Dip, Dip, Dip…Shake, Shake, Shake…Make Some Paper…

Handmade paper decorative spheres

How lucky for me that Kathy had so much extra pulp she organized another papermaking open studio! I was hooked after the first five minutes of the Wednesday session and was thrilled when I got the email about another opportunity.

I arrived promptly at 9:30 am and had the pleasure of meeting Mindy, who will be teaching a workshop with Kathy in September.  She showed me some samples of what we’ll learn to make; seeing the the book structures firsthand made me even more excited for a day of paper and book making. (I wonder if my family members can guess what they will be getting for Christmas this year.)

Kathy gave me the green light to work independently and I even demonstrated a couple of “how to’s” for the other participants.  I didn’t waste any time and started adding color after I completed a few practice base sheets.

handmade paper with orange and blue color

One of the lovely ladies, Laura, brought beautiful pressed leaves to share.  I would have never thought about incorporating additional elements into the process. (Now my mind is racing.)  The flecks of marigold disbursed against the green and I was delighted with the way the leaf made its signature on the page.

handmade paper with a green leaf and flecks of marigold

While we worked I asked Kathy about other uses for the paper in art, specifically about how to use it in making sculptures.

She held up a blue and red sphere, “I start with a shape; in this case it was a small Styrofoam ball and then I put a layer of paper over it.  It’s as simple as that.”

“How do you get the paper to stick?  Do you wet it?” I asked.

“You can, however I find it best to work with the paper before it dries.  That way it just sticks to the object and as you can see, it’s really quite beautiful.  You can also brush a layer of Methyl Cellulose over the top to help it adhere,” she said.

I bought eight Styrofoam balls and some of the mysterious clear liquid, Methyl Cellulose.

Exhausted but invigorated, I followed Kathy’s instructions to take a break before I started into the creative process.  I couldn’t sit still long.  The stack of freshly made paper and the bag of Styrofoam balls were calling my name.

I pulled the protective material away from the first two sheets and stared at my blank canvas.

handmade paper and styrofoam ball

I peeled up the first sheet, tore off the bright blue corner, and placed it on the ball.  As promised, the sticky wet paper was strong enough to handle.  Colors and designs emerged as I gained confidence and embraced doing something new.

handmade paper covered styrofoam balls work in progress

I stopped to admire the way the shades of green, blue, and orange blended into the natural tannish color of the paper.  The flecks of orange somehow found their perfect placement around the curved shape.

blue, green, and orange handmade paper over styrofoam ball

My porch makes a perfect playroom for an artist.  The bright pink petals against the orange background of the table and hand me down chests is cheery and inspiring.  Enya is my Pandora station of choice.  The dogs roam between the kitchen and the backyard and amuse me with their snores and snorts when they curl up to take a nap.

papermaking project on my porch

The finished project was more than a lesson in papermaking and creating a tiny universe out of Styrofoam balls.  It reinforced that it’s wonderful, albeit sometimes a little scary, to try on something new for size.

I can’t help but compare it to the first day of my drawing class last January.  I was nothing short of petrified and it took me more than six months before I attempted to create anything without specific and hands on guidance. If it hadn’t been for the instructor I’d have quit after the first class.

It’s been a hard lesson to learn, but I now know that my art doesn’t have to be perfect and half the fun is trying.  The perfection of a masterpiece lies in the imperfection of mistakes made and lessons learned as it was created.

I think it could be said, that being perfectly imperfect applies to a whole lot more than art.

Handmade paper decorative spheres

Paper Thin and Perfectly Imperfect

Although there were some who predicted that personal computers, email and the internet would make the use of paper obsolete – that hasn’t been the case; at least not in my life.  True, I get less and less paper mail but it still seems to be everywhere.

Prior to yesterday I considered paper to be utilitarian and an instrument of my art only as it relates to printing out a page for an old-fashioned review or something to sketch on.  I may have stopped to admire pretty notepaper or enjoy the texture of pages within a leather-bound journal, but I never gave a second thought to the process.

I never wondered…

Where does paper come from?

How is it made?

What exactly is pulp?

Why does some paper ‘feel’ different than others?

Where did the flecks of color come from?

