Paper: Nature as Muse and Medium
Priscilla Robinson is into process. As a plein air painter in the 1980s, she made all her own pastels. Now, as a successful ber artist, Priscilla spends hours, days and weeks creating her medium- paper. “As a plein air painter, I focused on panoramas. Now, I’m focused on the microcosm- the plant. Nature is my muse and medium.” Priscilla finds magic in the arduous transformation of plant into paper. With each step of the process, the fiber grows, shrinks, softens, hardens. It is a reminder that the material used to be alive and, in a way, the paper making process is a continuum of this life.
Here is how she does it.
To begin, most of the time, the idea starts before the choice of fiber. However, they are so intertwined it can be hard to tell which came first. It sounds ironic, but lately, I have been using my ipad to sketch patterns inspired by the repetition I see in nature. I then think of the mood I want the pattern to convey, which will then dictate what fiber I choose. For example, hemp is very rough while mulberry is very soft and delicate.
Once a fiber is chosen, I boil it in an alkaline solution in a Louisiana Cooker to remove the acidic properties and to soften the fibers. This gets rid of the impurities and boils the bers down to the cellulose- the part you actually want to work with. This typically takes 2 hours. I know it is ready when it can be pulled apart easily between my fingers. Then, I rinse it 7 or 8 times in a cool bath to remove the impurities that have boiled out.
After the fibers cool, they are poured into my Holland Beater for varying amounts of time. A Holland Beater grinds the fibers, physically attening them and filling them with water. You want the fibers filled with water so all the microscopic strands tangle up in themselves. To create over-beaten flax, the fibers are beaten for 14 hours. This creates high-shrinkage effcts and causes the paper to look similar to leather. If you want more fibers showing, it should be beaten for a shorter amount of time. That’s the fun of making paper; you can control the edge and the thickness. After beating, the mixture is transferred to a vat of water. This suspends the fibers and prepares for hydrogen bonding where the water acts as a glue.
Now, the mixture is ready to be strained in a mold. I make most of my molds; the different shapes and screens will dictate the thickness, size and shape of the paper. I love a deckled edge, so I use my triangle mold a lot to maximize this effect. I’m not making paper for typical use, so my screens don’t have to be completely even. Imperfect paper is more interesting for my purposes. I like a variation of depth. But if you are creating paper for traditional uses like stationary, you will need a professional mold that drains evenly. I have a copper and mahogany one that creates beautifully thin and even results.
The next step is to “couch” the paper. Couching is the technical term for lifting sheets of handmade paper onto the board on which they will be dried. The mold is flipped onto the drying table. I use a flat surface or a template if I want to create texture. I have dozens of templates carved into gator board or insulation foam with a dremel. Each mold has a separate pattern that is derived from the repetition I find in nature. The mixture fills in the recesses of the template and once it dries, the paper is textured with the pattern. If I am using a highly beaten fiber, the fibers will pool in the recesses but shrink away the relief, creating a translucent pattern.
Drying tables are very expensive. So, my drying table consists of a hose with punctured holes hooked up to a scuba tank with a drain faucet. It acts like a wet vac with more pressure. A layer of mesh and plastic is laid over the paper to create a drainage seal. This setup is outside; so drying times vary greatly with the temperature and humidity. I would say that the weather is the largest barrier to overcome in the whole process. Not only does it affect the paper, but it affects me too! In the summer, I can only make paper between 6am and noon. In the winter, I can look like the abominable snowman.
Once the drying table has removed most of the water and the fibers will no longer fall off the mold, I stand them up out in the sun to harden. That’s when the Texas heat is actually a plus! Then comes one of my favorite parts, pulling the paper off the mold. It easily peels off and then you have this incredible embossed surface to work with.
Depending on the desired effect, I paint the paper or leave it natural. I mix and thin my acrylics with water in a blender (as you can see from the very clean pictures of my studio), sometimes adding various mediums like reflector beads or interference pigments so the paint interacts with light interestingly and then I pour the mixture into a milk jug. I spread plastic down and cover the door with multiple sheets of embossed paper. The paint is poured over the paper right there on the door. I don’t use sizing, a gelatin substance to reduce absorption, because I want the paint to go all the way through the paper. If you are creating stationary or something similar, you will want to use sizing so the ink will not bleed. In my work, the paper is the substrate supporting the paint. Some colors sink faster than others, that difference creates natural changes in texture and color that I have learned how to control over the years.
The paper is now ready to be shaped, sewn or glued to wooden panels or grids that I also construct myself. Most of the time I hide the mounting techniques but sewing paper is so incredible that lately I have been exposing the stitches. The idea that paper is sourced from fibers just like fabric but has different properties is something that I am having fun exploring. Also, right now, a lot of my work is focused on reflections and how we see light. I use fused glass, mirrors and metallic foils to play with transparency and color in relation to fiber. I have a kiln behind my studio as well, but that’s a whole different story.