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
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.