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Working for Free Can Be a Valuable Thing: Interning in a Paper Studio

Winter 2010
Winter 2010
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Lisa Switalski spent three years as the assistant papermaker and binder at the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions at Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey. She has taught papermaking, artist books, and letterpress printing at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, and papermaking workshops at the Center for Contemporary Printmaking and Columbia College Chicago. She holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Book and Paper Arts from Columbia College Chicago. Her work includes artist books, installations, and a variety of works in handmade paper.  A papermaking intern is often represented in studio photographs by the image of an anonymous arm in the frame. While it speaks to the sometimes "invisible" nature of being an intern, it tells us very little of the individuals who choose to work and learn this way, either for credit or no wages, sometimes doing the dirtiest chores in the paper studio. Having been an intern myself eight years ago at Women's Studio Workshop, I have my own reflections on the topic, but I wanted a broader perspective for this article. So I turned to many of the twenty-some interns I have worked with closely since I began as the assistant papermaker at the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions (BCIE) in June 2007. We discussed how internships differed from other opportunities, what they had learned from their experiences, and what they thought of papermaking now.

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The Brodsky Center (or Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper, as it was formerly titled) is a professional studio where artists come to produce new work in collaboration with Master Papermaker Anne McKeown and Master Printer Randy Hemminghaus. The Center is part of the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University in New Jersey. Many of the interns are Rutgers students seeking credit, experience, or both. Occasionally, especially during the summer, students from other institutions intern here as well. During the semester, we require that interns come for a minimum of three consecutive hours per week. They are welcome to come for many more, and some do. The total number of interns fluctuates each semester, but generally interns contribute the equivalent of one assistant's time, four days a week. Many people are instantly attracted to the papermaking studio, even on cursory tours, when they see people wearing boots and spraying water seemingly with abandon. The materiality and immediacy of making a sheet of paper may conceal the manual labor integral to papermaking, but interns quickly learn of this aspect of the process. Dale Klein, an alumna of Rutgers' Mason Gross School of the Arts MFA program, describes the distinction between being a student and an intern this way: "The one thing about internships is that you learn from the bottom up—you learn everything about the process from the correct way to set up the system, to doing the process, to cleaning up. In a classroom situation the situation is sometimes set up for you." She continues, "In an internship you often do a task over and over again and have the opportunity to actually master that task." It may be something as simple as spraying a Pellon, but as anyone who has made paper knows, even a mundane step such as this is essential in making well-crafted sheets. This is not to say that interning is all about performing menial jobs. However, having a high tolerance or, indeed, enjoyment of repetitive tasks can certainly be an asset. Some projects undertaken at the Brodsky Center are designed to be short term, with proofs developed and editions of twenty to thirty completed within two weeks. Other, more elaborate projects, such as large-scale works on paper, portfolios, and artist books are completed and signed by the artists a year or two after the projects are first discussed. Some interns will spend almost all of their time working on one project, while others will see and participate in multiple works in progress. An example of a recent long-term project is The Missing Portrait, an artist book by artist Richard Tuttle and poet John Yau. Randy Hemminghaus and Anne McKeown collaborated on the book, and I designed the binding. It is an elaborate work combining letterpress, lithography, and silkscreen processes with tipped-in images of handmade paper and custom-made endsheets. The first thing a viewer notices is the sculptural cover: castcotton paper lizards that wrap around the front and back covers. Including the edition, artist proofs, and publication proofs, there are 23 books with 46 covers. These lizards—after being formed in latex molds, attached to handmade paper boards, and dried under weight—were covered with tissue-thin gampi paper, printed with a scale pattern. Each book required a minimum of sixteen hours to "wallpaper." Many steady hands, employing X-acto knives and tweezers, helped with this meticulous labor. Naqeeb Ambrose Stevens, an undergraduate at Rutgers, had this to say about his work on the project: "It requires an intense act of looking, which the Tuttle books also helped me develop." When asked about skills that he took away from interning, "patience" ranked high on Naqeeb's list. Another intern on this