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Teaching Papermaking Online

Winter 2010
Winter 2010
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Carol Brighton is an artist, papermaker, and educator. She has taught papermaking in the summer-session studio class at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco since 2003, and has taught the on-line version of this class for four years since its inception. Brighton is co-founder of the Paper Road/ Tibet project, where she taught papermaking in Tibet, helping to complete a papermaking studio and reintroduce papermaking. Her handmade papers and prints were recently shown at the Ren Brown Collection Gallery in Bodega Bay, California.  Teaching papermaking online? That's strange. How does that work? For the past two thousand years the technology of hand papermaking has passed from master to apprentice and from artisan to artisan in an atmosphere humming with activity and pungent with the aromatics of cooked fibers and wet paper pulp. Now, papermaking is being taught long distance, electronically. The teacher is pecking away at a keyboard instead of standing in front of a vat, and the students can be thousands of miles away. This is my fourth semester teaching papermaking online for the Academy of Art University (AAU) in San Francisco. The students are from all over the country, from snowy Montana to sunny Florida, and we have discovered that long-distance learning does work.

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Online learning (OL) is a unique environment. OL requires a mind-centered way of teaching, in contrast to the hands-on activity of studio instruction. The curriculum for the online papermaking class is generally the same as for the studio setting, but my instruction is written rather than spoken. OL teaching is much quieter, in solitude, at home at my desk, at a time I choose. While the inspiring connection that happens in a "live" studio environment can happen online, I miss the spontaneous contact that engenders creative exchange, and the communal laughter that regularly occurs in a group studio setting. When I teach online I sometimes feel a gap from not being present with the students. However, it is a trade off. For the student, OL classes offer the major benefit of flexibility. Many of the students are new parents returning to school. As artists raising young children, they make studio space on countertops just emptied of household appliances. Many of the online students have full-time jobs that allow them spare time for class only in the evenings or on weekends. Papermaking is not offered in many schools, and many students are geographically remote from schools that do offer studio papermaking classes. A number of the students simply could not have learned papermaking with a teacher without an OL class. As an OL instructor I support the students in their work via written discussions and help them to realize their ideas in paper. The challenge for the OL teacher is to get a sense of how the student sees and understands via correspondence. Sometimes a couple rounds of messages are necessary to ascertain the question and to ensure that the answer is understood, especially if the student is new to online learning and just getting the hang of it. This is the main difference from being in the room when you can see the response immediately. Giving good and speedy feedback is important to reassure the long-distance student that we are on track together with the coursework. At left, Carol Brighton demonstrates Himalayan papermaking with inclusions; at right, master papermaker David Kimball of Magnolia Paper in Oakland, California shows innovative uses of the sugeta. Several experts give video instruction as part of a supplemental DVD for the online class. Courtesy Academy of Art University, San Francisco. I enjoy the process. The creative aspect of teaching papermaking online is in the writing and in thinking about the student's ideas, rather than in on-the-spot demonstrations of technique. We are in a virtual classroom and the excitement and fun of papermaking prevails. I find it very satisfying and take pride when a student "gets it," falls in love with papermaking, and is inspired to explore materials and techniques beyond the outlines of the curriculum. This happens, electronic teaching notwithstanding. On-site studio papermaking classes were first taught at the AAU by Charlene Modena in 1982. The OL class parallels the studio class and follows a similar syllabus. Modena wrote the OL course, with assistance from Jason Kaneshiro and Charles Curtis from the Cyber campus. The technical aspect of the program was thoughtfully planned, carefully prepared, and well organized by a team of studio teachers and computer experts. Each semester students receive a syllabus for a 15-week class and a 24-hour phone number for technical help. They can view an outline of all the assignments and a schedule for the work. The weekly assignments are posted for the entire semester so students can take note of what to expect, and also review previous work. The students complete the assignments and exercises and submit them to me digitally. I can read the images of student work fairly well online, depending on the student's photography skills. However paper texture is difficult to decipher from digital reproductions. This is where my experience as a papermaker is valuable. For example, I know how kozo should look and feel. I can usually tell how well the paper was made, how long the fibers were beaten, and if the fibers are evenly distributed, even in a digital image. So, while there is a loss of the subtle sense of the paper, experience helps to make up for that. The students download videos or view DVDs of papermaking demonstrations from a variety of instructors. I was videotaped cooking kozo and giving a Himalayan papermaking demo. David Kimball of Magnolia Editions provided a variety show of papermaking fun, and several other teachers have been documented giving salient video demonstrations. As I do with my regular studio classes, I assign Helen Hiebert's The Papermaker's Companion as a textbook. Hiebert's lucid and simple manual has proven to be an invaluable resource. The students start the semester by posting images of previous work and introducing themselves. This initiates a community dialogue and the students establish a reference point with each other. I email a weekly schedule of studio work and reading assignments at the beginning of each week. After the students complete the assignments they send in jpeg images of their work, along with comments, discussion, and questions. The computer program provides a marking tool so I can circle areas and make comments on-screen. Discussion boards create an open conversation between the students in the class, and the "student lounge" section of the site is a place for the students to socialize on non-class related topics. At the midterm students send to me in the mail a hard copy of their papermaker's sample book. I can see real evidence of what they are producing and monitor how their technical skills are progressing. OL learning requires the attributes that all artists need to develop: independence, self-reliance, motivation, and discipline. They make their own studios in their homes, ordering supplies from papermaking suppliers and getting what they can at the local hardware stores. The OL students do not simply walk into a prepared studio on campus. At the end of the day they cannot walk away from the full vats and the wet pulp; they live with it. The OL students learn to incorporate the routines of studio in the home. While the students work solo in their separate places, they are not alone. They have the online community for feedback and commiseration. Having stepped into the ancient stream of papermaking history via modern electronic means, the online student is trained and prepared to contribute to culture, connecting to the resources of the earth and to their own creative process. Jemina Watstein, May 15, 2008 from the series Looking at Landfill, 2008, 11 x 37 inches, inkjet photo on handmade recycled paper. Watstein, an MFA photo major, was interested in employing low-impact processes in the production of her series documenting the progression of the Flathead Valley Landfill. Brighton mentored Watstein online, under the Directed Study Program, in the fabrication of recycled paper suitable for inkjet printing. Courtesy of the artist. Marilyn Miller, Picnic at Anderson Marsh, 2009, 28 x 28 x 12 inches, handmade paper made from teasel, cattail, milkweed, and sedge grass, all harvested from Anderson Marsh; dried samples of raw fiber; place cards: handmade kozo paper; napkins: patinaed copper leaf; cups: milkweed pods lined with patinaed copper leaf; bouquet: oak gall "eggs," dried blackberries; acorn tops filled with rose hips; handmade ceramic wine bottle; Lake Country Diamonds; gold ink. As a sculpture student who takes daily walks to the marsh near her home, Miller saw the possibilities of turning the marsh's plants into paper. She worked with Brighton through the OL class to produce sculptural installations using the marsh's fibers. Courtesy of the artist.