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ON Ray Tomasso: From Print to Paper

Winter 2010
Winter 2010
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Michael Paglia is an art historian and professional writer whose columns appear regularly since 1995 in Westword, a Denver weekly. Paglia's essays on the visual arts have also been published in periodicals. He has authored or co-authored a dozen books and monographs on the arts. He currently teaches art history at the University of Colorado Denver.  Ray Tomasso has been Colorado's preeminent paper artist for decades and has exhibited his paper works internationally. He lives with his wife Diane in Englewood, Colorado. I interviewed him in his funky Victorian house that anchors a compound that not only includes expected elements like his studio, but unexpected ones such as the nineteenth-century guard shack from a steelyard.

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Michael Paglia (mp): How did you get interested in paper? Ray Tomasso (rt): In the late '60s I saw an etching that was created on an embossed piece of paper that was over an inch thick. That was the first thing I saw that tweaked my interest. ON Ray Tomasso: From Print to Paper michael paglia mp What were you doing at the time? rt I was studying printmaking, doing traditional prints—etchings, engravings. And as a printer you're looking at the embossment of the paper all the time. I had been soaking my plates in acid overnight to get deeper embossments but I had never seen anything like that. mp Did you turn to papermaking right away? rt Well I attempted to make some paper but it was very unsuccessful. Then in graduate school I met Garner Tullis who explained the process to me. Later, I was doing embossments of space in Raku clay, and my pieces kept getting larger and larger until I had to build kilns around them. They were fragile, being low-fire ceramic, which is why I was looking for a more durable material. mp So this led you to make your first piece in paper? rt Yes. The style in printmaking at the time was all-bleed prints. We accumulated all the tear strips off the Arches in the shop, and there was a dough mixer in the ceramics lab, and a shredder in the office. Using Garner's explanations, I shredded the paper, put it in the dough mixer, and made pulp. The department had a vacuum-forming machine; I found a form I really liked; vacuum-formed it; and I cast it. It took two weeks to dry. I sat there twiddling my thumbs waiting. mp What kind of response did you get from the other artists working in the studio? rt The printmaking professor said if I took a picture of it and etched it on a plate, then it would be art. That summer I went to Santa Cruz to see Garner and after talking with him, confirmed, at least according to my calculations, what I was doing, was art. mp Did you then dedicate yourself to paper? rt Life gets in the way. I got a teaching job, and I set up a studio in Omaha, and acquired all the equipment to print books. I learned that the major consideration in printing books is the design of the paper and purchase of the paper. Then the University of Colorado made me an offer, and in 1977 I moved from Omaha to Boulder. I had decided to go back to graduate school to teach myself how to make paper because I didn't want to be a lithographer. In Boulder, I was given a 15-year-old garbage disposal that would eat one-inch squares of blue jeans and spit them out; it was the most amazing machine I'd ever seen. I built additional equipment and had a Hollander designed and built. mp So you taught yourself to make paper? rt I thought, basically it's a 2,000-year-old technology, so how hard could it be? I was wrong, of course, because 2,000-year-old techniques are actually very hard to master. But it's the modern era, and there have been lots of improvements to the process including the Hollander beater and the garbage disposal. mp Describe your concepts. rt When I originally started I was looking at the mining ruins in winter and what they looked like with snow covering them. The paper covered the objects like snow—making certain kinds of forms that stand out. I went to casting the printmaking tables, with chairs, boards, and ropes. mp Isn't that sort of what you are doing now? Using recognizable things to create abstracts? rt Though the work is made of paper pulp, I think of them as metaphorically made using the flotsam and jetsam you find along the highway. You're in the middle of nowhere and there's all this stuff along the road with no rhyme or reason to any of it. It's like being in someone's house and looking in a desk drawer. I'm composing the image according to all the traditional rules and using the disparate things I've gathered to make it. I will lay down cardboard, metal, pieces of wood, string, masking tape, pieces of notepaper—whatever I can find. mp And this is for the mould? rt Yes. Once I have the composition set up, I use museum rag board for the traditional European method of papermaking. I'm laminating sheet upon sheet to create the first level. The rag board will reproduce the texture of masking tape, brail, the edges of a piece of paper. For strength, I'm using blue jeans to make the pulp for the other layers. Because of the process, the paper laminates to itself. Historically paper was a cheap molding material. It was the "plastic" of the nineteenth century. I build a wooden frame for the back, infill the back with fiberglass, and then saw and power-sand all the edges so it will be flat against the wall. mp Though your works are colorful, you don't use colored pulp do you? rt No, I paint the piece, with natural pigments and acrylics reworking the composition to bring out certain parts. mp You were right on time when you started making paper in the late 1970s. rt It was the paper renaissance. It was the "new" medium of the '70s. It came out of lithography—the "new" medium of the '60s —with lots of artists starting to make paper both for printing and as works of art. And I'm still at it, perfecting my technique. Editor's note: More information about Ray Tomasso's work is available at