“I am struck by the way oral histories contain so many details.”1 Paper Talk podcast host Helen Hiebert made this observation to me when she compared her experience of interviewing Elisabeth King about her father Douglass Morse Howell to reading “Douglass Morse Howell: Breaking the Mould,” an essay I contributed to Papermaker’s Tears(vol. 1).2 Indeed, tangential details, flourishes, and personal embellishments are edited or removed as the chronicler summarizes and gives just the right amount of biographical context to make a subject understandable. Recording an oral history is distinct from this exercise of interpreting first-person accounts.Oral histories contribute to a richer understanding of the nuances of a community by examining the personal past of multiple narrators, without interpretation.
Helen Hiebert, a meticulous hand papermaker, as well as author, artist, and teacher, has, since2016, interviewed over 70 renowned and influential papermakers, paper and book artists, paper engineers, paper designers, and paper entrepreneurs for her serial podcast Paper Talk. While many podcasts cannot be classified as oral history, Hiebert’s interviews emphasize collecting life stories from her subjects, which contribute to understanding their contemporary experiences. Hiebert guides the dialogue, discussing not only the technical information relevant to papermaking, but also drawing out personal realizations from her subjects regarding creative and professional development.
Paper Talk is not the first podcast to feature papermakers—Steve Miller recorded many papermakers, including Hiebert, as part of his Book Artists and Poets podcast in the early 2000s, produced with the support of University of Alabama.3 Nor is Hiebert the first to conduct field recordings with papermakers—Susan Gosin tape-recorded a number of papermakers and artists in the late 1990s into the 2000s with the aim of writing a history of paper pulp as an artistic medium in the United States.4 Other significant documentarians include Elaine and Sidney Koretsky who produced a series of films based on video recordings of their paper travels around the world; their films directly inspired Hiebert to begin her podcast.5 Hiebert’s project is unique in that it is a combination of being centered on collecting and making accessible the oral histories of practitioners in our field; it is self-produced without institutional support of a university or library (so far); the audio recording is the essential experiential format of her interviews; and the Paper Talk podcast library is growing, with a new episode every three weeks.
In our interview, Hiebert revealed details about her upbringing in college town Texas, early crafting and entrepreneurship, her desire to be an architect and interest in math, her days studying art at the University of the South, her eye-opening exchange study in Mainz, Germany where she explored paper as an artistic medium, and finally a visit to Japan that sealed her wonder and fascination with paper and light. Her interests and artistic pursuits continually returned her to working with paper, first in the commercial printing industry and later at Dieu Donn Papermill, both in New York City, before her move West to Portland, Oregon, and now, living near Vail, Colorado. I interviewed Helen Hiebert by Zoom onDecember 3, 2020. This excerpted interview begins with my asking her to elaborate on her blog.
nicole donnelly (nd): Let’s talk about your work as a writer, moving from print books (ThePapermaker’s Companion, et cetera) to your website and blog. Since I’ve known you, you’ve been very active on your blog The Sunday Paper. Can you talk about what impulse or curiosity that satisfies, maybe how you think about that as a weekly exercise, or how it ties into your professional activities?
helen hiebert (hh): We moved to Colorado in 2012, and I started [the blog] in 2013. I networked in the community, which is a resort area, so the population ebbs and flows. There are a few local art centers, but I began to realize that the how-to books about paper that I’d written gave me an international audience that I could connect with online. A lot of artists were writing blogs then, and I felt I could fill a niche by sharing what other people are doing with paper. I started blogging about one of my projects first—my Mother Tree installation—and then decided to commit to blogging every week. I came up with a format. Basically, I feature five different things every week; that’s stayed the same. A few other things have come and gone, and I’m still interested in it, so I’m still doing it. Since I make a living as an artist, the blog is part of my business. I let my readers know what I’m working on and generate income by telling them about my online classes, my new book coming out.
nd: That’s quite a bit of research. How do you find things, people of interest?
hh: That was a big stumbling block in the beginning. I have alerts set up, and I hear about interesting ‘paper facts’ on Facebook and Instagram, and sometimes people write to me and share interesting stories. I have a running list of items now that I go to every week.
nd: As opposed to writing a book, how is writing for your blog different? What are you trying to share?
hh: It all goes back to that class [in Germany], the versatility of paper, and what can be done with paper. It’s just amazing the different ways people think about and use paper: some are interested in sustainability, others create paper sculpture, some simply use paper as substrate, and there are those who are making crazy kinds of paper. The variety still holds my interest, and that of my readers too. A big part of why I write the weekly blog is that it creates a community. It’s fun to have that network.
nd: So how did you segue into the podcasts?
hh: This was again after we moved [to Colorado]. I have to drive to my studio, about half an hour each way. My friends and other artists were talking about listening to podcasts. I never really listen to music, but on that drive to the studio, I listen to the radio. And when I’m in the studio, depending on what I’m doing, I can’t listen to anything, when I’m trying to think about something. But for mundane papermaking I can listen, so I started listening to podcasts. I don’t remember exactly why I thought I should do a podcast. I really just wanted to record the voices of our time, you know, the papermakers. So it was about getting the voices and their stories down, orally.
