Plugged in and turned on. All paper. All the time.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot
I am back from Buenos Aires winter to not much warmer Central New York summer. Looking back on my two month apprenticeship I am forever grateful to master papermaker Alejandro Geiler for the influence he’s had on my developing knowledge of papermaking.
Alejandro can do it all. He left a career in engineering and took up papermaking a few weeks later after being inspired by a museum exhibit. He makes his own moulds. He designed and made several Hollander Beaters. He designed and manufactured his own press. He makes paper using Western and Japanese techniques and appreciates artistic applications of paper, not just production. Oh, and he also is a great golf player, a trivia buff, once hosted a weekly classical music radio program and (when he’s not being oh-so-super-serious) he’s a total goof.
I wanted experience in production work and he took me in, taught me everything he could for the short time I was there and charged me nothing. I came away with valuable muscle memory you can only gain through repetition. He passed on a Santa-sized bag of tips and tricks that he’d learned over decades of experience. By not always being easy on me and insisting I perfect his techniques he inadvertently helped me grow more confident, more determined. I also came away with a teeming collection of his quips and witticisms, his philosophical ramblings and off-color remarks.
Here is how the collection grew: I would be at the vat forming sheets and he would be sitting, as he often did, on a stool facing me, maybe fifteen feet away. Blue jeans, black sweater, rubber boots, puffing away silently on a cigar, deep in thought. Classical music crackling from the radio; mostly uplifting, sometimes a dirge to drag us through the afternoon. Sheet after sheet, puff after puff, until eventually he would pull his cigar from his mouth, look at the ceiling and break silence with a drawn out and cadenced reflection like:
I am at the age where… I KNOW…alloftheanswers…but… nobody asksmethequestions.
Then he would shake his head, laugh, and get up to busy himself with one task or another.
Then there is my personal favorite. We hadn’t talked for an hour or so when we came out with:
The apprentice pulls the sheets while the master contemplates the future of the craft.
He laughed when he said it, maybe at the joke that I was doing the work while he sat and relaxed. He deserved the rest. He and his coworkers, a group of bookbinders, printers and papermakers, had just purchased the struggling business from the original owner. Now as a newly formed workers’ collective, they all put in longer hours for less pay to keep the business running.
But say he was truly contemplating the future of the craft. Is it important that people continue making paper in a certain school of thought or is it simply enough that paper continues being made? Is our method of production authentic just by virtue of existence or are we impostors in our own craft, the ‘real’ techniques and traditions having been lost to history?
I recently leafed through an article titled, “Handmade Paper: A Review of its History, Craft, and Science,” by Martin A Hubbe and Cindy Bowden. This 46-page delight reflects on how cellulosic material has influenced handmade papermaking technology evolution. It begins by discussing papermakers by saying:
The sentences read true, not just in handmade papermaking but industrial papermaking, too. There are many ways to process fibers, form the sheets, dry the sheet, dye the sheets. You learn from many people and you adapt what you like, leave what you don’t and in the end your judgement forms the way to make paper – for you (or for your company, your art class, your 8th generation papermaking family). The craft has evolved over centuries and will continue evolving. Methods change with fiber availability, technological developments and customer demand and desire. Some papermakers prefer the new, some swear by the old, and some invent their own. The result is the outcome of all evolutionary processes – diversification.
Another passage addresses people who choose papermaking as a passion:
If papermakers are a little infatuated and believe that their way of production is the way, it’s likely a result of the devotion and connection they feel with the development of their process and their purpose. Each time I’ve had a new teacher I try to abandon my ideas of ‘what papermaking is’ to open myself to the possibilities. Seeking out teachers, be they books or people, is one way to get access to the stored heritage that Hubbe talks about. With each new teacher I feel like I am making paper for the first time. I will be continuing with what Alejandro taught me, some methods preserved entirely and some with my invented twists. I think he’d agree that that’s the point. How about you?