Could paper be art?

Over the weekend I received an email from my friend and artist Kathy.


Due to a surplus of various kinds of pulp, I am holding a couple of papermaking open studio sessions and papermaking classes at my studio.  I have Japanese pulp, casting pulp, high shrink flax, abaca and pigmented pulp for painting. 

I jumped on the opportunity.  I didn’t know much, but based on my breakfast conversation with Kathy a few weeks ago, I knew I wanted to learn more.

I joined two other lovely ladies in Kathy’s studio for preliminary instructions and introductions. We helped carry out buckets of pulp while learning about the qualities of the material we’d be working with.

Kathy showed us beautiful examples of her work and how a single piece of paper can stand on its own as a work of art as well as how it can be used to create sculptures and paintings.  The possibilities are endless.

I took pictures and listened intently as she described the process of beating the plant fiber and immersing it in water in preparation for the process of making paper.  It was hard to imagine how the tan spongy substance floating in a yellow bucket would transform into anything beautiful.

bucket of pulp for paper making

She walked us through the steps of adding the thick, gloppy pulp from the bucket to a tub of water and mixing it into a smooth and soft sea of fibers that would become a sheet of paper.

Instructions on Mixing Pulp and water for paper making

“How do you know when you’ve added enough pulp?” I asked.

Kathy swirled her hand in the water, “You learn how to feel it.  After you work with it a while, you know.”

A year ago that would have made no sense to me.  Now it’s completely logical.  Art, like life, is about learning, observing, and experiencing.  And as we live, we somehow “just know.”

I slipped my hand into the cloudy water and let the feathery pieces of fiber sift through my fingers.  I don’t know how to describe it, but the water felt soft and alive.

Kathy demonstrated how to put the mosquito netting over the screened frame and the best way to hold it in place with a second frame.

Step by step she walked us through the process.

“Put the side in the water first and then pull and scoop up the pulp, just like you’re panning for gold.  After that you shake the mold and let the pulp settle, let the extra water drain out, and then you’re ready for the next step.”

She removed the top frame, lined the screen up with the edge of a wet shammy, and hinged it forward to release the fragile sheet of wet paper.  Little by little she rolled the mosquito netting back and revealed a form that, when dry, would be a beautiful piece of paper.

I was surprised, but it didn’t take me long to catch on and before I knew it I had two sheets of future paper and couldn’t wait to do more.

first sheets of paper  - pape rmaking

We took a break halfway through the morning to enjoy fruit and chit chat.  We gobbled up blueberries and a refreshing organic and beautifully orange watermelon.

organic watermelon

After the break, Kathy added blended pieces of marigolds to one of the vats and added pigmented pulp to three open tubs to create pools of orange, blue, and green.  She showed us how to make a base sheet and then add a layer of color.

I couldn’t decide which part was my favorite.  It was a toss-up between trying to scoop up the pieces of petal from the marigolds and spreading water drops with my fingers to make a design.

So of course I found a way to combine them both and created beautiful orange and blue designs to accentuate the natural beauty of the pulp and bits of flower petals.

paper making - pigmented pulp over marigold and pulp paper

The morning flew by and our time was up before I knew it.

It hadn’t occurred to me, but paper requires time to dry.  Kathy showed us what to do and sent us home with detailed instructions.  Of course, me being me, I had to try the quick method of drying on at least one sheet of paper.  I was way too impatient to wait a whole week to experiment.

I picked one of the less than perfect pieces out of the bunch and laid it on my kitchen counter.

paper still drying

I knew it was thin and fragile and had more than a few flaws.  I selected a paint brush with soft bristles and carefully stroked the moisture out of the paper.

It came to life before my eyes.

It won’t be a sheet I can draw, paint, or print on. The edges are frayed and uneven, it’s thinner than paper thin, and the webs of fiber barely support the splashes of marigold.

paper thin

In my eyes it’s beautiful and it’s perfect in its imperfection.

A Little Slice of Heaven on Earth

A place to relax outside the Colleen Attara Studio

When I lived in the Midwest, my perception of the East Coast was the same as many others. Based on movies, magazines, and personal travels I imagined it to be all skyscrapers and sidewalks. When I moved here, my friends from Omaha asked me about the traffic and how long it takes to get to work and whether or not I missed the wide open spaces.

