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ON Twinrocker: Papermaking on the Prairie

Winter 2011
Winter 2011
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Nicholas A. Basbanes of North Grafton, Massachusetts, is the author of eight books. His first, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, was a finalist in 1996 for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His work on Common Bond: Stories of a World Awash in Paper, was supported in part by a 2008 National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellowship, and will be published in 2012 by Alfred A. Knopf.  This essay is drawn from research done for, and derived from, a chapter in the author's upcoming book, Common Bond: Stories of a World Awash in Paper, to be published in 2012 by Alfred A. Knopf. Ed.  Twelve years after Kathryn and Howard Clark went into the business of making paper by hand for a full range of artistic and fine press clients, a small exhibition of their evolving accomplishments was mounted in central Indiana near their home and base of operations.

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Called Making It in Paper: An Indiana Mill, the 1983 show featured lithographs, engravings, hand-printed letterpress books, elegant broadsides, original works of pulp art, photographs, carbon prints, and exquisite calligraphy. Thirty-six striking objects all told, a good number of them were executed by visiting artists working collaboratively with the Clarks at Twinrocker Handmade Papers, Inc., the ambitious enterprise they had established in 1971 with those precise goals in mind. The curator John P. Begley placed the underlying premise of the exhibition into context, "Artists have ceased to think of paper as an uncontrollable, minimal, or even neutral element," he wrote in his foreword to the catalog. "Formerly regarded as a necessary and monotonous evil, it has come to be seen as an independent, elegant medium that can, without further embellishment, fully express an artist's statement." And Twinrocker, he continued, "has been in the vanguard of the artists' dialogue that has produced this new consensus about paper." For those familiar with the history of paper and papermaking by hand in the United States, the idea of a "new consensus" on the creative function of the medium is particularly relevant, especially as Twinrocker celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year as a vibrant force in the continuum. When the Clarks, whom many regard as the "Ma and Pa" of the modern movement, began their quixotic undertaking in 1971, there were no mentors to enlist for advice, no other mills operating anywhere in North America to emulate, no one to buy commercial-grade equipment from, and no instruction manuals to consult. Dard Hunter had died five years earlier, so even the driving spirit of the twentieth-century renaissance was out of the picture as a possible source of guidance. The last mill to make paper commercially by hand had closed in 1929, so for all intents and purposes, they were starting from scratch. The couple met in the 1960s when both were graduate students at Wayne State University in Detroit. Kathryn Haugh was pursuing a master's degree in fine arts, Howard a master's in industrial design to go along with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering he had earned from Purdue, skills that would prove useful to him when it came time to build papermaking machines. "I was looking towards a career as an artist, and planned to print my own work," Kathryn told me during a recent visit at Twinrocker in Brookston, Indiana. Nothing in Kathryn's game plan pointed toward a career in papermaking, but a course she took at Wayne State with Aris Koutroulis, a master printer who had studied at Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles, introduced her to the principles. "Part of his instruction method was to have us collect old rags and cut them into little pieces and make a pulp. It didn't matter what the color was; the idea, basically, was to make some paper, then create a print that complemented it." The concept was "totally backwards from the whole notion of what lithography is supposed to be, of course," she readily acknowledged, "but that's how we went about it in his class. Nobody was actually teaching us how to make paper in any systematic way, since nobody really knew how to make it. What we were learning was how to become printers. But this was my first exposure to papermaking—and Howard's, too, since it was his first look at the equipment involved." Kathryn's opportunity to ply her printing skills professionally came in 1969 when Howard accepted an offer to work on the West Coast with a start-up company involved in computer program development. As Howard began his new job, Kathryn was hired by the Collectors Press Lithography Workshop in San Francisco, under the direction of Ernest F. de Soto, another Tamarind product who had opened it two years earlier. "This was the height of the print craze," she recalled. "Tatyana Grossman of Universal Limited Art Editions on Long Island, and June Wayne at Tamarind in Los Angeles, had created this huge market for original prints, and business was booming. When Ernest saw that I could do the work just fine—there is an awful lot of heavy lifting involved in stone lithography—he took me on." With a lithographic press at hand, it was only a matter of time before Kathryn pulled an original print on one of the sheets she had made at Wayne State. "I brought the biggest sheet of paper I made with me to San Francisco, 24 inches square, and I made a large print. It was all thready, and basically the image was already in the paper, since it was made from dyed rags. Ernest took one look at it and said, ‘if you can make paper like this, I will be your