I was traveling to teach quite a bit, and I did all the interviews in person for the first two years. I have these technology phobias and was worried about doing online interviews. But when I commit to something, I really want to commit to it. I was listening to Fresh Air, and a bunch of different craft and business podcasts, and I got ideas from those. Paper Talk is different from a lot of podcasts that have different “features”; I focus on the story of the person’s life. I have recently started “recommendations” because I think that’s fun and perhaps a way to get people to listen to the end.
My first interview was with Catherine Nash in Tucson, when I had a teaching engagement there. I’m up to episode 60-something now.
nd: Did you have an idea it was going to become a regular series?
hh: Yes, and I did everything myself for a couple of years. Now I have an editor, which helps with the workflow, by giving me some accountability. I started publishing one episode a month, and now I release one every three weeks. [For the first 24 episodes] I usually did the interviews in the papermaker’s workspace. I took short “show-me-your-studio” videos to post with the show notes on my website, because the studios are so interesting to see, too.
nd: It’s fascinating you’ve been able to visit so many individual studios. Obviously, an oral history isn’t able to show a listener everything, but the fact that you were able to see those [studios], that informs and affects the interview in a pretty significant way. I’m also interested in documenting the community of papermakers. There are different approaches to it, but our craft tradition is intangible cultural heritage. It has to be physically learned, and embodied, and then passed on. Oral history, these podcasts, are also intangible. We have this pedagogical model of mentor– apprentice or teacher–student, where a person can learn the craft and embody it. So, I’m wondering, where do you feel these interviews and podcasts fall in terms of communicating what we do?
hh: When you listen and hear what people have done, you learn a lot. One way that I learn is by studying what other artists have done, how they’ve gotten to where they are, how they performed a particular technique. My interviews stem from what I know about the person I’m interviewing (and the research I do beforehand), what I’m interested in pertaining to their work, and I try to explore the arc of what they’ve done with paper. I do want to mention that I’ve broadened Paper Talk to include not just papermakers, but other paper artists, because my work relates to all kinds of paper art. If the listener has made paper, they can pick up details about the process when listening to these interviews. I’ve had people comment that they’ve heard something that I didn’t even hear when conducting the interview, a detail that didn’t strike me because it’s just not something I’m particularly interested in. I think it’s personal what you can glean from an episode.
nd: I’m drawing a parallel. Earlier you described reverse engineering creative projects in your books and classes in order to give them back to the student. I’m thinking the interview process is sort of similar. You, as the interviewer, have seen this person’s work and what they do, and then you’re able to go back and ask—“well, how did you do that, and why is this?”—to lay that out for the listener.
hh: Yes, that’s exactly right. I didn’t start out with a grand plan of how to do the interviews, and I never read up on how to do oral histories; it’s been more of an intuitive process.
nd: So has there been anybody who truly surprised you or been a favorite interview subject?
hh: You know, I think they’re all interesting. There are people I really admire, like Peter Gentenaar. I got to go to Holland to interview him and his wife [Pat Torley]. Matt Simpson runs Green Banana Paper in Micronesia. He did Teach for America and then wanted to employ people because he realized they had to go off island to send money home, and he started this company, making banana fiber paper (I think he learned from my book). Laurence Barker was a delight to interview, especially because he was so influential in the early days of hand papermaking. There are some young people like Stephanie Hare who runs SHare Studios in Philadelphia. She’s got a great business. I interviewed Kathryn and Howard Clark of Twinrocker last summer. I got to interview Richard Flavin before he died, which was amazing.
I love the work of Douglass Howell, and I know you’ve researched and written about him, so it was cool to interview his daughter [Elisabeth King], and learn some interesting details about his life. I never met Douglass, but I admire his work and share an interest in shrinkage and other qualities of paper that he explored. nd: Ingathering people’s stories, you’re hunting for things you’re interested in. But what are some things that you find yourself getting more interested in, or is there an interest that has developed over time?
hh: Sometimes an interview will lead me to another person or an aspect of paper or papermaking. It’s been organic. I don’t plan too far ahead. I have two or three people set up that I’m going to interview, and I am doing most of the interviews on Zoom now.6 I love doing the interviews, but I do have a little anxiety leading up to them, wondering whether the outline I’ve prepared is adequate, will we get sidetracked, et cetera. ButI usually feel totally comfortable once the interview begins. Sometimes I’ll find something [surprising] out. I don’t think I gave you an answer to the question.
nd: You’ve answered something else, though. When we’re caught up in the formality of doing something, versus trusting our intuitive process, it’s good to have a structure in place, to lean on.