I get a kick out of explaining that I live in a town that has a main street with a single stop light and the only type of traffic jam that could cause me to be late for work is a flock of geese crossing the road.

One of my more recent discoveries is the Patterson Farm.  It is one of the few, if not the only pieces of open space left in the area.  It’s the home of the Artist’s of Yardley, the studio of artist Colleen Attara, and the rich land is a source of local produce for the community.  There are two houses and sets of farm buildings; one was owned by the Patterson’s and the other by the Doan’s.

Last Friday I was feeling out of sorts, so I grabbed my camera and drove to the property.  Today I’d like to take you on a tour.

The driveway winds from Mirror Lake road to the Janney House.  This picture isn’t from my most recent set, but I think it’s the best picture I have of the house. I thought it would be neat to include a photo of the house from the first day of my drawing class.  The house was built during the time that Andrew Jackson was president and is the home of the Artist’s of Yardley.The Janney House, Patterson Farm, Yardley PA

I thought the view of these trees and the sun filtered through the leaves was spectacular.  I love the shadows and it made me picture Scarlett O’hara standing with soil clenched in her hand and shouting to the sky, “I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again.”Trees alongside the Patterson Farm Driveway

This body of water brought back memories of my grandparents farm outside of Berthold, N.D.  The slough at the end of the road was the signal for the dog to start barking and that the road trip was over and there were welcoming hugs just ahead.Still Water and trees along the Patterson Farm Driveway

The shafts of tall grass swayed in the breeze and they whispered “Summer,” in my ear.Patterson Farm, Whispers of Summer Grass

I met the gentleman who currently farms the property. He grows fresh produce, and his family sells it at a local farmers market.  He often tends to the farm in the evening as a way to wind down and get away from the hectic pace of the day.  It made me sad to learn that the open space property is in jeopardy and commercial development may ensue.  (more to come on this in a separate post)The current Farmer of the Patterson Farm, Yardley PA

There is something very poetic and nostalgic about a tractor at sunset.Farm Equipment at Sunset, Patterson Farm Yardley, PA

The property is well guarded by feral cats.  I don’t think this one was too happy to see me.Feral Cat, Patterson farm, Yardley, PA

I always enjoy taking pictures of things from different angles.  I like this view of the property and the glimpse of the Doan farm on the horizon.Patterson Farm View of the Doan Farm

It was all I could do to not curl up in one of the deck chairs  and watch the sea of summer wave across the land.A place to relax outside the Colleen Attara Studio

I found this to be a fascinating contrast.  The bright color of flowers blooming against the backdrop of a house with a history and life.  It’s as though the flowers are saying, “Don’t give up hope.”Flowers against old house, Patterson Farm, Yardley PA

I found myself wondering about the relationship between the families.  Was there intrigue?  Was there friendship? I like to think there may have been some mystery, I might just make some up for good measure.Doan FARM, also known as Satterthwaite Farm, Yardley PA

Patterson Farm, Yardley PA

One hundred and thirty pictures later I couldn’t think of a good reason to feel out of sorts.  It’s a beautiful place and a slice of heaven on earth.

Its a Matter of Perspective

A few weeks ago I used the word petrified to describe how I felt on the first day of my drawing class, perched on the edge of my stool and facing an easel and an 18 x 24 sheet of blank drawing paper armed with very sharp and never before used pencil.  Over the course of a few weeks my feelings faded from petrified to slightly scared and much to my surprise I felt confidence poking its head through the cracks in the wall of my self-doubt.

Two sessions of six remained.  Anne passed out copies of a black and white picture of five misaligned and crooked farm buildings, lots of shadows, and a very daunting tree.

“Ok ladies, for our final project we’re going to build on what you’ve done and learned in the previous classes to draw these buildings.  I took this picture a couple of weeks ago and I thought it would be a great lesson in perspective,” she said.

I’m fairly certain I heard a collective “Gulp,” from the class.