first customer.'" Further encouragement came at a San Francisco arts fair where Kathryn's print was entered as an exhibit. "Everyone said, ‘the print is fine, but wow, where did you get that paper?'" Another inducement came with the sudden availability of Howard to join the project. "My friend's business collapsed in the aerospace recession, and there was a whole sea of engineers out there without work," he said. "I was standing in unemployment lines with vice presidents, and Kathy had her job printing lithographs. So I was all for it." Howard read everything he could find on commercial papermaking at the San Francisco Public Library, but in the end the most important reference was the Dard Hunter classic, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft, which includes many photographs to go along with the expert commentary. Over the years, Howard would make about forty Hollander beaters for other papermakers, and sixty or so hydraulic presses. "I have blood on every one of them," he said when I asked him to describe the degree of difficulty involved in charting what in the beginning for them was terra incognita. The date the Clarks give for the formal beginning of Twinrocker is April Fools Day, 1971, when they received a license from the city of San Francisco to operate a business at 3156 Turk Street. "It was a preposterous idea, of course, but we were young, we were living in San Francisco, and people we respected encouraged us to take a stab at it," Kathryn said. A first-place prize that September for a process booth they set up at the twenty-fifth-annual San Francisco Arts Festival, and the enthusiastic response received from area printmakers and fine press publishers at yet another fair in nearby Walnut Creek, gave them hope for the future—which they soon decided would be determined on a twenty-acre corn farm in Brookston, Indiana. "We came to Brookston primarily because Howard's father had just died, and this had been in the family through five generations," Kathryn said. "We were at the end of our rope financially in San Francisco anyway, so coming here seemed like a pretty solid option for us." Up and running once again in 1972, their fortunes would hinge on the pairing of two dramatically contrasting sets of skills, each impeccably suited to the task at hand, and each critical to the overall scheme. "I am the papermaker, and Howard is the engineer," Kathryn made clear, as if there had been any doubt on my part about the roles each had assumed in the partnership. Her much larger point was that she made the sheets, one dip at a time, and her husband made the machines, one bolt at a time. In due course, Howard would help develop technical strategies for special paper projects. One notable example is his work with Claire Van Vliet to perfect the use of dyed pulp in the formation of original artworks produced under her Janus Press imprint. "We helped bring her vision and ideas into a paper piece," Kathryn said. The Twinrocker watermark incorporates a back-to-back rocking chair, with two Ks sitting on top of a C—Kathryn's initials— producing a symmetrical design that appears correctly from either side of the sheet. The use of the word "twin" in the name is a tribute to Kathryn's identical twin sister Margaret Prentice who was involved in the business during the early months of operation with Prentice's husband Kit Kuehnle. "We weren't business people," Kathryn said, "but we were committed to reviving hand papermaking in America." Part of that commitment included the recruitment of apprentices who spent a year or more honing skills that have contributed measurably to the long-term prospects of hand papermaking. Many of their names are familiar to readers of this magazine, and include Timothy Barrett, adjunct professor at the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa and the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 2009; Lee S. McDonald, of Charlestown, Massachusetts, a maker of papermaking equipment; and Katie MacGregor, founder of MacGregor Handmade Paper in Whiting, Maine. In the late 1980s, the Chicago filmmaker David McGowan began shooting a short documentary, The Mark of the Maker, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1991; the Clarks' work with the calligrapher Janet Lorence, the watercolorist Jim Cantrell, and the scholar-printer Michael Gullick, comprised central segments of the film. "You have to educate them in what your medium can do," Kathryn told me of their various collaborations. "You suggest things that help facilitate their artistic expression." By this time, Twinrocker had already moved into a converted International Harvester tractor showroom in Brookston that provided more space. And in 2008, terms were worked out with Travis Becker, a Brookston native and master papermaker trained by Kathryn, to take over the business and keep it going well into the twenty-first century. "This is all about the future," Kathryn told me. "That was our goal with Twinrocker from the start." Twinrocker Fortieth-Anniversary Paper Sample: Chestnut text by kathryn clark Twinrocker's mission has always been to supply the most useful, beautiful, durable, and archival handmade papers we can make. This thin-text-weight sample is called Chestnut, a color we create from a combination of pigments and a tiny natural jute fleck. We usually make this paper from new, white cotton rag, and size the pulp internally with an alkylketene dimer. We make Chestnut in thin text, text, heavy text, and light art weights in a 22 x 30- inch size. The name "Chestnut," as with all the Twinrocker paper names, indicates the color and can be made to order from other combinations of fibers and pulp preparations, in any size and thickness. Chestnut is commonly used for letterpress printing, drawing, bookbinding, and calligraphy.