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Performative Paper

Summer 2020
Summer 2020
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Michelle Samour has been teaching papermaking and working with handmade paper and pulp in her own practice for over 35 years. She is a professor of the practice at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts University, where she teaches innovative approaches to working with handmade paper. She has received artist fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a Society of Arts and Crafts New England Artist Award, and grants from the Cushman Family Fund and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to study historical papermaking in France and Japan. She exhibits her work internationally.

The process of making paper, from gathering and processing fibers to working with pulp, is by its very nature, performative. How papermakers (and paper artists) use their bodies to transform pulp into paper is unique to the movements and methods of each papermaker, whether mixing the pulp in the vat, pulling and shaking a sheet, or pouring and painting with pigmented pulp. Papermaking also has a long history as a collaborative process—from the traditional three-person production team in European paper mills to the shared pulling of oversized sheets in Japan—and when there is more than one papermaker at the vat, synchronicity of movement is essential to a good outcome.

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The process of making paper, from gathering and processing fibers to working with pulp, is by its very nature, performative. How papermakers (and paper artists) use their bodies to transform pulp into paper is unique to the movements and methods of each papermaker, whether mixing the pulp in the vat, pulling and shaking a sheet, or pouring and painting with pigmented pulp. Papermaking also has a long history as a collaborative process—from the traditional three-person production team in European paper mills to the shared pulling of oversized sheets in Japan—and when there is more than one papermaker at the vat, synchronicity of movement is essential to a good outcome.
Art theorist Dorothea von Hantelmann states that “today any artwork that in some formal, thematic, or structural way alludes to ideas of embodiment, enactment, staging, or theater is called performative. Any visual artwork that relates to a here-and-now, and thus in some way or another refers to the idea of performance without being a performance, is called a performative artwork.”1 The following examples look at different ways in which papermaking can be considered performative in nature, whether by solitary papermakers on their own, or a group of people enlisted to watch and participate in the papermaking actions.
Iwano Ichibei IX, a Japanese papermaker who makes Hosho-shi paper using locally grown kozo, is featured in a documentary film about papermaking in the Goka area of Echizen in Fukui prefecture. The film begins with Iwano sitting at a table with a group of friends, after a meal. Singing a traditional papermaking song, together they imitate the movements of forming a sheet of paper:
I’ve been learning papermaking since I was six or seven
But I still don’t know the right amount of neri to use
Be done, be done, the cicadas cry
As evening draws near
I want to finish but work is never finished here
Never, never finished, never finished here.2

I love this as an example of a shared experience. Though the individual papermakers bring their own nuances to forming their sheets (the papermaker’s “shake” for instance), there are basic movements that are universal. This shared knowledge is also exemplified in the making of large sheets of washi which can require anywhere from two to twelve or more papermakers. The same pair or group of papermakers typically work together for years, as they learn how to intuit one another’s movements to make perfect and consistent sheets. I was fortunate to visit with Iwano Ichibei IX in 2000 just after he had been designated a Living National Treasure, and to visit the Iwano Heizaburo mill where they make very large 42.5 x 77.5-inch sheets of paper for fusuma sliding doors. In 1926, they produced the largest paper of the time, measuring 5.4 square meters. Made for Waseda University Library in Tokyo, this Okafutokami paper was used for a wall installation with a painting by two renowned Japanese artists Yokoyama Taikan and Shimura Kanzan.3
In traditional Western sheetforming, the close working relationship of the vatman, coucher, and layer produces a synchronized series of efficient choreographed movements that maximize production output without sacrificing the quality of the finished sheet. Using two moulds and one deckle, the vatman forms a sheet of paper with one of the moulds fitted with the deckle, then lifts the deckle once the layer of pulp has settled enough, slides the mould across to the coucher, then fits the second mould with the deckle to immediately form another sheet. The coucher meanwhile transfers the first sheet of paper onto a damp felt, returns the empty mould back to the vatman, covers the sheet with another damp felt, and prepares to transfer the next sheet of paper. All the while the layer is responsible for separating the pressed sheets from the felts and returning the felts to the coucher.4
The actions involved in the creation of work by individual paper artists share similarities in regards to repetition and response to the raw materials and equipment used in the formation of the paper. Artist Peter Sowiski says, “I definitely feel I am in a performing mode when I work.