She didn’t miss a beat, “The main focus of the lesson is to get the perspective correct so everything looks right and then we’ll have some fun by mixing in the use of ink along with the pencil.  But the main focus is the perspective.  If that’s wrong it doesn’t matter how good the shading or texturing is, the whole thing looks off.”

Anne went on to explain the concept of linear perspective used by the very famous Leonardo Da Vinci.  I listened carefully as she described the process of drawing the horizon line, identifying the vanishing points, the point on the horizon that lines up with the edge of the object, and using a ruler to draw guidelines to align the edges and corners of the buildings.

“In fact, each building could have its own vanishing point, but that would just be crazy.  This is an artist’s rendition, not an architectural drawing so we’re only going to use two points,” she said.

I figured out where the horizon line should go, scoped out and marked the vanishing points, and bravely drew my first line from the corner of the first building on the left to the tiny dot on the skyline.   After three hours I had barely sketched the outline of the buildings on the left, used my eraser more than my pencil, and the sting of tears bumped in frustration against the inside of my eyelids.

Relentless in her encouragement Anne put her hand on my shoulder and said, “You can draw Beth, you will get this.  Take it home and take your time, we’ll work on it more during the next class.”

A long time ago my daughter Katie got it in her head that you had to be able to write your name or you wouldn’t get into kindergarten.  Determined not to let the letter “K” get in the way of her future she spent countless hours tracing every “K” she could find until she figured it out.  I understood what she must have felt like as I watched video after video about drawing perspective on YouTube, tried to apply what I learned, failed, and tried again.

I have no idea what it was, but something clicked and I finished the buildings on the left, then on the right, my lines were solid and strong. I completed the entire line drawing, including the outline of the trees, in time for the final class.

“That’s terrific, great work! Now take your pencils and start shading and then use the pens and experiment with ink,” Anne said.

“Really?  Ink…? I’m not so sure I’m ready for that.”

Smiling Anne leaned in and made one tiny stroke with ink on a tree along the horizon, “There you go, see how awesome that’s going to look?”

I grinned like a four-year-old who had just mastered the letter “K.”

There was no going back now. I had two choices.  I could abandon it or embrace it and see how far I could go.  I smiled to myself, thought about Katie and her “K” and knew that there was only one choice and I also realized that the stakes really weren’t all that high.   The worst thing that might happen is that the drawing wouldn’t turn out and I would be disappointed, but I would have learned a lot.

It took a month of Monday morning open studio sessions and more than a few in home sessions, late night tweaks, and surprisingly no tears to finish.  I thought it was going to be an experience in drawing and the use of different mediums, it was, but it turned out to be much bigger lesson than that.

It seems easier to quit than it does to finish, especially when it’s new and it feels completely out of your reach; but what you can learn is worth the risk.  It’s hard to ask for help and it’s even more difficult to accept it, but the rewards are tremendous.  And maybe most importantly, mistakes aren’t fatal and something doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.

What’s Your Medium?

For more than twenty five years I have answered the question “What do you do?” with words like Customer Service Supervisor, Software Development Manager, and Marketing Director and I’ve associated the word “medium” with my T-shirt size and my not so secret fascination with the metaphysical world.  I also thought field trips and color pencils were only for kids.

In my quest to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible, I jumped on the invitation to tag along with fellow members of the Artists of Yardley on a trip to the James Michener Art Museum in Doylestown.  I signed up to join the group for lunch but resisted the urge to volunteer to drive (they really have no idea how fortunate that decision was).

We met at the Janney house and I took the opportunity to stay warm and view the amazing work of local artists on display for the final weekend of the Juried Art Show.  I always find myself torn between feeling inspired and discouraged as an artist when I am exposed to such incredible talent.

Sixteen mature adults piled into a handful of cars and I would venture a guess that more than a few conversations among longtime friends and new acquaintances started with the question, “What’s your medium?”

When asked, I stuttered and stumbled and finally said, “Learning?” and decided I needed to come up with a better response.  A serious discussion about art took place in the front seat and a more casual one happened in the back.  I enjoyed myself so much that I have no idea how long we were on the road and I couldn’t describe the landscape if I had to.

