The Largest Reaches of Life
For these three artists, paper resonates
as a medium for exploring paradoxes,
miracles, and mysteries
by Micah Pulleyn
Upon first glance, the works of Michelle Samour,
Lucy Arai, and Marijke Arp are seemingly unrelated. However,
as we learn about what quickens the hearts of these three,
it becomes apparent that there is more than a common medium-paper-that
unifies their work. Samour, Arai, and Arp, whose guiding principle
embraces the paradoxes found in their lives and work, have
dedicated their hands to working with a material that is capable
of realizing their vision. While their creations are formally
very different, the concepts and intentions they share create
a wonderful dialogue. The reasonable response to their work
is that of a deepened awareness of the world, a spark of inspiration,
perhaps even a call to look at the art of paper-one of the
most versatile and immediately rewarding materials in the
world-with fresh eyes.
|Michelle Samour, Animal (studio shot), 2001;
pigmented pulp on wood, four panels; 66 by 120 by 3 inches.
Photo: Robert Schoen.
The works of paper artist Michelle Samour seem to throb,
dance, vibrate, glow, and breathe, and rightly so, for her
images are direct references to cosmology, biology, archaeology,
religion, chemistry, and other fields of inquiry. Samour's
drawings allude to things seen through both a microscope and
a telescope. She writes:
In my work, the paper is the field for discovery. It
is at once earth and sky. The images that emerge from, or
float on, the surface make references to fossils, stars,
atoms, and microorganisms. These images talk about beginnings
without end. When I am working I think about digging away
the earth or opening up a rock to reveal a fossil. I think
about looking through a microscope and seeing the seemingly
inanimate, move. I think about gazing up at a night sky,
waiting for my eyes to adjust enough to find a star. From
dark to light, from finite to infinite, my work is a meditation
on the power of the unknown.
|Lucy Arai, 1998.9, 1998; handmade paper, sumi
ink, thread; sumi-e painting, sashiko (running-stitch
embroidery); 120 by 40 inches.
Michelle Samour approaches her primary medium, pigmented
paper pulp, as a means to an end and believes that the conceptual
and intentional backing is of utmost importance to her work.
At the same time, she is a deeply skilled craftsperson committed
to her studio experience. She has been working with paper
and exhibiting her work for more than 25 years and currently
teaches papermaking at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts
in Boston, Massachusetts. She has worked collaboratively with
other members of the papermaking community to refine her process,
and in 1999 she visited papermaking villages throughout Japan,
a trip that deepened her respect for the craft. Her pieces
show a mastery of material and an understanding of the organic
nature of paper pulp.
The process is simple, but not easy. She pigments both abaca
and gampi pulp with aqueous dispersed pigment specific for
papermaking. She then manipulates the pulp in a 4- by 8-foot
vacuum table, which sucks the moisture out, or applies the
pulp onto large wooden stretchers. After it has dried, she
uses gelatin to size the paper and then draws on the paper
with oil stick or paint.
Samour is not only committed to advancing her career as a
paper artist but also intent on honoring her curiosities for
nature. In 1992, she studied fossils in the Southwest United
States. It is evident that there is no distinct differentiation
between Samour the artist and Samour the mystic. She is able
to touch upon the innate awe and wonder with which we honor
the riddles and paradoxes of the world. The pieces she creates
on behalf of her wonder seem as though they are at once visual
anthems to the spontaneities and timelessness of the
universe, meditations on the intricacies and the mysteries
of nature, and offerings of gratitude for the creative explosions
in her life.
Lucy Arai has transformed the traditional crafts of Japanese
sashiko (running-stitch embroidery) and sumi-e
(ink painting) to emerge with a body of work that harmoniously
pays homage to multiple polarities in her life. From her Japanese
mother, Arai acquired a deep understanding of the aesthetics,
customs, traditions, and arts of Japan. Working with thread
most of her life, Arai learned sashiko, shibori dyeing, bookbinding,
and temari (in which balls are "embroidered" with silk
thread) while she was growing up. Arai's American father shared
with her a respect for the interconnectedness of all things
and for the diversity of life. "It is through his love and
curiosity of the vast world in which we live," she writes,
"that I am on a journey from within myself out into the largest
reaches of life, from subatomic particles, social and cultural
diversity and the universe beyond our planet."
|Lucy Arai, 2001.5, 2001; handmade paper, sumi
ink, thread; sumi e painting, sashiko; 120 by 40 inches.
