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September/October 2002


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
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

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.

Marijke Arp
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 she creates.

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.

This article first appeared in:

Sept/Oct 2002

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