There’s nothing like the feel of goosh in your hands.
You know. Water plus something gooshy. In my case, pulp for making paper. It takes me back to the good ole Girl Scout days. Mud pies. Glue and flour figures. Clay. Handmade paper.
I recently spent three days with Kimberley Wood, who runs Papel a Mano in Cuenca, Ecuador. An artist with 27 years’ experience, she came to Ecuador from Minnesota in 2012. She is painstakingly patient with six beginners as we play with the goosh.
First we learn how to make the goosh. Lucky for us, Kimberley and her husband, Tom, did the hard work before we arrived. Today they are working with abaca fiber, from a relative of the banana plant. Kimberley also uses other fibers, such as pineapple leaves, and 100 percent cotton tee shirts.
The fibers are soaked overnight, and then boiled in a cleanser such as soda ash or lye, for about three hours. The pieces and fibers are rinsed. The mix is dumped into a giant metal masticator. OK, it’s really called a Hollander beater, but that doesn’t sound near as interesting does it? The beater does its work for three to eight hours, depending on the properties you want the fiber to have.
Finally, we get to play. We put the pulp in water and catch it into handheld screens. With just the right shake you can make it artist-worthy thin. But even if it’s thicker than you like, the later stage of pressing gets it back to size. The thin paper is artistically beautiful on its own, but it is a bear to scrape off its drying rack! More on that to come.
Next is mastering “the roll.” Placing the screen down on a piece of felt, you quickly roll it away from you, leaving a thin slice of rectangular shaped pulp on the felt to dry. The pulp sheets are covered by another piece of felt until you have completed the number of sheets you want. Or, the teacher tells you “your tray is next!” in that kindly, knowing voice. My partner and I definitely got carried away.
The trays of felt-separated sheets of fiber are placed into a 10-ton press. Tom, known as Mr. Paper, takes on this job. The press is used to squeeze out excess water. I ask how he knows when to stop. He invites me to feel the pressure on the lever myself. “That’s perfect,” he says. I shrug. I have no clue what that means.
I ask how long he leaves the pulp in the press. It’s his turn to shrug. “As long as it takes.” He grins. Tom clearly is the master of the press. It reminds me of my mother’s cooking instructions: “Cook until done,” or “Cook in a hot oven.” This job is one you have to do a few times to appreciate.
For these eager newbies, the wait is about 15 minutes. The press is released and we carry the boards of still-wet fiber into the living room where windows abound.
Back to feeling like a kid. Now we “paint” the individual sheets on to windows to dry. Clearly, there is no paint. We use the dampness of the sheets to secure them to the window. Again, I am transported back to childhood. I am 6 years old and my mom is painting her room purple. My older brother is helping, but my mother has not invited me. I beg to be of use. Of course, mom says innocently. She gets a little tray of paint and a small brush and leads me to a wall – behind where the dresser will be. I am happy. She is happy. And I didn’t figure out her ploy until much later, when it was too late to complain.
But back to paper-making. We are through for the day and leave our treasures to dry overnight.
On the second day, we carefully peel the papers from the window. Many of mine are too thin and tear, living bits of paper on the windows. Those that survive are reserved for projects we will learn to make later. A few of them are coated with a chemical compound to be used for the next technique – marbling.
We experiment with new sheets of pulp, wandering through the garden to find flowers and leaves. Placing them in a nifty microwave dryer, we have perfectly preserved specimens to drop onto the pulp in 45 seconds. We begin the pressing process again.
But wait. There’s color to add!
Dyes added to the vats of pulp are sucked into the fibers in varying hues. Don’t like the hue? Add more of the same – or a different shade entirely. And mixing colors? We were all over that. Dipping corners into one vat, we delighted in submerging opposite corners into another vat.
Gathering the pre-treated sheets from yesterday, we take them outside to learn a new way of using color. Marbling is the process of dropping color directly into a gel mix, swirling it and dropping treated paper onto the surface. Waiting seconds until the paper is coated, you peel it off. Voila! A surprise of color and random design delights your eyes.
While all this fantastic paper is drying, we play with the pulp. Pulp can be pressed into molds. Put a little in, squeeze the water out and tap it with a dry paper towel. Push more pulp into the mold, squeeze the water out and tap it dry. Repeat until the mold is full. These take longer to dry, but turn into fun, three dimensional objects d’art. We also used pulp to make paper bowls. Cover a strainer with a piece of rayon or silk and pour the leftover solution through. When the bowl dries, you turn the strainer over and pop it out. Wow!
Of course at Kimberley’s, the last option for leftover pulp is the living art installation on the side of their house. Visitors are invited to pitch a handful of pulp onto the brick wall, where it melds with dozens of other globs and colors left by previous contributors. I’m not sure I would recommend that for just any paper-maker, but it works for Papel a Mano!
Class ends with a day full of project ideas. A tiny handmade Chinese food to-go box sits on one table. Three or four examples of handmade books, some hand sewn and others bound, lay on another. A third tabletop is bursting with pencils and pens and scissors and glue. There are bags of ribbons and sacks of buttons. We can make collages and art to hang. It is overwhelming.
Our star pupil, Nancy, already is on her second project as I stare at my handmade papers. Students are scurrying around me, measuring and cutting, selecting materials, sorting through papers. All are on a mission.
Again, I am transported to Girl Scouts. I remember girls collapsing in giggles on the floor, pulling out materials of all kinds and creating whatever came to mind. The giggling of my mature workshop mates brings me back. I’d better get busy. Nancy is on her fourth project and I have yet to begin.
I dig in. The papers are beautiful. The projects creative. I’ve discovered a new poultice for my aching creative soul. I may not be an exceptional artist, but the therapy is worth its weight in gold.