Honoring her bicultural heritage, Arai has combined the aesthetic,
spiritual, inquisitive, and expressive gifts from her American
and Japanese influences. Her pieces are grand creations of
the spiritual and aesthetic ritual she refers to as "the meditative
nature of ongoing practice in the studio." Exploring wholeness,
unity, tension, balance, and self-awareness, Arai uses the
language of her material to say what words cannot, and does
so with the utmost grace.
The process Arai uses represents a diverse repertoire of
traditional Japanese arts. She begins with handmade paper,
which has, for thousands of years, been a product of Japan
exhibiting unbelievable patience, beauty, and skill. Working
on a sheet of handmade paper, Arai applies sumi ink,
a dense black wash that enlivens the paper with contrast.
She sometimes uses indigo dye in addition. Her vivid deep
black (and blue) forms, which alone are lively evocations
of natural phenomena, traditional Japanese landscape paintings,
and minimalist calligraphic meditations, are then transformed
with sashiko, Japan's elegant stitchery tradition.
Concentric circles, parallel lines, intricate patterns, and
radiating lines stitched atop the painted organic shapes create
a harmonious dialogue of tensions that represent the dynamics
alive in her own life. She writes: "I have grown beyond the
study of duality to embrace my Japanese and American heritages
with perpetual awe in what they teach me about being a part
of the world community."
Lucy Arai has exhibited extensively in the United States
and overseas for well over 20 years, is represented in dozens
of corporate and private collections, and has lectured, taught,
and curated throughout the United States. She received her
B.F.A. in ceramics from the University of Michigan and has
since pursued curatorial museum studies at Cranbrook Academy
of Art and at the University of Michigan. Arai currently lives
and works in Washington, D.C.
It is evident that Marijke Arp is playing with a variety
of tensions in her work. Large in scope and scale, Arp's pieces
bring together elements of organic and inorganic forms, traditional
and contemporary materials, layers of transparency and opacity,
as well as order and chaos. The effect is dazzling, for what
seems (on the surface) to be a fanatical love of rhythm, repetition,
and pattern is also a celebration of the multiple spontaneities
of nature. Arp's titles include references to waterfalls,
butterflies, clouds, and strands of DNA-all manifestations
of infinite beauty and complexity that are momentary and unique.
|Marijke Arp, DNA=Unique (diptych), 2000; paper
(enlarged photocopies) layered with transparent plastic
foil, sewn with thread, connected with metal rings; 63
by 144 inches. Also shown are Donnan and Truro
by Mary Merkel-Hess, made from reed and paper. Works by
Arp, Merkel-Hess, and seven others were included in a
spring exhibition, "On Paper," at the gallery browngrotta
arts in Wilton, Conn. Photo: Tom Grotta.
Her body of work includes installations, wall pieces, and
3-D sculptures, all of which contain her basic material, paper.
Many of Arp's pieces contain references to the historic function
of paper-communication. Small pieces of paper with letterlike
symbols, pages of books, and found posters, as well as representations
of DNA as other carriers of "language," are found throughout
her work. She writes:
Paper in our society has become so ordinary that one
can almost forget that it is composed of natural fibers.
As one of our most important means of communication it cannot
be thought of away from our society. As the medium for posters,
newspapers, books, and in my art, it tells us stories, and
helps express ideas, feelings and desires.
Working with paper allows me to stay loyal to two principles:
First to trap the opposites in materials, such as paper
and synthetics, and second, to do so without permitting
those materials to lose their separate identities.
|Marijke Arp, A Waterfall of Words (with
detail below), 1996; paper, transparent plastic foil,
cotton thread, welded square tubing; 79 by 20 by 14
inches. The paper represents the first page of the Bible,
which talks about creation; after God created mankind,
comments Arp, "mankind spoke, many words, and since
then, many words are spoken, like waterfalls that fill
rivers." Photos: Tom Grotta.
At first, Marijke Arp worked with the basic element of textile
art, the thread. From there, she tried to find materials that
contrasted and yet still were able to create a complementary
relationship. Integrating synthetic materials, such as Tyvek
(a nonwoven polyethylene material), into her work with paper
and thread stretched the scope of opposites. As Arp's repertoire
of materials has grown through ongoing discoveries, her ability
to successfully layer contrasting textures and optical qualities
has established her as an artist talented in taming the paradox
Arp lives and works in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. Her work
has been seen throughout Europe and abroad, in various international
publications, and in many collections.
For each of these three artists, paper seems to have provided
a way to communicate the disparate influences of their lives
into a dynamic expression of beauty. These artists, and their
creations, can provide us with a deeper respect for the confluent
aspects of our lives and work.
Micah Pulleyn is a papermaker and bookbinder living in
Asheville, North Carolina.
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