by Ingrid Evans
About 2000 years ago in China someone discovered that plant fibers suspended in water could be gathered on a frame, and after the water drained and the fibers dried, one had a piece of paper. This process was greatly improved upon and carefully guarded for over 600 years. The mechanics for each of these stages have been further developed over time and are today a far cry from those early beginnings.
Eventually, two different papermaking traditions developed: Oriental and Western, based on different requirements and fibers. In China and Japan, paper carried water-based ink applied with soft brushes; in Europe, after the advent of the printing press, paper had to withstand the application of oily symbols affixed under great pressure. Today, contemporary artists often incorporate aspects from both traditions to find their own methods and language that best express their concepts.
Methods for hand papermaking are much the same as they were centuries ago – give or take a few mechanical devices and some chemicals. Paper is made from all sorts of fibers. The cell walls need to be broken down, either chemically or mechanically, so that the fractured fibers can be suspended in water, dipped out, and deposited as sheets or whatever shape one might decide. Some people recycle existing paper of all sorts – - an environmentally correct procedure, but generally an archival nightmare.
On the commercial side: the 70s saw many artists turn to places like Tyler Graphics, for instance, to explore the results they could achieve with handmade paper. David Hockney made some of his swimming pools there, and Robert Rauschenberg created his fused pieces with colored pulp from various fibers. To name just a few, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Arneson all worked with paper pulp as substrate or sculptural medium.
Ideally, one has access to some fairly elaborate equipment, but many artists have constructed their own devices for specific needs. There is a lot of material available on virtually every aspect of hand papermaking. Many suppliers sell books and monographs, even dry fibers.
Much of what is done today in this field began in the early 60s at the Cranbrook Academy of Art where Lawrence Barker established the first legitimate college papermaking facility as adjunct to the printmaking department. Here, students began to work with shaped molds and relief elements in an environment conducive to experimentation. Since then, many artists have experimented with handmade paper, usually in professional workshops equipped with elaborate and expensive equipment. Some have set up their own papermaking studios designed for their specific needs.