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Water, Pulp, Tools, Gesture, Sounds: A Conversation with Riccardo Ajossa

Winter 2019
Winter 2019
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Michael Durgin attended Oberlin College and Brown University, taught high-school English for a year, then had a career in software development for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in Washington, DC. His range of interests include book arts and handmade paper. He lives in Germany, where he volunteers in different capacities.

Riccardo Ajossa is an artist and professor in Rome. I met him in Halle, Germany in early 2019, at the opening of a thesis exhibition by one of his students. This dialogue is adapted from an online conversation we engaged in over the months that followed.

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michael durgin (md): Tell us your papermaking origin story. How and when were you first exposed to handmade paper and what compelled you to use this medium for your own work?
riccardo ajossa (ra): In 1996, I was awarded an art scholarship to attend Loughborough College of Art and Design in the UK. I took a course in the papermaking studio and fell in love with the technique. That studio became my comfort zone for the rest of the year. I was addicted to the calm concentration I experienced there. I started experimenting and playing with colored paper pulp and geometrical shapes, related to a printmaking edition. I haven’t stopped since.
I love the process and time spent in the studio. Often that practice of repetitive gestures related to papermaking helps me
develop ideas. md: What are some other ways you have used handmade paper in your work since that initial exposure?
ra: During my artistic practice I frequently mix high-quality fibers with less precious paper materials. Sometimes I transform negative things—such as rejection letters, old clothes, or photos—into paper. Creating new paper from these old items is a therapeutic way to write a new story, full of opportunities.
I often concentrate on the practice and the gesture, videotaping and presenting that as the work instead of the paper. I did so in May 2014 at Tonspur Passage MuseumsQuartier in Vienna during an exhibition held with writer and musician Esther Dischereit. The running video presented a paper mould floating on shallow water, letting the watermarks appear among the ripples and flashes of sunlight. The show was about the Second World War and the watermark depicted human lungs. The project came from an intuition I had about paper watermarks shaped like human organs: hearts, kidneys, and brains. These reference Primo Levi’s book If This Is a Man, in which he describes the conditions in concentration camps and the effects on those body parts.
I later placed some of those handmade watermarks and papers around the town of Taroudant, Morocco, in a site-specific installation. I took photographs of the papers next to local disadvantaged youth, creating a visual dialogue among them. The final work was photography, with my papers as one of the subjects.
I’ve always been socially committed and felt strongly the need to talk about minorities in contemporary society. Paper gives me the power to sustain the most persuasive or dangerous words, but it tears apart if mistreated, just as most human beings embody both power and fragility.
md: You are also using paper as a way to fix memory.
ra: Yes, I like to use my paper as a container; trapping flat objects between two freshly made sheets frames them forever. I created some artist books this way, such as the book of silence in 2012 when I experienced sorrow over a loved one confined to a hospital. I spent as much time there as possible, awaiting any sign of recovery. I wandered those large, crumbling corridors and rooms. Silence is all I remember.
I collected pieces of plaster, stickers, half-smoked cigarettes from the window sill, and fragments of paper. Early each morning I would form two sheets of mitsumata paper and press between them the items I had found the day before. I then documented where and when I found each item.
Memories of those days are vivid and clear. I look at this book and imagine myself finding my way around to deal with emotional pain, touching walls, looking for little signs related to time.
Papermaking is this for me: a fantastic medium for connecting and letting the emotions find a place to settle.
md: I also feel that you approach papermaking as a way to connect to nature. For example, through your use of natural dyes.
ra: I fell in love with Land Art during a graphic arts class. This opened my eyes to contemporary art and alternative ways to produce art. I developed a practice over the years of stepping out of the studio, walking through nature, collecting material, and printing trunks of trees, along with conducting research focusing on natural pigments and their interactions on handmade paper.
It’s important for each artist to relate to specific media; I found mine in papermaking and natural pigments. I have sought a way to work with those elements while making my expression richer, mixing papermaking with photography, video, and drawing. This has helped my research and meaning to emerge in a gentle way.
For fifteen years I have spent a lot of time in the countryside, on the shore, in the woods, looking for berries and other natural materials for dyes. My favorite is elderberry.
Riccardo Ajossa, art book colore estivo, 2016, 32 x 45 centimeters (12.6 x 17.7 inches), vintage stationery, handmade abaca paper, natural pigments.
After my walks, I document and list the colors I have produced with the items collected and their reactions with handmade paper. I fill journals documenting geographic areas and times of the year; groups of colors are organized by shades and intensity. In the end I depict the area through the colors that can be extracted, as if they were hidden in the environment. I document the time spent there as a way to show the feelings of being in that place. A memory.
md: Do you incorporate material collection and natural dyes into your curriculum with papermaking students at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome?
ra: Yes. I ask my students to try to do the same within their environments, whether rural or urban. They bring back to the studio things they have collected following their instincts. Sometimes it is fiber similar to kozo; I push them to produce paper, processing it while remembering it will represent where they have been. Often they bring dyeing elements and they produce colors, extracting all shades possible from one item or mixing several together. This helps them to fully experience nature and value the time invested in the search. It helps them to experiment with their paper and color production, too.
md: How long have you taught at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma and what range of subjects do you teach?
ra: I started my collaboration with Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma in 2001 as a tutor; I became a full professor in 2009. Early on, a colleague and I started the first hand-papermaking studio in Italian public education. Art students then did not have access to the few private studios scattered around Italy and did not have any idea about papermaking. We started simply, mixing pulp with a small kitchen blender and using little vats to produce papers.
Over the years, we have expanded the facility, even including professional Korean-style papermaking equipment. We invite other professionals to give workshops and we do collaborations with contemporary artists. Our goal has always been to include papermaking as a form of contemporary art. Our students can choose between making paper, documenting the production, archiving historic documentation, or creating contemporary art. They focus not just on the actual paper but on experiencing the elements that go into making it: water, pulp, tools, gesture, sounds.
After we held a master class in papermaking at the Biennale di Venezia in 2011, our studio helped paper become a fully recognized subject and we became a destination for those interested in paper. Our courses are popular, but the studio is very small and we have to limit the numbers.
md: Is that why you are starting the new program this fall?
ra: Yes, we are creating a specialist MA program, which enlarges the vision of papermaking, including specialties in restoration, natural pigmentation, and technical support for paper production on a large scale. We will start this program as an experiment with a small number of students and hope to extend the program to accommodate the growing interest.