An Interview with APIARY Magazine

Steve Burns, an editor for Apiary Magazine, interviewed me after taking my October hand papermaking workshop. What a delight!

Read on below for a portion of the interview, or go directly to Apiary Magazine to read the full article:


After earning an MFA in Painting and Drawing from the University of Iowa, Nicole Donnelly moved to Philadelphia and (many years later) bumped into me at a reading. I’m calling it destiny. Besides her wonderful paintings and drawings, Nicole is one amazing papermaker. She hosts papermaking workshops regularly, and I decided to attend one. It was practically therapeutic. There’s something calm, but also chaotic, about swirling cotton pulp with your fingers in a black tub — the way it mixes and collects — and then forming it into something tangible. It’s work and it’s beauty. Once you’ve created your paper, it’s yours to embellish (with bits of string, or fragments of foliage, or other bric-a-brac). Really, it’s that great. I was not only able to participate in her workshop, but talk to her about her craft, her collaboration with poet Frank Sherlock, and what it’s like to be an artist in Philadelphia. Read on! – Steve

Burns: How did you discover papermaking?

Donnelly: I was studying painting and drawing at the University of Iowa. I was doing these large wall drawings and they were very ephemeral — just charcoal directly on the wall. Eventually people started saying, ‘Aren’t you sad that this drawing is only going to last for one week, then you’ll have to wash the wall and repaint it?’ I was like, ‘Well, yes, and no.’ I’m interested in the ephemeral nature of what I’m doing. My one professor said to me, ‘Well, you know, if you want to think about paper that could be any size and not just machine-made sizes you should talk to Tim Barrett, he’s the papermaker here; his studio is amazing and he can make paper that’s any size.’ I thought, ‘That’s kind of interesting.’ So, the following semester I signed up for his papermaking class and fell in love. Totally fell in love. From there, the rest of my work was paper.

Burns: What made you fall in love with paper?

Donnelly: It was the process of it and the fact that you can’t really control everything about it. It’s a piece of paper that is going to be the most like paper you can make; the idea behind crafting this piece of paper is to not control it. You can’t really control the process. The materials themselves have so much personality. During the workshop we were talking about feeling like the paper was ‘really precious’. You know, you made a sheet and you’re like ‘Oh my God, it has to be something really special that goes on this!’ The amazing thing, as an artist, when you make your own paper you know the material so intimately you don’t feel that ‘preciousness’ towards necessarily working on it or adding to it because the paper’s already told you what it can do and what it will do; it’s just your job to kind of tune into that and become more connected with the medium rather than with ideas. That was something that blew my mind wide-open.

Burns: Could you tell me a little bit about this particular studio, what you’d like to accomplish in this space, and where you see yourself within the Philadelphia community?

Donnelly: Ultimately, I would love to see Philadelphia have some kind community accessible studio for papermaking. I think Philadelphia has so many cooperative spaces already and there are institutions (University of the Arts, in particular) that have facilities for making paper, but nobody has access to them but their students. To make paper you need two or three basic things — the most important being the hollander beater. Otherwise, you’re buying your pulp from somewhere else or you have to hand process it. The next workshop I’m offering is how to process mulberry or the Philadelphia KOZO. You can hand-process all of your fibers, but it’s pretty labor intensive. There’s a reason why people go for the machine. I want this to be something that Philadelphia’s other communities can access — even those from the non-artistic community; people who want to take classes. I would love for there to be crossovers and collaborations between printmaking and poetry and letter press. I would love to have artists who work in a different medium and have a lot of ideas for what they could possibly do with paper, and to eventually build a better facility for that. I can make all kinds of pulp here: cotton, abaca, or flax. From those, I can create a variety of paper. The next step is getting a paper press so you can do production paper work. The stronger the press you get on your paper, the better — today we were using a rolling pin; the maximum pressure you’re exerting is about 100 pounds, which is not much. It’s also being exerted unevenly. If you press too hard while the paper’s very wet, you can spill the paper out. If you have a 20 ton hydraulic press, however, that’s very even and you’re making a stronger piece of paper.