My paper, silk and gold and bronze leaf piecework quilts are a result of over 25 years of collecting. As a formally trained painter and printmaker, (BFA Atlanta College of Art, 1974) I was introduced to handmade papers from Japan by my printmaking teacher, Norman Wagner. After college I started exhibiting collage watercolors using torn bits of these beautiful papers filled with chips of tree bark (chiri washi paper) and different natural; materials such as leaves, chopped straw and plant fibers. One of the reasons Japanese papers are so beautiful and easy to use is that they are stronger than most papers because they are made by hand in rural villages from plants that grow along the streams. The fibers are steamed and then beaten and separated by hand (as opposed to a machine chopping it up into small bits) and when these fibers interlock to form sheets of paper they are stronger and more beautiful because of their irregularity.
In 1978 I was working on a series of mixed-media structured collages which were accented with German variegated bronze leaf (which I still use). This is a uniquely patterned and colored metal which repels watercolor paints. This series of work often used triangles, blocks and repeating rows of geometric shapes of paper, both cut and torn. At that time I was also developing the "Prism Series" which resembled shoji screens of grids made out of flat sticks tied together with Japanese paper glued over them and then hand painted and embellished. This work won many awards and I continue to use the basic images from this transformed into sewn piecework with accents of bronze and palladium leaf.
I was looking at a paper sample book from AIKO'S ART MATERIALS in Chicago when I noticed that the papers in one section were the same colors as Amish quilts, bright true solid colors. I thought it was very interesting. The geometry and color play of these quilts made by such an isolated group of people fascinated me. This revelation gave the idea to sew all the papers together on a sewing machine. It was an experiment with a different form of collage, which proved to be instantly successful.
The first primitive geometric piecework quilts were based on traditional blocks, Fans, stars and bear paws. Eventually I was making quilts of many blocks sewn together like whole quilts. The first ones were not stuffed with batting nor were they finished on the back with fabrics and tied through the layers. I discovered a paper from Japan called momi, kira-momi or keyosi paper which is used in traditional crafts there such as doll making, boxes, wrapping gifts and bookbinding. It resembles a wrinkled crepe fabric and sews very much like cloth. It is a naturally white sheet which is dyed many colors afterward and it wrinkled generally by "grandmother" and painted with a thick plant emulsion which sizes it like starch. It is often mistaken for leather and is available in metallics and there is a version that is painted with ground up mica which has a pearlized type of finish.
Now I quite frequently paint and dye this paper myself certain colors for commissions. It has been difficult for me to get good thick sheets of Keosei paper lately as more and more papermakers are getting elderly and there are fewer young people who are willing to do this physically demanding work I started using silk to supplement the papers when I couldn't find the colors and patterns I wanted. I also liked the way patterned silks complimented the papers when pieced together. Sometimes it is easier to put these piecework quilts together if I alternate paper-silk-paper, etc., because it is easier to fold flat and iron. All of my work is sewn on a commercial SINGER sewing machine with a #9 needle with a wide stitch. If I used a bigger needle and a shorter stitch it would be like tearing a check out of your checkbook. I use a zipper presser foot and do seams that tend to be between 1/10 and 1/8 inch. I use rotary cutters and the smallest size I sew is generally cut at ½ inch. I don't generally have a problem with tearing and if I miss sewing an area I can generally sew it twice or rip it out with a seam ripper and fix it.
Although my work is "handmade" I do use a machine. I assure you my hands are right there during all of it. There is no advantage to sew it totally by hand other than to make it weaker and mindlessly difficult and boring. Often large pieces of my work have over 2,000 pieces of paper less than 2 inches in them already. Generally it takes me more time to prepare the materials, search for, separate or paint the colors I have chose, and clean off my worktable than it takes for me to sew.
I traveled to Japan for the first time in 1985 with my ex-husband Dan and with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, a Grammy winning Blues Legend on a six city tour. Dan worked for "Gate" playing the piano as part of his band for over three years. In Kyoto I found a paper store (called "washi" in Japan) which had hundreds of papers I had never seen. I bought a sheet of everything and gave the rolls to the road crew to pack along with the bands equipment. In Tokyo I visited the Origami Kaikan (Center) which is a wonderful store which has been in the family of Mr. Kabo Kobayashi for over 170 years. His family is one of the oldest papermaking and sellers in the country and his knowledge of all things paper is extraordinary. Additionally he is one of the friendliest people and will stop everything in his store to give a tour and demonstration of his craft. He manufactures many tie-dyed folded papers which are rare and unusual. He has collected my work and has invited me to participate in the National Collage Show and Takashemeya Department Store in Tokyo.
