The Art of Papermaking

In an SMFA class, students transform messy pulp into objects of art
A student makes handmade paper using colored pulp and a deckle box
Anela Oh, A19, makes handmade paper using colored pulp and a deckle box. Photo: Anna Miller
May 16, 2018

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Paper leads a double life. It’s the get-it-done medium for annual reports and memos, newspapers and paperbacks. But there’s also another side to paper—the kind made by hand that pays homage to ancient traditions, to plants, to beauty. It is this life that flourishes in the Paper Studio at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, under the tutelage of longtime Professor of the Practice Michelle Samour.

“Paper is a transformative material,” said Samour, now in her thirty-fourth year guiding SMFA students through the traditions, techniques, craftsmanship, and artistry of hand-made paper. “There is so much problem-solving involved in working with it—and there are so many different ways to use it to create work that pushes its traditions.”

Making that art means starting with pulp, an alchemical mixture of plant fiber and water, and the fundamental resource in Samour’s course Properties of Pulp. On a recent spring afternoon Anela Oh, A19, was deep into working that magic. Her pulp of choice came from the tough fibers from the abaca plant, also known as Manila hemp, chosen because it will give her the desired “crispy” paper that will be base of her work.

“What I’m doing right now is pigmenting the fiber,” she said over the whir of a mixer churning her pulp and to which she slowly added drops of brilliant green coloring. She was working out ideas for an assignment that involved learning how to use pulps to paint.

Following a series of well-planned steps, she made sheets of paper by first giving them shape in a deckle box—a removable wooden frame used in manual papermaking—and then removing excess water from the sheets in a hydraulic press. While the paper was still damp, she placed vellum stencils, based loosely on coral-growth inspired ceramic structures she created, on the paper and poured pigmented cotton pulp over them. That way “the ‘painting’ became part of the actual physical sheet of paper,” she said. “I like the way the pulp moves across the paper, then is absorbed and can become a part of its surrounding environment.”  

Professor of the Practice Michelle Samour helps Anela Oh, A19, to transfer her handmade paper to a drying area. “Paper is a transformative material,” said Samour. Photo: Anna MillerHer main goal, though, is “experimentation, which I feel a lot of papermaking is—just being curious and exploring the different things the materials can do,” she said.

One worktable over, Nayoung Kim, A20, was drawn to “free, amorphous shapes,” molding pulverized cotton into forms that reminded her of corals. To bring out their subtle patterned color, she embellished them with oil pastels.

It’s a project that builds on a work where she parlayed abaca-based pulp into flat, yellow, seaweed-like shapes. She accented its contours with watery, purple pulp from a squeeze bottle, but to really show it off to a visitor, she held it up to capture light. “What I like,” she said, “is that it’s transparent.”   

The intriguing possibilities of handmade paper—transparent or opaque, thick, thin, flecked with other papers, smooth or rough—attracts students across the school, drawn by the inherent interdisciplinary nature of the material, said Samour, who received a B.F.A. and later a diploma from the SMFA.

The raw materials of papermaking. Photo: Anna MillerStudents of printmaking—as well as photography and sculpture—have also incorporated handmade paper and pulp into their projects, she said, as a way to expand and personalize their work.

For instance, Ryan Tam, A20, solved a problem she confronted in a class on woodcut printing. The paper she wanted for her project is not sold at the store, so she’s making it by hand, and the exact color she wants, a soft yellow using abaca, which will also give her the right stiffness and thickness.

“I took Intro to Printmaking and I realized I didn’t really understand paper,” she said. “But now that I’ve learned how to make paper in this class, it’s nice to integrate the two. It’s another opportunity to make decisions about my art.”

Exploring Paper’s Potential

The versatility of the handmade paper process is nothing new to Samour; she has explored it over four decades. She first got hooked on handmade paper after writing a report in junior high—“I remember thinking this is unbelievable! Paper is actually made!” Then, in the early 1970s, she was one of a group of artists in this country who were on the forefront of moving papermaking beyond craft, recognizing its potential as an art form. She started the way most people did, by making a batch in the blender that she could then incorporate with collage.

Today Samour is an established multi-media artist who incorporates handmade paper in her work, which explores the intersections among science, technology, and the natural world. For an exhibition at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, she created individual translucent pulp drawings of viruses, which she layered within a 3’ x 10’ light box positioned on the floor. The piece suggested both a microscope slide and a reflecting pool, and was intended to draw the observer in with its beauty, while inviting quiet contemplation about viruses’ global threat.

For aspiring artists, Samour’s courses offer a deep exploration on how to work with fibers and transform them into pulp, and then challenges them to integrate and combine them to expand what handmade paper can become. These innovative approaches to working with handmade paper and pulp have distinguished the work of SMFA students from other art schools and universities across the country, Samour said.

Contemporary fiber choices run a wide spectrum: her students use old clothing, recycled papers, locally sourced plants, Japanese fibers, and even pages of childhood journals and shredded Major League Baseball cards.

Teddy Benfield, a second-year graduate student at the SMFA, brought his own source material for making paper: shredded baseball cards. Photo: Anna Miller“I encourage students to push boundaries, and to understand how the choices they make in terms of fiber, processes, and pigmentation support and are integrated with the conceptual underpinnings of their work,” Samour said.

“Working with paper can be a very physical and visceral experience,” said Samour. Abaca, a particularly tough, strong fiber, for example, can take anywhere from one hour to eight hours to process in a studio beater.

Still, the immediacy of making paper from scratch is well worth the effort for students like Ravina Oberoi, who is graduating from the SMFA diploma program this spring. Working with paper has made an indelible impression, she said, as she flattened dough-like pulp with a rolling pin. This nascent paper’s forms, inspired by nature, are made by pressing the pulp into molds to create small disks that she then enlivens with paint and Sharpies. 

“Paper is always so welcoming,” Oberoi said in a reverential tone. “When you make something out of paper, you can reshape it again and again by just adding water. It has the potential of growth.” Most of all, though, “it has a feeling of own-ness. I have the satisfaction of knowing: this is what I have made.” 

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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