project, Sarika Sugla, an undergraduate student at Maryland Institute College of Art, commented that the creatures had entered into her dreams, scampering away before she could finish covering them with their printed skin. Interns often incorporate papermaking in their own artwork. Chris Guerra, a graduate student, includes pulp in his mixedmedia sculptures and installations. "While working as an intern in the Brodsky Center," stated Guerra, "I have learned more than I could in the ‘normal' school system." Rutgers alumna Michiko Mull creates organic forms using that wonderful substance, overbeaten abaca. As evidenced by her devotion to the paper studio as student, intern, and volunteer, I can confidently say that her seduction by the medium has been total. "I've found papermaking to be one of the most interesting and exciting techniques within the field of fine arts," Mull noted. "What makes papermaking most distinctive is the necessary yet intimate unfolding of dialogue between artist and medium." As BCIE's assistant papermaker, I have found it thrilling to introduce so many people to something I continue to feel passionate about. My own seduction by the process began with a weeklong intensive class with Andrea Peterson at Ox-Bow in 2002 after I graduated from college. Ten hours a day for seven days, we made paper; cooked kozo in iron cauldrons; made pulp from corn, cotton, abaca, and wheat straw; and formed huge sheets in a lagoon. I spent the rest of the summer with my head reeling from it all. I also spent the summer waiting anxiously to hear from the one opportunity I had applied for: a five-month-long internship at the Women's Studio Workshop (WSW) in Rosendale, New York. Luckily I got in. My experience at WSW differed from that of the Rutgers interns I have featured in this article. At WSW I worked full time at, lived next door to, and spent much of my free time in the studios. While I will not detail all of the tasks that I undertook during those five months, highlights include inventorying twenty years of artist books and my further training and time in the paper studio. (Scrubbing toilets and replanting huge poles in cement certainly left an impression as well; helping to maintain non-profit studios requires a tremendous amount of elbow grease.) Looking back at my former self, I chuckle at the overconfidence I had when I arrived at WSW. I am still blown away by how much Andrea Peterson packed into my class at Ox-Bow, but it was just one week. I had an inflated sense of my capabilities until Tana Kellner, WSW's artistic director, gave me and two other interns some lessons in production papermaking for the studio. I could barely lift the large mould out of the vat. I had a lot to learn about the process. When our first sheets dried, Tana took the stack to a light box for examination. One by one, we watched the sheets being placed in piles of "firsts" (up to WSW standards), "seconds" (sellable for reduced rate), and "thirds" (essentially useless). The "thirds" pile was hideously large. In the following months, I learned my way around the studio, followed recipes to make luscious papers of rye and corn fibers from WSW's Artfarm down the road, and undertook the design and production of the largest work I had attempted until then. Without the structure of a classroom and accompanying deadlines, I found myself sustaining a longer-term project on my own for the first time. That, and the combination of being surrounded by so many artists with true commitments to their work and themselves as artists, made this a transformative experience for me. By the time I had installed the hundreds of little dresses I had created for the WSW intern show, I was seriously researching graduate programs in book and paper arts. In 2007 I acquired an MFA in book and paper from Columbia College Chicago and then headed to BCIE to train interns as part of my duties as assistant papermaker. I have learned that each internship is slightly different. It is important to read people's comfort levels and to challenge them without being overwhelming. Some people jump right into unfamiliar territory and adapt to what is asked of them, others need more coaxing to feel confident. Studio work often requires teamwork. Coordinating the successful pulling of oversized sheets of paper remains a good test of how well a group functions. Internships are a good way to understand your commitment to the medium. If after rinsing Pellon or picking debris from sheets for eight straight hours, you wake up wanting to return to the studio, you have learned something valuable about your interest level. To conclude, I would like to offer these, my own tenets of Being a Good Intern: 1. Show up. On time. 2. Be alert. While we do not encourage addiction, we heartily favor coffee consumption. 3. Be flexible. Adapt to the task at hand as best as you can. 4. Even when doing the grunt work, pay attention and ask questions. 5. Clean up after your task, even when not explicitly told to do so. 6. If you are awaiting further instruction, you can rarely go wrong with more cleaning. 7. If you treat even the most mundane tasks with enthusiasm, care, and accuracy, you will demonstrate your skill and interest, and you will be entrusted with the more exciting and important stuff. The author wishes to thank all of the interns past and present at the Brodsky Center, especially those who offered their opinions and photos for this article. Special thanks to Moirin Reynolds for Intern Tenet Number 7.