There are many secrets to making quality paper, and one of them is found in the water.
“Water really makes paper work,” said Peter Sowiski, a seasoned paper-maker who began processing pulp so he could have handmade paper for his work as a printmaker. He continued, explaining that pure water is needed to make a fine paper, and the key to making artwork with paper is finding the right kind of water to use in the papermaking process. He was sharing his thoughts in the main gallery of the Jamestown Arts Center, to a room packed with patrons who had purchased tickets to the center’s annual summer exhibition opening and soiree, held July 12.
Joining Sowiski at the front of the room were other exhibiting artists, collectively known as the Pulparazzi — a playful twist on their use of pulp to create paper — which is also the name of the current exhibit featuring their work: “Pulparazzi: Painting with Paper.”
“A lot of us have known each other for way too long… and not working at this nearly long enough,” Sowiski said, eliciting warm laughter from around the room.
The group consists of eight artists, all of whom met in 2010 in San Antonio during a three-day artists retreat to explore and exchange thoughts on the craft of papermaking. Among them are John Babcock of California; Shannon Brock of New York; Joan Hall of Jamestown; Anne McKeown of New Jersey; Lynn Sures of Maryland; Michelle Samour of Massachusetts; Beck Whitehead of Texas; and Sowiski, who lives in New York.
As Sowiski told those gathered in the gallery, the group was primarily created for the artists to share and muse amongst each other; having group exhibitions came later, and now serves as a way to reconnect and continue exchanging ideas.
His work in the show is a large-scale piece formed from 12 panels and made from abaca paper. It’s titled “Predator,” and shows a military drone aircraft, a subject inspired by a childhood interest in army men and fighter planes, he said.
Nearby hangs work by Lynn Sures, who said her artwork explores human identity. “I feel that those who came before us are those who made us,” she said.
Her installation in the main gallery consists of nine pieces, inspired by her interest in fossils, each formed of “pigmented flax embossed pulp painting.” Some of the titles for these pieces include “Talk/Walk,” “Ribcage,” “Communication,” “A Conversation,” and “Fabrication.”
Sures’s work in the front gallery consists of two pieces that convey her interpretation of the mountains in Catalonia. “I was so impressed with how much the identity of the Catalonia people was wrapped up in those anthropomorphic mountains,” Sures said of the work, titled “Montserrat Blue” and “Montserrat White.” Like her series in the main gallery, the colors of these works are earthy, and from afar are not obviously formed of paper.
In a corner of the main gallery, a sculptural piece protrudes quietly from the wall. Upon closer inspection, one learns that it consists of an outer shell made of crocheted newspapers, which wrap around bone-like pieces that are not immediately obvious.
Titled “Hymn,” the work was made by Anne McKeown, who began creating the inner pieces when her husband was diagnosed with bone cancer. Those now form the center of a piece enclosed by crocheted newsprint — specifically the Sunday New York Times, which her husband enjoyed reading, particularly for the colorful arts and entertainment coverage, and the crossword puzzle. The outer portion was finished about a year after his passing. Now, she sees that the inner pieces are “hidden by the wonder of life,” she said.
“I really believe if you’re connected with life, you make things that are connected with life,” McKeown said, noting that the outer layer resembles a funeral pall, something one would drape over a casket, and explaining that the title — “Hymn” — is an ode to her husband.
“It’s a song for him; it’s a wailing for him,” McKeown said.
All of the work in the show was curated by Joan Hall, a Pulparazzi member and Jamestown Arts Center board member.
Hall moved to Jamestown about five years ago from St. Louis, where she had lived since 1978. She and her husband were looking to buy a house and open to a change of scenery, and a lifelong affinity for sailing coupled with a dear friend who lives in Jamestown, drew them to Conanicut Island.
Their current home includes her art studio, which she describes as “a barn with attitude,” the contents of which were transported cross-country in an 18-wheeler truck. She now has a bright, lofty space for printing, assembling and hanging installations, with a papermaking studio in the basement.
She began experimenting with making paper as a college student in 1976, when she was studying printmaking, and soon began using the paper she made in large scale, mixed media formats, a style that has stayed with her for 30 years.
“I hate working small,” Hall said, adding: “I always wanted my work to be bigger than me.”
In fact, her piece in the Jamestown show is the smallest rectangular artwork she has made — and liked, she said. Titled “Too Green,” it is crafted from hand-made paper, pulp painting, collagraph printing, acrylic and mylar. Like many of her works, it’s inspired by things found in the ocean, from plastics to algae, and is mounted to the wall in a way that conveys the ebbs and flows of the sea.
Her work, she said, is meant to lure the viewer in from afar with its beauty, at which point they are faced with traces of plastic pollution or, in some cases, protruding wire. Her intention, she said, is to show the viewer “something that’s beautiful can be dangerous.”
“I think it makes people think more, or at least I hope so,” Hall said.
She recalled the first gathering of those who would become known as the Pulparazzi crew, and described that long weekend in Texas as “art camp for adults.” “Each one of us took turns sharing the techniques we had,” Hall explained. After that week, it was decided they would all keep in touch, and regroup at some point in the future to see how they had been inspired by one another’s craft.
“Sure enough, we had all borrowed little things, which we thought was a riot,” Hall said.
The show in Jamestown, which Hall proposed two years ago and is currently on display through August 17, is the best venue they’ve convened in yet, Hall said, namely because of its large walls, which allow for a display of bigger works. As curator, Hall selected all of the pieces, which she describes as a showcase of her friends’ work.
The other artists made a long weekend of their trip to Jamestown for the opening, and Hall said they all come over and exchanged ideas in her studio, mostly about “geeky paper stuff.” “Whenever we see each other, we really do trade [techniques],” she said, noting that, to Sowiski’s point about water, she uses well water in her paper-making process, which she thinks contributes to its quality.
“I really wanted people to see what can be done with paper,” Hall said of her intention for the show, “most people have no idea that it can be such a versatile medium.”
A closing reception for the exhibition will be held Wednesday, Aug. 14 from 6-8 p.m. at the arts center, 18 Valley St., Jamestown, and feature an artist demonstration and talk by Michelle Samour. Gallery hours are Wednesday-Saturday, from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m., or by appointment. For more information, visit jamestownartcenter.org.