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ON Fritz Dietel: Organic Forms in Paper

Winter 2015
Winter 2015
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Sarah Kirk Hanley Sarah Kirk Hanley ( is an independent print specialist and critic based in the New York area. She is a contributor and online columnist for the journal Art in Print, instructor at New York University, and a consulting expert and advisor for several art appraisal services and online fine art marketplaces. After completing her printmaking degree in 1996, Hanley independently studied hand papermaking at the University of Iowa Center for the Book and volunteered at the Oakdale papermaking facility for one year under the direction of Lynn Amlie. Fritz Dietel (b. 1960, Northampton, MA) is a Philadelphia-based sculptor whose primary material is paper. His hybridized, elegant structures are influenced by organic forms, both natural and man-made, with sources of inspiration ranging from pollen spores to wooden boats. Often, he combines two or more referents to generate an abstract yet familiar shape: the invented structures recall, but do not replicate, their sources. The result is both compelling and somewhat alien, like seedpods or spores from an alternate universe.

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The artist has spent much of his life outdoors, beginning with his childhood on a farm in Connecticut with regular visits to the Adirondacks. During his wanderings, Dietel found himself drawn to clusters of disparate organic materials "that become another shape. I love that combination of form." This fascination with organic detritus and "unexpected surprises" informs his aesthetic.1 He cites Richard Deacon, Kiki Smith, Richard Serra, and Martin Puryear as major influences. Dietel originally worked in steel as an undergraduate at The University of the Arts, then switched to wood after graduating, a medium he favored for over twenty years. However, this changed after an auspicious studio visit in 2006 with Susan Gosin, co-founder of Dieu Donné Papermill in New York. After seeing the elegant wood-based sculptures he had recently shown at Schmidt Dean Gallery in Philadelphia, Gosin suggested that paper might better suit Dietel's artistic goals. Following a weekend-long crash course in papermaking with her, the artist began to experiment in earnest. He is fascinated by paper's ability to mimic a wide variety of natural surfaces, from rawhide to leaves to fish skin. "It's light, it's translucent, it's strong, it's quiet," he says. "It's forgiving. It's a more romantic material."2 In order to further explore his interest in paper, Dietel applied for and was granted a Pew Fellowship in the Arts in 2007. The Pew grant allowed Dietel to experiment with his approach to building forms with paper; he describes himself as a "scientist, engineer, and inventor,"3 and these elements of his personality are brought to bear on his method. He begins with photographic images, usually from magazines, books, or websites. These often depict naturally occurring forms such as shells, kelp, seed pods, fungus, nests, or foliage, but he has also been inspired by manmade objects, including architecture, bridges, handmade boats, and traditional handicraft, such as Eskimo fish traps and raingear. These images fuel his sketches, which he then translates into armatures made of wood, foam, or paper. He uses the steam-bending process to make wooden ribbed structures with strips of Douglas fir, cedar, or oak that are joined with copper wire and epoxy, then wrapped in paper for reinforcement. When working with foam, Dietel joins laminated boards together and cuts them with a hot knife to shape the material. For sculptures made solely of paper, Dietel applies layers over a removable mold. For instance, the artist used slender plastic bags filled with packing peanuts to build the elongated structures of Lumen V (2014); these materials were removed once the outer layer of paper dried. In other works, Dietel leaves the armature in place, where it functions as an essential element of the piece. Whether or not the internal structure remains, the handmade paper surface of Dietel's sculptures is built up in layers, usually three or more, over a course of several days. He either sprays wet pulp over the armature with a pulp sprayer or wraps it with handmade sheets of paper. A single form can use up to forty sheets of paper. Sometimes the sheets are draped over the structure intact; other times he manipulates the paper into strings or ropes. In some cases, layers are bonded with methyl cellulose. Dietel prefers abaca fiber but he has also used cotton and linen pulp. (His supplier is Carriage House Paper and he favors abaca bleached or premium.) He has a separate area of the studio for papermaking, and built much of his equipment himself, including the moulds and press. He uses pigments only sparingly, either for visual appeal or to bring out a specific reference in the work (a green sprout or a magenta flower), but he continues to explore the use of color and says he may work more with pigmented pulp in the future. Wood remains an important material for Dietel and many of his paper structures, such as Chalice (2008), include sections comprised only of wood. After a five-year period of experimentation, Dietel showed his first body of paper-based works in 2011 at Schmidt Dean Gallery in Philadelphia. More recently, an exhibition of Dietel's works christened Sue Gosin's newest project, 315 Gallery, a pop-up space that opened in February of 2015. The exhibition included a range of work dating from the past decade, illustrating his transformation from working solely in wood (Thistle, 2004) to exclusively paper (Husk, 2014), and all the various stages between. Dietel continues to expand his practice, finding that he wants to work solely in paper more often. Aside from its clear affinity to his aesthetic interests, he notes, "It's comforting knowing that you don't have to wear protective equipment, glasses, gloves, dust mask or respirator."4 And in keeping with Dietel's interest in organic processes and forms, he is attracted to paper's natural variances and the fact that it "has a life of its own," celebrating the "naturally occurring shrinking, rippling, and buckling that transpires while \[the material\] is drying."5 For him, this is the most exciting aspect of working with paper. "It takes me out of the picture and allows the paper to be itself."6 Further information on Fritz Dietel and his paper-based work can be found at the artist's website ( and at the websites of Schmidt Dean Gallery ( and 315 Gallery ( An exhibition pamphlet for Fritz Dietel at 315 Gallery, New York, February 5–28, 2015 is available online at ___________ notes 1. John Thornton, Fritz Dietel: Natural Events (Philadelphia: Schmidt Dean Gallery, 2011), 8 min., 20 sec.; online content on Schmidt Dean Gallery website: and YouTube: Dt95UpICZS0 (accessed July 8, 2015). 2. Glenn Holsten. 12 Short Films of the 2007 Pew Fellows (Philadelphia: Pew Fellowships in the Arts and Marketing Innovation Program, Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage, 2007), 5 min., 0 sec.; online content on Pew Center for Arts & Heritage website: and YouTube: https:// jdIJ-KeM (accessed July 8, 2015). 3. Fritz Dietel, telephone interview with the author, June 19, 2015. 4. Ibid. 5. Fritz Dietel, e-mail interview with the author, June 20, 2015. 6. Thornton, Fritz Dietel: Natural Events.