Have any of these interviews produced some sort of greater collaboration? Obviously, you’re building a stronger relationship with that person, but in terms of sharing ideas, where that becomes a direct or indirect result.
hh: It has given mea chance to get to know people better. I have a new book coming out, not about papermaking but about papercrafts, and I’ve interviewed several of the artists who are contributing projects that will appear in that book, and I will have all of them on the podcast eventually. There are 25 guest artists, and I love that kind of cross-pollination. I’ve created an annual calendar called The Paper Year, and I’m taking it online in 2021 as a subscription club. That’s going to have a community component where everybody gets to share what they’ve made that month, and I’m going to have four guest artists. Two of them have been on the podcast. I do have another dream, that relates to my early work in commercial printing, where I learned how to design and layout print jobs on sheets of paper. I’d love to have paper engineers come to the studio to explore what we could do with engineering in handmade paper, and to perhaps create an artist book together. Karen Kunc and I did a project like this, where I did the papermaking, she did the printing, and we figured out how to engineer it together.
nd: That’s an exciting prospect. In terms of preserving these interviews, and thinking about the craft of hand papermaking, what are you hoping that somebody is going to get from this? Who is the ideal receiver?
hh: Sometimes I wonder why I am doing this podcast series—it might be better suited for an organization. But I felt it was important to record these stories, so I just decided to do it. Since I make artist books that are housed in special collections libraries, maybe someday my archive will go to one of those. I would consider Paper Talk to be part of my archive. But if between now and then, I run into an institution that would like to partner with me to get these interviews out to a wider audience, and help with the production, that would be great.
And for teachers—since you’ve been on the pedagogy kick—I know that students are often assigned to write about a papermaker, and these podcast episodes could aid in their research. I think it’s exciting to hear about a papermaker’s life and career in their own voice.
All episodes of Helen Hiebert’s Paper Talk podcast are available for listening on Hiebert’s website, https://helenhiebertstudio.com/podcast/. In addition, full transcripts of a selected number of episodes are available on Hand Papermaking’s website as well as on Hiebert’s website. This transcription project was a collaborative effort by Helen Hiebert and Hand Papermaking, as a supplement to the Oral Histories issue of Hand Papermaking magazine.
1. Helen Hiebert, email correspondence with the author, December 3, 2020.
2. Papermaker’s Tears: Essays on the Art and Craft of Paper is a series, published by TheLegacy Press, edited by Tatiana Ginsberg. Volume 1 was published in 2019.
3. All 104 episodes of Steve Miller’s Book Artists and Poets podcast are available for listening on iTunes. For more information, go to Red Hydra Press website, www.redhydrapress.com/book-artists-poets-podcasts.
4. Susan Gosin drew on her recorded interviews for “Profiles in Paper,” a regular column she contributed to Hand Papermaking Newsletter, from July 2005 to January 2010.
5. Editor’s note: See Johan Solberg’s article on the Koretskys’ films in this issue of the magazine, starting on page 11.]
6. Hiebert’s first Zoom interview featured Paper For Water (episode no. 29) in the fall of 2018.
Catherine Nash, Basho’s Moon, 2013, 56 x 68 x 9 inches, handmade gampi paper cast onto lashed willow branches, lashed creosote branches. Photo by and courtesy of the artist. Paper Talk podcast episode no. 1 featured Catherine Nash, whom Hiebert interviewed on February 13, 2016 in Tuscon, Arizona.
Peter Gentenaar’s sculptures in the Gentenaar/Torley studio in Delft,
Holland. Hiebert interviewed Gentenaar and Torley in March 2018.
Back when she conducted in-person interviews, Hiebert had artists
give her short video tours of their studios. All photos courtesy of
Helen Hiebert unless otherwise noted. below: Peter Gentenaar and
Pat Torley in their shared studio space in Delft, Holland, March 2018.
Left to right: Pat Torley, Peter Gentenaar, and Helen Hiebert; in front of the home of
Torley and Gentenaar in Delft, Holland, March 2018, after recording an episode of Paper
Talk.Photo: Ted Katauskas.
Interluceo, 2015, 93/16 x 9 3/16 inches, artist book with seven paper cut illustrations by Be atrice Coron and handmade abaca/cottonpapers with watermarks by Helen
Hiebert. Edition of 25. Interluceo is defined as to shine or gleam between, to be transparent, to let light through gaps. Hiebert interviewed Coron for Paper Talk in
Nicole Donnelly, Stories of Waterfalls, 2009, a handmade paper triptych, discussed in
the first episode of a two-part Paper Talk interview with the author and Helen Hiebert
in October 2020. The work is abaca and kozo papers with pulp painting and encaustic.
Courtesy of the artist.
Author NicoleDonnelly (left) interviewing Helen Hiebert (right) about Hiebert’s
Paper Talk podcast, over Zoom, December 3, 2020. Courtesy of Nicole Donnelly and
Catherine Nash, Basho’s Moon, 2013, 56 x 68 x 9 inches, handmade
gampi paper cast onto lashed willow branches, lashed creosote
branches. Photo by and courtesy of the artist. Paper Talk podcast
episode no. 1featured Catherine Nash, whom Hiebert interviewed on
February13, 2016 in Tuscon, Arizona.
Richard Flavin in front of his work at Gallery Sind in Tokyo, Japan
in December 2019, when Hiebert interviewed Flavin for Paper Talk
episode no. 53. Photo: Ryoko Haraguchi.