I work fairly large (3 x 4 feet), so I use a lot of leg motion, shifting my weight, and arm gestures while doing washes. Couple that with more detailed initial sketching with smaller tool use, and the fact that I work on up to four sections at a time can give rise to some considerable physicality in the process!”5 Sowiski has an array of DIY tools, many of which he has designed and made including what he calls “deli container lining tools” which are deli containers with rows of holes near the top, and an air hole in the lid, so

that he can lay out rows of lines of pulp, or diluted pulp washes at once. His “calligraphy slush brush” is a photo tray covered on the top with Plexiglas, and left open at the end with two layers of fringed Mylar, enabling him to lay out a swath of diluted pulps. These unique tools become a catalyst for Sowiski’s distinctive movements. “Suffice to say,” notes Sowiski, “this idiosyncratic arsenal lets me work with variation, speed, and often quite subjectively.”
Interdisciplinary artist Hong Hong works in sculpture, installation, and performance, in which papermaking is simply one means of inquiry. In her large 12 x 8-foot sheets that she pours outdoors, the dyed kozo responds to the changes in weather: sometimes the color fades in sunlight; dust and rain leave their mark. Fragments of recycled pieces are repurposed into her large paper works that are suggestive of the landscape. This relationship of the paper to its environment and its subsequent transformation, speaks to her interest in the temporal.
“In making any object or engaging in any experience you have to engage with time,” remarks Hong.6 “I’ve been asking myself can a performance be a performance if no one sees it?” In answer to her own question, Hong says, “I consider everything to be a performance whether the work is temporal, very ritualistic as a private experience, or if I’m trying to make objects that have a life of their own.” The notion of the body is essential in Hong’s process, a vehicle for giving life to work. “I think of each piece as a single breath, every pour records a breath of a day,” Hong explains, “like a fabric, like a weaving.”
In her 2019 exhibition “Dark Segment,” at Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut, Hong intervened and recomposed the works during the run of the show. Her interactions included shuffling anywhere from ten to thirty 12 x 8-foot sheets, like tarot cards, laying them out and then cutting into them. She describes the cuts as being intuitive and sometimes painful to do. Through this process she says that she is reintroducing vulnerability. Body, breath, birth, life, and death are held in her process. The resulting work is an artifact of the conversations between Hong and the work, but also a dialogue among the pieces of the work themselves.
This notion of transformation is also the premise behind Combat Paper, a project in which military service uniforms are turned into handmade paper. I was first introduced to this project in 2008 during a Friends of Dard Hunter conference in Washington, DC. Drew Cameron showed a video of his performance piece in which he stands on a street corner reading aloud one of his writings, created in response to his experience as an Iraq war veteran, while Jon Turner and Eli Wright cut Cameron’s combat fatigues off his body and turned its pieces into pulp. Cameron wanted to share the immediate elation he felt from this experience with other returning soldiers. This was the catalyst for the Combat Paper project initiated by Drew Cameron, Drew Matott, Johnny LaFalce, Eli Wright, Nathan Lewis, Jon Turner, Matt Howard, Mike Blake, and many others, working with war veterans and their communities across the country.7 Their work has expanded to include workshops in which participants are encouraged to bring their own personal materials to make into pulp, transforming them into paper and works of art. Cameron says “When we bring uniforms into papermaking in public, with people we’ve never met...the process of cutting apart uniforms for paper opens up conversations and makes connections.”8 Reflecting on the decade-long project, he notes, “Making paper from uniforms is an ongoing performance, open for exploring various techniques and projects within the field.” Cameron adds that “meeting veterans who actually employ performance as a serious aspect of their work has made me think otherwise about the focus of what I can present as a papermaker, teaching others to physically move through a series of actions for themselves. Papermaking can teach us incredible truths about people’s experiences and perspectives.”
Another form of performance in papermaking involves working collaboratively with individual artists in the studio. Amy Jacobs, Dieu Donné’s Co-Director of Artistic Projects and Master Collaborator, says that she sets aside her ego, becomes a coach, and acts as a technical advisor to help artists realize their work. Jacobs explains, “Because of the way [we set up the studio], artists can work on multiple pieces at once. There is a rhythm that develops. We don’t need to talk. You’re like a conductor, you’re just telling them what to do without being bossy or overbearing. It’s an unspoken language.”9 She continues, “The artists trust you to know what the medium can do and to support them in making the best work they can. With artists we’ve worked with, we have a rhythm, and we can push forward.”
Jacobs says that with some of the artists, the collaborative process and the action of making the work has involved more tightly choreographed movements, while others have been more free-form in nature. The artist Jarrod Beck, for example, uses his whole body when he is making his large work. There are two papermakers working with him at Dieu Donné, pulling very thin 40 x 60-inch sheets of abaca; everything has to be the perfect consistency. Jacobs describes, “The collaboration is almost like a wheel, layer after layer. Constantly watching him, anticipating his moves, moving quickly. Always action, always moving.”
Making paper is a physical endeavor, and the body’s integration in the process evidences itself in the final work. For some artists this process is more specifically performative, while for others, it is a series of repetitive movements that are a means to an end. I am reminded of the pioneers of post-modern dance who redefined the form, acknowledging and celebrating everyday movements and their repetition. In his article “WTF is...Performance Art?” cultural critic Kyle Chayka says, “If we were to assign performance art a single defining characteristic, it would probably be the fact that a piece of performance art must be centered on an action carried out or orchestrated by an artist, a time-based rather than permanent artistic gesture that has a beginning and an end. Documentation of the performance might live on forever, from photos and artifacts to full video documentation, but the performance itself is ephemeral.”10 As a living, breathing object, handmade paper is a substance originating from a performance and, at the same time, it is a record of that performance. Paper holds the memory of the maker and the making for the life of its existence, vulnerable to change and the infinite possibilities of transformation.

