other new committee members such as Sophie Dawson (UK), John Gerard (American, living in Germany), Julie Lawson (US), and Ray Tomasso (US), they developed an international membership structure and chose Anne Vilsbøll and Sophie Dawson as editors of a newly created IAPMA publication, and Victòria as member at large. Victòria volunteered her paper mill, the Museu Molí Paperer de Capellades, as the site for the next IAPMA Congress in 1987. Seven years later, in 1994, Victòria invited Anne and Sophie back to Cappellades to work in the mill studios, during which time Anne and Sophie produced Vice Versa, an artist book inspired by the Capellades’ old stamper. From 1996 to 2000, Anne served as President of IAPMA, and for the next three decades, Victòria and Anne have stayed in regular contact as their art and lives have taken them to different parts of the world.
Their individual paper backgrounds are both informed by international exchange, though in different ways. Anne was initially introduced to hand papermaking in the United States during three years of extensive travel in the early 1980s. Though she visited most of the American hand paper mills in the United States, she credits Frank Eckmair, at Buffalo State College on the East Coast, and Nance O’Banion, in California on the West Coast, as her main teachers and mentors. Anne returned to Europe in 1983 and set up Strynoe Paper Atelier, the first studio in Scandinavia that focused on handmade paper as an art form.
Anne has crisscrossed the globe, studying hand papermaking throughout Europe and in numerous countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, as well as North and South America. Her extensive travels with Asao Shimura in Asia, her various art residencies at Awagami Factory in Japan, her collaborations with Vicky and Pablo Sigwald in Argentina, and her various workshops with John Roome in South Africa and Walter Ruprecht in Zimbabwe have all contributed to her expanding knowledge of the field as she fine-tunes the papermaking process to develop her imagery as an artist. She has been a guest professor at art academies and design schools in Scandinavia, developed educational programs and hand-papermaking kits, and written a trilogy on handmade paper, published by Borgen Publisher, DK.
Victòria’s introduction to papermaking started when she moved to the town of Capellades in 1982 where she was exposed to 800 years of traditional hand papermaking, the predominant industry in that part of Spain. But her first exposure to making art using the papermaking process was in 1983 when she visited the American artist Laurence Barker at his studio in Barcelona. Determined to revitalize hand papermaking at Museu Molí Paperer de Capellades and excited about introducing contemporary applications of the hand-papermaking process to the art community of Barcelona, Victòria launched workshops at the museum for visual artists including many with Laurence Barker. For the next thirty years, Victòria dedicated herself to developing Museu Molí Paperer de Capellades into an educational facility and working museum that produces production paper and custom paper for artists, and sponsors workshops and classes for over 30,000 visitors a year. Besides these museum programs, Victòria and her staff have worked extensively with international artists, such as Jaume Plensa and Elena del Rivero, in the creation of new handmade paper art, and have hosted specialized workshops led by international hand papermakers such as Gangolf Ulbricht (Germany); from the US, Elaine Koretsky, Mina Takahashi, and Gail Deery; José Lazacarro (Mexico); Izhar Neumann (Israel), and of course, from Denmark, Anne Vilsbøll.
Victòria Rabal has continued to develop her own art in her studios in Spain as well as at international residencies where she has often conducted workshops as part of her visit. She has worked with hand papermakers in Aoya, Japan where her deep interests in Japanese traditions, especially gyotaku (fish printing), have resulted in new art that has been exhibited and published.
During our time together in Udaipur, Anne, Victòria, and I visited a local hand paper mill established a few years ago by Anne’s friend, Govind, a local stationery goods manufacturer. His paper supplier in Udaipur closed so he bought all the papermaking equipment from the mill and reinstalled it in a rented building near his diary factory outside of Udaipur. We watched as women sorted rags outside in the yard, fed the beaters, and made pulp for the dozen papermaking pairs working at the vats, forming and couching sheets in unison. The cotton sheets are loft dried in the arid Rajasthan-desert air, and the paper is calendered to a smooth surface.
During an earlier visit to Govind’s mill, Anne and I experimented with making pulp and paper with indigo rag cuttings from local sources. Our initial tests were inconclusive, but promising. Govind remains completely focused on production papermaking for his diary business and though he is open to exploring other creative possibilities, there is presently no incentive to change and local artists have not engaged him yet. In the past, Anne did several projects at a former paper mill in Udaipur and presently continues to encourage Govind to collaborate on various art workshops.
Anne, Victòria, and I then traveled to New Delhi to attend the India Art Fair. At Threshold Gallery, we saw fiber artist Priya Ravish Mehra’s beautiful art that reflected her extensive training in textiles and her deep interest in handmade paper pulp. A few weeks before visiting New Delhi, Anne and I were lucky enough to catch Priya’s installation at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, India. Anne noted that Priya studied with textile artist, Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada, the same teacher who taught Anne in the early 1980s at Haystack Mountain School of Arts and Crafts in Maine.
Handmade paper is having a vibrant moment in India. At the India Art Fair, gallery dealer ZOCA presented paper carvings by artist Patitapaban (Kulu) Ojha and paper cuttings by Khanjan Maru. We also saw cast-cotton art by Ravi Kumar Kashi, who had been a student of Australian artist and IAPMA member Jacki Parry when she taught at the Glasgow School of Art. Anne noted that Jacki also taught Anupam Chakraborty who established the Nirupama Academy of Handmade Paper in Kolkata.
Given the long tradition of Islamic and Western hand papermaking in India—including present-day sheet forming at Kalam Khush and at Sarabai Foundation, both in Ahmedabad, as well as in Pondicherry—there is much to discover in contemporary India. The practice of the traditional craft and the creation of new art by artists working with paper and paper pulp in India are flourishing.
1. For context, it is interesting to note that Americans established the Friends of Dard Hunter in 1981; and even earlier, in 1974, Joe Wilfer organized the first American hand papermaking conference. Twentieth-century American hand-papermaking pioneers were focused on both reviving the traditional handcraft of fine sheet production (which had died out in the United States by the 1860s) as well as developing papermaking as an art medium. In Europe, where there were still commercial hand paper mills operating, such as Richard de Bas in France, there was a greater division between traditional hand papermakers and artists who used the hand-papermaking process to make their art.