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When the Paper is the Poem

Karla triple mould

Karla Elling makes sustainable keepsake paper from Hesperaloe funifera fiber at the Mummy Mountain Press studio in Paradise Valley, Arizona. (Wendy Burk)

Session II, Panel 2. “Contemporary Hand Papermaking and Letterpress at Mummy Mountain Press,” presented by Wendy Burk and Karla Elling and “Experiments with Paper & Print at Paperhouse Studio,” presented by Flora Shum and Emily Cook.

Before the conference, I had the chance to see a broadside of remarkable translucency by Karla Elling of Mummy Mountain Press. The poem was by W.S. Merwin and simply titled “Paper.” Printed in white ink on white Japanese kozo paper, the broadside was designed for hanging in a window, encouraging light to shine though the sheet and Merwin’s words. The objective was not to provide easy readability or frameablity, but a close, simultaneous reading of text and fiber. The paper was arguably the poem, and vice versa, just as this panel set out to explore.

University of Arizona Librarian Wendy Burk offered a conceptual framework in which to think about paper as a vibrant medium that invites touch and thus trust. Quoting political theorist Jane Bennett and video game designer Ian Bogost, Burk explored ideas about materiality, and the ability of inert objects, like paper, to generate emotional resonance. When thoughtfully made, selected, and/or manipulated, Burk argued that paper is not just a plain substrate for ink, but is the powerful object-center of things. In addition to foregrounding the process-oriented presentations to follow with just the right measure of abstraction, Burk showcased slides of work by fellow Arizonan Karla Elling, minus the probably impossible-to-photograph broadside “Paper” mentioned at the outset.

When Karla Elling took the podium, the focus shifted to a bulging portfolio out of which dozens of examples of her work were extracted and passed around the room. Elling was generous, sharing many early “botches” in printing and paper making in a career marked by experimentation. Like many printers, Elling used machine-made paper. Like few of us, however, she was motivated to take control and make her own paper after a bad experience with calcium carbonate-flecked paper ordered through a vendor. Her quest to find a workable, sustainable, abundant, and local source for paper fiber was found in hesperaloe funifera, a plant that also happens to be lignin-free. She discussed a number of projects, imparting lessons learned about fugitive, repurposed paper sources like denim (it fades) and the variable reception authors have given her to turning their clothing into “physicalized” broadside paper. Elling divulged Annie Dillard’s memorably rejection: “It smacks of hagiography to me.”


Detail from an etching on loosely sculpted flax paper. Flora Shum, ca. 2010. (ArtClubBlog)

Toronto-based artists Emily Cook and Flora Shum discussed their experiences running an open-access, community-oriented papermaking studio inside an old distillery. In addition to offering workshops and printing moonshine whiskey labels to fund their efforts, they took an experimental approach to their individual paper/image making, from pulp painting on handmade daylily paper, to creating sets and functional paper costumes for dancers. Cook spoke of her interest in having conversations with paper, embracing imperfections, and using her moods (even on bad days) as a transformative element in her process. Flora Shum, who began as a printer, has developed a body of work featuring dense black-on-midnight and black-on-smoke cityscapes on highly textural, free-formed paper. These dark embodiments, which we were allowed to handle at the close of the session, were a fitting counterpoint, leaving us all sensitized to the range of what paper can be as medium and message.

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