In the digital age, making paper from scratch is becoming a nearly lost art.
For Sarah Strong, it’s a passion she is passing on to her daughters. The Herron School of Art and Design graduate student has more than a decade of experience with hand papermaking. She incorporates her handmade papers into her installations, book arts, printmaking and more. The unique qualities of different fibers and their results keep her fascinated.
“It’s a little lonely. There aren’t a lot of papermakers in 2019,” said Strong, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Herron in 2008. “I do it because I love working with natural materials and I love to share it through teaching because of the involvement of nature and the history of paper as a means of sharing stories and knowledge.”
Creating even one sheet is an involved process where creativity is heavily utilized: Color, consistency, texture and which fibers to use must all be considered before the first batch of paper pulp is pulverized.
In her Herron studio, Strong has shelves of her recent work, as well as the paper works of colleagues, for inspiration. The freshest pieces are tacked to walls for drying as Strong is working feverishly to create about 30 small candlelit luminary sculptures in time for “Meld,” an exhibition running Feb. 11-16 in the Eskenazi Fine Arts Center, 1410 Indiana Ave. The show will feature the work of fellow first-year grad students Denise Troyer, Hailey Potts, Adam Rathbun, Frank Mullen and Kennedy Conner. The opening reception is set for 6 p.m. Feb. 12.
Many of the fibers Strong utilizes are harvested from her own and friends’ gardens. She keeps a handful of bins full of iris, daylily and lavender stalks and leaves. Strong said she particularly enjoys culling invasive species and using the unwanted plants in her paper.
“I love working in the gardens and then upcycling the fibers to become something of use,” she continued. “When the season is dying out, I like to go to people’s gardens and clean them out for them. I take a little bit from each plant and dry them until I’m ready to use them in my own process.”
For those without a handy source, pulp can also be purchased from paper mills like Indiana’s own TwinRocker Handmade Paper.
The cellulose from the plant material is what’s needed to make paper. In order to extract the cellulose, a cooking process is required. Strong’s paper is created with the water and cellulose through hydrogen bonding.
“When I’m cooking them in a caustic solution, I’m cooking out everything that’s not cellulose,” Strong explained. “It breaks down the cellulose molecule structure a little bit, too.”
The biggest — and loudest — piece of equipment in Strong’s studio is a hydro pulper. The artist can manipulate pulp thicknesses by changing run times and the positioning of the pulper’s beating drum and plate. When working with translucency, the pulp needs to be beaten between eight and 10 hours.
“The longer it’s beaten, the smaller the fibers become,” Strong said, “thus offering themselves to different processes in papermaking. The fibers are being broken down more and more. As you beat it further and further, the fibers turn to fibrils, which give you a stronger paper.”
Add some color
While most of the paper has a light tone to it, Strong experiments with color by utilizing the dozens of colorants she has at the ready. The pulp is dyed in buckets and set on a work table like a painter’s palette. In the vat where the different pulps are combined, Strong can experiment with color like a painter.
Once the pulp mix is satisfactory, Strong gathers the material with a screen and deckle. Excess water drips out before the pulp is carefully laid onto thin fabric sheeting. It’s then pressed and dried in various ways, depending on what the paper will be used for.
Paper for printmaking would be put under a hydraulic press. While creating paper for “Meld,” Strong’s daughter Jane Sparks simply placed the paper and fabric on some towels and then underneath a plane of Plexiglas, which Sparks then stood on for several minutes. The last of the water is squeezed out; the fibers join tighter; and the wet, new paper is ready to dry.
“Relationship with paper is very much a dance: You learn the fibers, and the fibers learn you,” Strong said. “You build this relationship, getting to know each other, and then eventually you can work together to create your art.”