Can you imagine carving a letter onto a stone tablet and trying to mail it? That’s how documents were made thousands of years ago, along with being scratched into soft clay, and written on scraps of wood, animal hide or cloth. Stories were transmitted through songs, while books came in the form of scrolls bound and rolled together—that is, until the invention of paper in China.
Legend has it that during the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD), a court official named Ts’ai Lun invented paper. Working with a mortar and pestle, he mashed together a compound of rags, tree bark, old fishing nets, rope and other fibrous materials, and spread the pulp out to dry. Chinese artisans further developed this process and be-came skilled at creating different kinds of paper using the fibres from materials such as mulberry bark and bamboo.
Even though paper manufacturing has become highly industrialized, there are still many artists who use ancient techniques to explore new avenues of art, or have experimented with a fusion of old and new technology. Some of these artists are drawn to handmade paper because of the beauty it adds to their projects.
Vancouver artist Eric Jin Li chooses handmade paper for his lamps because of its variety and texture. He creates lamps from galvanized wire and handmade paper from Thailand. Gathering inspiration from his environment, his first project was a small lamp, which “looked like art and nature come together.” He loves to use natural material in his designs, he says, referring to a large lamp that he modelled after his pet finch.
Ann Vicente, owner of Papermaker’s Press, is a local Vancouver artist who has been making handmade paper for over 15 years. She often creates artists’ books for special collections at public institutions and for private collectors. Vicente laughs as she proclaims herself a true Luddite. “I have even given away my computer and put a vase on the table instead.” She is involved with the entire process of creating books, from making the paper, to setting the type on her old-fashioned press, to binding and decorating the books.
Vicente experiments with different types of materials for papermaking such as daylilies, irises, western red cedar, cotton and asparagus, as well as Japanese fibres. She recently created a book called The Paper Sample Alphabet in which each letter was created from materials that matched the letter. The letter A, for example, was represented by paper made from abaca and artichoke.
Gina Page, owner of Seawrack Press, works mostly on her patio in Richmond, B.C. She fell in love with papermaking when she learned how to make paper at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. She uses her knowledge of papermaking to create her own books, some of which she has used to print her own poetry, which she has also illustrated.
Page has created an interesting paper from cedar bark. The natural colours of the bark cause the paper fibres to darken at the edges, earning it the name Siamese Cat paper. She also experiments with a variety of materials such as abaca, black silk, cherry bark fibre and wisteria fibres. “I even have some dried seaweed in the basement,” she admits sheepishly. Page is currently working on projects for The Passionate Book, a show taking place on Granville Island in October 2004.
Modern papermakers are keeping the ancient art alive while finding new and innovative ways to make this craft part of every day life. Thanks to the efforts of these artists, paper is not just the material on which images and words are printed. It is the art itself.