1. Dorothea von Hantelmann, “The Experiential Turn,” in On Performativity, edited by Elizabeth Carpenter, vol. 1 of Living Collections Catalogue (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2014). (accessed November 29, 2019).
2. Echizen Washi, a documentary film sponsored by the Fukui-ken Japanese Paper Industrial Co-operative (Center for Ethnological Visual Documentation, circa 1985–1989), VHS video cassette, 56 min.
3. “Echizen Washi: Handmade Paper from Echizen,” online publication by Kyoto Women’s University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory (Kyoto, Japan, 2017). (accessed November 29, 2019).
4. To see this choreography in action at Hayle Mill in England, watch this film shot in 1976:
_err_watch_on_yt (accessed February 2, 2020). Papermaking segment starts at 3:10.
5. Peter Sowiski, email message to the author, August 28, 2019.
6. Hong Hong, phone conversation with the author, October 10, 2019. At
the time of our call, she was in a three-month residency at the Morgan Art of Papermaking Conservatory & Educational Foundation in Cleveland.
7. Sandy Kinnee, “ON the Combat Paper Project: Repairing Bridges,” in Hand Papermaking, vol. 24, no. 1 (Summer 2009): 12–15.
8. Drew Cameron, email message to the author, October 25, 2019.
9. Amy Jacobs, phone conversation with the author, September 5, 2019.
10. Kyle Chayka,“WTF is…Performance Art?” Hyperallergic website, dated May 24, 2011. (accessed
November 29, 2019).