Beverly Sky | Brickbottom Artists
Aspen Woodlands, HMP, 30" x 66", 1990  
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Hand Papermaking Magazine, Winter, 2006,

Material into Content: Pulp Painting Today

by Jane Glaubinger

The following text has been adapted from the author's essay accompanying Hand Papermaking Magazine's recently published limited-edition portfolio entitled The Art of Pulp Painting. In addition to the essay, the portfolio includes 18 pulp paintings and statements by the contributing artists outlining their aesthetic and technical considerations. Ed. (For the complete text of this article go to: www.handpapermaking.org)

In the 1960s a spirit of experimentation in American art included an intense exploration of paper's characteristics-its malleability, texture, weight, and color-which resulted in innovative and intriguing works of art. This development was fostered by a revival in hand papermaking.

While Dard Hunter was the pioneer, establishing his Lime Rock mill in 1928, it was Douglas Morse Howell who began to explore the creative possibilities of paper pulp in the 1950s.

Howell experimented with sculptural pieces constructed from string and wood dipped into vats of paper pulp. He also "painted" with the pulp in myriad ways. He re-immersed the mould into separate vats of different colored pulp, creating patterns with a template, or poured colored pulp into areas shaped by copper fences. In 1955 these "papetries" were shown at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, possibly the first exhibition of contemporary handmade paper art in America. Howell shared his enthusiasm and technical expertise with students like Laurence Barker who, in turn, taught numerous neophytes. Knowledge of hand papermaking then spread rapidly so that by 1979 there were 22 workshops coast to coast at which an interest in making beautiful sheets of paper co-existed with a curiosity to explore the artmaking potential of the medium.

A mutually beneficial relationship also existed with the printmaking workshops which proliferated in the decades after Tatyana Grosman founded Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) in New York in 1957. Realizing that "the paper is a completely integral part of the graphic work of art," Grosman collaborated with Howell who produced special papers for her printmakers.

In the early 1970s Ken Tyler added papermaking facilities to his printmaking studio and induced prominent artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and David Hockney to work with paper pulp which gave the new medium legitimacy and publicity. A paper renaissance ensued, generated by a plethora of articles, books, exhibitions, and an increasing number of students and artists learning about and working in handmade paper.

The motivation to innovate with paper pulp remains the same today as in the 1960s, the nascent period of the medium. Artists rebel against the slickness associated with the mass-produced, machine-made aspect of minimalist art and much of modern life. In-stead, there has been a return to craftsmanship and simple, basic methods of artmaking. An increased concern for the environment has led to an interest in pre-industrial, "natural" methods of production and materials, and a more intimate, personal means of expression. Paper pulp has a directness and plasticity that makes it a flexible medium with which an artist can readily convey his ideas.* To survey current practice in pulp painting, Hand Papermaking devoted its most recent, limited-edition portfolio to the art form. The contributing artists, limited to an 8 x 10 inch format, created intimate works which necessitate close study.

Like poetry, they distill and summarize meaning so that each image, refined to its essentials, yields a profusion of rich associations. Although the 18 artists included in the portfolio each bring their own background and vision to painting with pulp, all exploit the characteristics unique to this medium. The ragged deckle edge, uneven texture of the surface (the result of layers of wet pulp), and the ability to embed or collage other materials, all proclaim that the object is handmade and unique.

The theme that dominates the portfolio is nature. Four of the artists, who produced landscapes with panoramic views, evoke rather than replicate each locale. They all demonstrate a sensitivity to natural phenomena such as geography, weather, and the time of day, and suggest the variability of sky and water. Whereas Bobbie Lippman and Peter Sowiski utilize vaporous layers of pulp to achieve the effect of amorphous, floating clouds, Margaret Prentice and Lynn Sures employ washes of transparent white pulp for the frothy edges of breaking waves. In spite of the small scale, each of these works creates the illusion of infinite space where earth, water, and sky expand beyond the sheet.

Beverly Sky, however, is interested in wilderness conservation and offers a lovely, placid close-up of tree trunks in Autumn Birches. Her own strong connection with nature is expressed in the relationship between material and content, "I use pulp or cellulose, the fundamental structure of plant life, to create my own worldview of places I know and love." She admires birch trees, which are pioneers in areas that have been damaged by catastrophe, and represents them as both resilient and flexible, reaching upward yet bending in the wind. Exploiting the unique characteristics of pulp, after delineating the opaque white trunks and their watery black markings, Sky uses a sharp tool to make horizontal gashes in the wet material, replicating the texture of bark. Next, liquid yellow- green pulp is dripped in varying degrees of density, mimicking golden leaves falling in autumn.

Over the past half century, paper pulp has developed as a viable medium since technical improvements and experience have resulted in more complex and sophisticated creations. Although artists have gained more control in manipulating pulp, there is still an unpredictability that necessitates a certain amount of spontaneity, a challenging but also invigorating characteristic of this art form. Often in the best pieces, like many in this portfolio, the content reflects the material in ways that enrich meaning. As long as artists continue to innovate and push the limits, painting with pulp will remain an important vehicle for expression, producing alluring and stimulating works of art.

*This introduction is summarized from Jane Glaubinger, "The American Paper Renaissance," Paper Now: Bent, Molded and Manipulated (Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1986), 1-14.

 

 

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