One of the things I appreciated the most was that no one seemed to find my desire to take pictures of random things in front of the museum to be the least bit odd.  In fact it turns out that there are other people who can’t resist the urge to capture a digital image of a swirly leaf and its interesting shadow against the curb.  It’s fascinating to think that a single photo might come to life in a drawing, a painting, within a written scene, or printed onto photo paper and framed.

I got a kick out of the fact that there was another field trip taking place at the same time and the leaders of each group had similar challenges in rounding people up and quieting them down, although I think the six-year olds may not have wandered off on their own as much as we did.

Our personal guide, a member of the group and docent, made the museum come to life through explanations about the exhibits, tidbits about the artists and their relationships with each other and the community, and facts about the founder of the museum and famous author, James A. Michener.  He was raised in Doylestown and the people of the town held the threat of going to the Buck’s County Prison over his head if he didn’t ‘change his ways.’ I found it interesting and ironic to learn that he did indeed end up in the prison located in Doylestown when he renovated it into a museum designed to celebrate life and art.

The Painterly Voice was the primary focus of our visit; through the history and highlights about the pieces and the artist shared by our guide along with the impressions, observations, and insights from the group, I experienced art in a way I didn’t know was possible.  I completed my tour with the story of James and Mari, a man from an impoverished background and a woman who spent part of her youth in a Japanese internment camp who, together, left behind a legacy of beauty and hope. Armed with my iPad I slipped into my favorite spot in the museum, the Nakashima Reading Room, to record my thoughts and collect my emotions.

The visit to the museum was followed by lunch at a local pub filled with lively conversation, plenty of laughs, excellent food, and genuine people.  The conversation ranged from pets to piano lessons and from art to food and family.  I can’t wait for the next field trip and the chance to answer the question, “What’s your medium?”

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I’ve Been Framed

Teachers can have a profound and lasting impact on us.  While overall I have positive memories of school, there are a few incidents that I remember like they happened yesterday.  Like the time I tried hiding my stewed tomatoes in my milk carton in an attempt to fool the teacher monitoring the lunchroom into thinking I had actually eaten them so I could go out to recess.

It was an epic fail, she not only caught me but I found myself bundled for the weather and watching the snow crunch under my classmates’ feet from the window.

I think I got in trouble a grand total of four times throughout grade school and on at least one of those occasions I was not the perpetrator.  In some ways, I have to laugh when I think about the fact that I was such a chatterbox in art class that my teacher thought the solution was to put dry paper towels in my mouth.  I admit it did the trick and I was quiet in class from that point on.

Unfortunately, it also had an unintended consequence and I developed a negative association with drawing and art classes in general.  I avoided them like the plague, took only what was required, made sure to stay a safe distance from the instructor, and did the bare minimum.

I’m not sure why it is but it seems that as human beings, some of us more than others, we are pre-disposed to remembering the negative experiences and we allow them to limit ourselves when it comes to achieving our full potential.  Combine that with a healthy dose of perfectionism and you have a recipe for never trying or, in my case, more than a few false starts.

After college, I dabbled a bit in the world of drawing and painting with a few lessons and a class. I created a couple of pieces I was happy with.  However I never really put my heart into it and I paid more attention to the ones that didn’t turn out instead of those that did. I highly doubt it was the experience in fourth grade that caused the start and stop syndrome, although that’s what I tended to blame it on.  It was more likely the fact that I like things to come easily and when they don’t I tend to quit.

The most amusing attempt was when I registered to take a life drawing class with Jeff.  Little did I know that a life drawing class didn’t mean penciling bowls of fruit and landscapes but involved portraying the human form in charcoal.  I’ve always been intimidated by the prospect of creating a representation of a person, let alone when they are nude and my easel is set up next to my seventeen-year-old son’s.

As a result of my experience with Walking in This World (Julia Cameron), I dusted off my desire to draw, bought a sketchbook, and took the bold step of registering for the Intermediate/Advanced level drawing class through a local organization, Artists of Yardley.

I was petrified on the first day of class.  My one and only “real” class took place twenty-two years ago.  I perched in front of the easel stiff and nearly paralyzed, staring at the sunflower we were supposed to reproduce. Unsure of everything including which one of the two dozen pencils I should use I picked one and drew a circle, the center of the flower.

