As a book artist, my relationship to handmade paper has been far from steady. The use of high-quality, machine-made papers has been the mainstay of my practice for the past thirty years with brief forays into the world of handmade paper when no commercial paper had the attributes I was looking for. These days I find myself in a new relationship with handmade paper that is more focused on the experiential qualities of paper that often cannot be found in commercial paper. I became curious about the views of other book artists who have maintained stronger and more continuous relationships with making and using handmade paper as part of their creative practice. I sent out a short questionnaire to eight book artists on the West Coast in order to find out more about how they incorporate handmade paper in the design and creation of artist books. The variety of approaches to the book varies quite widely from unique books to letterpress editions.
In response to the question “What caused you to start using handmade paper in your artist’s books?” Inge Bruggeman wrote about her desire to control the entire process of making a book starting with the substrate. She is interested not only in determining the technical aspects of the paper such as how well it folds, but also in experimenting with the ways in which the attributes of the paper can add meaning to the reading experience through color, texture, and weight. She states, “The paper tells part of the story through its materiality and its referential qualities. We not only read this material with our eyes and ears, but also through our tactile experience with it.”1
In her book, The Quickest Forever (2017), Bruggeman alternates a custom-made paper from Cave Paper with a commercial paper. The Cave paper was made in a light brown color with a rough, textured surface to reference land. For the cover she chose charcoal abaca paper from Twinrocker that has a smooth hard surface, reminiscent of stone. Bruggeman chose these papers for a very specific reason: “I wanted to make a connection between the book having layers of pages, stories, and histories much like geographical stratification that holds histories of the earth’s movements and stories of flora and fauna that get trapped in the earth and are unveiled as fossils and different types of deposits that we can read to tell us the histories of any given place. The book can be seen as a metaphor for a geological artifact, and I was leaning on the paper and its characteristics to help me get this across.”
Michelle Wilson sees a close connection between her interest in land art and earthworks with her interest in handmade paper. The themes of her artist books often focus on environmental concerns such as the Red Knot, an endangered species of bird that makes an incredibly long, yearly migration from Tierra Del Fuego to Northern Canada. In Future Tense (2014), she ties the plight of the Red Knot to endangered languages from indigenous communities that live at the starting and ending points of the migration route, and uses paper made from invasive plant species as a metaphor for colonization. In both books, the materiality of the paper not only contributes to the reading experience, it carries part of the narrative along with text and image.
All the artists I queried answered with an unequivocal “yes” to the question: “Is the inclusion of handmade paper an important factor in your artist’s books?” but two artists stand out in the paper-driven nature of their work. Steph Rue’s books often start with the paper itself which she says, “often dictates everything else.” In her book, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (2019), Rue offers an experience for the reader that is first and foremost about the physical properties of paper. Rue received a Fulbright in 2015–2016 to study hanji, traditional papermaking in Korea. She has since incorporated hanji, either her own or sheets made by papermakers in Korea, into much of her book work.
In Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, she used hanji that she made while in Korea and dyed years later with kakishibu, a traditional Japanese paper dye made from persimmon juice. She used a hand-stitching technique called bojagi to create visual and tactile content. The resulting book has a clear reference to the passage of time in the presumed slowness of hand stitching many small scraps of paper together, and an ethereal beauty in the subtle range of colors in the papers. Rue states that the book was meant to capture a moment in time as well as the “relentlessly cyclical nature of time.” The reader’s experience is that of the treatment of the paper itself uninterrupted by text or image.
Heather Peters’ books are ofte n inspired by the making of a batch of paper. In the process of preparing to make paper, Peters says she will “get a feeling for the type of paper I want to make and think of what I want to say in the book made with that paper.” In her recent book, The Shape of Longing Recalled (2018), she uses watercolor and alkalized cyanotypes made from stencils to create the imagery. Because she has very specific surface and sizing requirements, she finds that “making my own paper is the best option for me in nearly every situation.” The Shape of Longing Recalled combines the sensual intimacy of the handmake paper surface with text, image, and lengths of antique linen thread running throughout the book—all materials work collaboratively to subtly draw attention to the book as object. Peters is interested in “how the material used can add so much to the content of a piece.” She continues, “It adds much to the viewer’s experience, I believe. Even if the viewer is not aware of the specifics.”
Being able to transform handmade paper, either during or after the process of sheet forming, is a key reason why many of the artists employ handmade paper in their work. Rhiannon Alper’s book Dwellings (2019) grew out of the desire to showcase and embody the properties of a series of papers made from overbeaten, fermented unbleached abaca pulp. She decided to create a sculptural accordion book paired with a sewn paper sculpture in the shape of a pod. She states, “The translucency, the cracks, and creases, as well as the subtle colorations from the fermentation process, were the main intrigue.” The resulting piece is both beautiful and mysterious, with the paper transcending its traditional definitions to the point where it is not altogether clear what the sculptural element is really made of. In this instance, the paper points back to its origins as fiber from the natural world: the pod sculpture is made from handmade paper that mimics materials that seem to come straight from nature itself.
Anne Covell is interested in finding paper with specific attributes to suit the needs of a book project. For her book, Leavings (2017), Covell made sheets of Japanese gampi paper, then dyed them in order to create a gradation of warm brown tones from pale to saturated. She also sized the sheets with konnyaku paste which gave the pages both a crinkly texture and a rattle. Images of leaves were then printed on the pages in a gradation of brown tones that were slightly darker than the tones of the pages. The book gives the reader a textural and aural experience that mimics the sound and texture of drying leaves. In her explanation for why handmade paper was important to this project she says, “It was important that the base paper for this project has a high wet strength and durability to handle the application of brush dyeing and sizing, but also has a light airiness to the finished product that resembled dried leaves. No other papers on the market could meet this specific set of criteria besides a handmade Asian-style paper.”
Pulp painting is another way to create content directly in the paper itself. In her book, AMAZONS (2017), Diane Jacobs collaborated with papermaker Jenn Woodward of Pulp & Deckle in Portland, Oregon to create double-sided paper with pulp paintings of her own design. Of the process, Jacobs says, “I painted a burial mound and clouds with paper pulp on the blue side and then with the white side up I formed it over a ceramic disk that I had made.” The disk left a clear three-dimensional image that is an inherent part of the paper along with the pulp painting. This book also includes translucent abaca paper custom-made by Helen Hiebert and cover paper made at La Papeterie Saint-Armand in Montreal. The idea of storytelling through paper is particularly strong in the books of Amy Lund. She states: “My paper says what my words cannot. My books don’t exist without my paper. I can’t tell my stories with any other paper.” While print is a factor in most of Lund’s books to varying degrees, the book she considers to be the culmination of her conceptual and technical skills to date, Purple Paper Book (2019) contains the printed story on a sheet tucked into an envelope inside the front cover of the book. The book itself consists of sheets of vibrant purple paper made from her grandmother Violet’s clothing. Purple was her favorite color and wearing purple clothing was a big part of her identity. Lund’s book presents the reader with this identity in its purest form: Through the turning of page after page of purple paper, the reader is brought into a direct physical relationship with Violet through fibers that were once worn by her. The text is available for the curious, but the paper itself is what tells the story.
For all the artists whom I queried, the storytelling potential of handmade paper is a key element in their approach to making artist books. They understand that paper can be so much more than a substrate for content: it has the ability to contribute meaning though its physical properties. These properties, whether straightforward or subtle, are transferred directly to the hand and eye and ear of the reader to create an experience that could not be had with any other material.
1. All artist quotes in this article are taken from responses received via email to a questionnaire I sent out to eight West-Coast book artists in February–March 2020.