There were times I couldn't get the colors or patterns of paper that I wanted so one day, while looking at a silk dress I had ruined with salad dressing, I realized I could use silk along with the papers in my work. Trips to thrift stores would reward me with dresses and shirts for $2 or $3, which were a yard or two of silk once you cut them up. I've purchased silk for up to $75 per yard, so the idea of getting a deal and also re-cycling was great. The best silks generally come from the Junior League Thrift Store and are size 6. Old Kimonos are also treasured but men's ties aren't really enough fabric for the effort of tearing them apart. My favorite silk is dupponi from India with its irregular slubs and iridescent sheen. Silk is a naturally triangular fiber so that you always see light reflected off of two surfaces.
My next trip to Japan in 1989 was highlighted by the discovery of gold and silver papers unlike any I have ever seen. They are used in making the dolls in the glass boxes and traditional crafts. I also discovered bronze leaf made in the mountains near Kyoto which comes in a myriad of colors which traditionally is used on laquerware, folding screens and dancers folding fans. I also use 23K (karat) gold leaf from Italy and Australia and a rosy 22K leaf from Russia and pure Palladium (Moongold) from Germany. Additionally I use bronze leaf which looks like real gold and variegated bronze leaf. The variegated has a pattern on it which is random from a flame and a chemically heated patina. No two sheets are exactly the same and a package of 500 sheets is generally in the same color range. I also use Japanese bronze leaf which comes in many solid colors such as red, blue and coppery oranges. The Japanese leaf has tissue paper between each sheet (which is famous in Japan for use as a blotter to get oil off ladies faces) and is about 5 1/4 x 5 ¼ inches square. 500 sheets with the tissue paper are about 1 ½ inches tall (how's that for thin?) and cost about $325.00 U. S. depending on the exchange rates for the yen. Imitation gold leaf is about $50.00 for 500 sheets and is much thicker which makes it easier to handle and to glue down to paper. I glue all the leaf to black Japanese paper before cutting it up and sewing it. Pure gold leaf is lighter than air and melts to your fingers. It is difficult to work with and there is waste.
Upon arrival back home, Dan gave me a box of Godiva Chocolates for Valentines Day. As I unwrapped and ate each piece I noticed that the foils were different shades of golds and the outer box was pure gold. I said to myself, "I wonder what would happen if I sewed all these different shades of gold together?" It would either be wonderful or awful. The "Power of Gold" series was created and has to be one of the most striking, powerful examples of my work. One of the most popular, too.
I am probably one of the few artists you will ever see who used thrift store dresses (silk only) and pure gold in their artwork. Few people sew any longer and the good fabric stores are about all out of business. Silk is hard to find and when you do it is expensive. The beauty of my work is the combination of all the parts. The paper, silk and gold leaf piecework constructions are uniquely my work. I take great pride in my craftsmanship and of being able to re-invent a traditional craft tradition. It is tedious and exacting work and I am not interested in, nor am I able too, mass-produced. In 1998 I developed a technique of inlaying my piecework into plaster for presentation boxes and crosses. This series does not have to be framed under glass and is sealed, something which cannot be done with silks.
SOURCES FOR JAPANESE PAPERS AND PASTEPAPERS
New York City - Pearls Paint on Canal and other locations throughout the United States, New York Central Supply, Kate's Paperie and Talas Bookbinding Supply
Chicago - Aiko's Art Materials (Unfortuneately closed 4/2008)
Tokyo - Origami Kaikan (Center) near the Yushima Train Station (03) 811-4025, Haibara Co. (Go to subway Nihombashi - exit C3 and you should be in front of the store) Also look in the English language Yellow Pages under "paper" or "washi" or "art supply"
Kyoto - Morita Paper and there is a nice store next to the Kyoto Museum
Maziarczyk Pastepapers - Claire Maziarczyk produces the most wonderful line of handmade decorative pastepapers which come in atleast a hundred different designs. They are used primarily for bookbinding, framing and decorative uses. This is an old English tradition where paint was mixed with starch and painted on paper. Before it dried designs were scratched through the top layer with combs and tools to let the underneath colors show through in patterns. Originally a bookbinder's art, very few of these papers survived because insects ate the starchy paints and the phrase "bookwork" came to be known. A truly inspiring sample book is available. Link to her at Pastepaper@AOL.com or call (518) 374 - 5325