I felt my instructors hand on my waist and the other on my arm.

“Relax, you can draw.  I can tell,” she said.

“I really think I should have waited for the next beginner session,” I replied.

She touched my shoulder, “You’re right where you should be. When you complete this, I really hope you frame it because it’s going to be beautiful.”

I took a deep breath, nodded, and tried not to look at the other students as petals and leaves seemed to fly out of their hands and onto the paper. After three hours my outline was complete and I had shaded seven petals, less than a third of what anyone else had completed.  I have to admit that I felt the symptoms of start and stop again syndrome coming on strong and the voice inside my head said, “You can’t do it and you shouldn’t even try.  It’s too hard and the other students are so much better.”

I posted my unfinished drawing on Facebook, used the encouragement and feedback from friends and my instructor’s words, “you can draw” and “you’re right where you should be” to drown out the doubts.

Three years ago today I discovered a town named New Hope and bought a necklace, a silver sun, which I haven’t taken off outside of airport security and the chiropractor since I put it on.  Yesterday I completed my sunflower, a flower that represents the sun and like the sun it symbolizes warmth and happiness and for me it also stands hope and faith. I enjoy the ironies and coincidences life brings.

I can’t wait to show it to my instructor followed by a trip to Michaels after which I can officially say, “I’ve been framed.”

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It’s Never too Late to Bloom

sunflower a work in progress
As a young girl I enjoyed few things more than losing myself in the adventures of The Boxcar Children (Gertrude Chandler Warner)and Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren), but my favorite will always be the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.   Every time I opened the pages and began to read, I became Laura (of course with the exception of Farmer Boy).  I’m not sure what I identified with the most; it could have been that her family moved often, maybe it was because it was set in the Midwest, or perhaps I saw myself somewhere inside the girl with the spunky and offbeat spirit.  I think I secretly wanted my nickname to be Half-Pint.

I recently found myself once again identifying with Laura, although this time it was with the author not the character.  I was blown away when I learned that her adventure as a writer began when she was in her forties and she got her start by writing columns about rural life for a couple of publications in Missouri. I was even more inspired by the fact that she was sixty-five when her first book Little House in the Big Woods was published. I never would have guessed that the “real” Laura was a late bloomer.  I also nearly spit my coffee out all over the keyboard when I read that her daughter Rose was her editor and collaborator.

It reminded me of my relationship with my daughter (and editor) Katie and our good natured banter and email exchanges; not only does she help me wade through the mysteries of when to use a semi colon and not a comma, she also provides me with great suggestions and isn’t afraid to let me know when a piece needs some “fine tuning” or in some cases “fine tunaing.”

I still enjoy living new experiences and adventures vicariously through characters created by my favorite authors, but these days I’m also creating a few of my own.  I’d been thinking about taking a drawing class for a couple of months but I hadn’t done anything past bookmarking the site and waffling about whether or not it would be a good decision.

I finally got up the nerve to register for the beginning drawing class. I provided my information, took a deep breath, clicked the submit registration button, and then didn’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved by the message on the screen.  “We’re sorry, the class is sold out.”   I reached for the phone.

“Hello, I just tried registering for the beginning drawing class but it’s sold out.  Can you tell me when the next one will be?” I asked.

“We don’t have it scheduled yet, but there is room in the Intermediate/Advanced drawing class,” she replied.

“Oh…ummm…no, I couldn’t possibly do that.  I haven’t drawn in more than twenty years and that was just one class.  I think I should wait for the next session for beginners.”

“It’s like riding a bike, once you’ve done it, all you have to do is get back in the saddle and the rest will come.  Maybe this is opportunity knocking, we only have three people registered and we’re going to have to cancel it if we don’t get one more. I really think you’ll like it,” she coaxed.

Two weeks later I found myself driving up the narrow drive toward the nineteenth century farmhouse that the Artists of Yardley call home.  I perched on my stool in front of the easel and tried not to hyperventilate while the instructor held up the image we were supposed to reproduce.  After more than a few false starts and lots of calming encouragement from the teacher I settled down and just drew.

The subject matter for the first lesson was a Sunflower in full bloom, it somehow fits doesn’t it?

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