Fiddling with Paper


Aimee Lee’s first ambition was to become a concert violinist, but she quickly realized she wanted more out of life than practicing eight hours daily on the instrument. When her fervor for the fiddle waned, Lee’s discovery of paper making was like falling in love.

Lee’s explanation of this passion refers poetically to some “Big Ideas.” These include:

Hands: “I call them magic hands. I could never live without them, and they always stay busy. They have seen me through the biggest traumas of my life, weaving and knitting when I couldn’t sleep, making things to express otherwise inexpressible things.”

Water: “I grew up along a river that I never fully appreciated until I went away to a landlocked college.”

Discipline: “I am accustomed to rigorous physical practice, either with my body or in tandem with an instrument.”

Labor: “I have always loved to work, and work hard.”

Books: “I have always loved to read. I love to make books, gift them, and use them. And books are made of paper, including the ones with music printed all over them.”

Nature and sustainability: “Paper comes from plants. And learning the cycles of plants, when to harvest, how to cook, how to make ash water to cook the plants, which plants will yield what kind of fiber or dye, is all intrinsically tied up in the land and how we care for it.”

Performance: “Papermaking uses the whole body, and its product can clothe and adorn the body, create spaces for it to move through, and act as props to communicate with others. I make paper precisely because I am interested in everything else.”

These elements have taken Lee and her paper art down several challenging paths. One of the most demanding proved to be her MFA thesis, which entailed building a huge paper brick tower. Lee learned that what she envisioned and the sheer logistics of it didn’t necessarily jive – especially when it came to the idea of  making paper bricks. While interning at Dobbin Mill and working with Robbin Ami Silverberg, a master papermaker with a degree in sculpture, Lee discovered an affordable and ingenious way of making molds. After making more than 2,000 of the bricks the questions was how she would build the structure. In the end it was pieced together like huge Legos. Says Lee, “The tower went from floor to ceiling, but it was hung from the ceiling down. I mounted it and said I’d never do it again, and then I mounted it again at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, MA, and then I said I’d never do it again. And that time I threw it away to make sure I’d really never do it again.”

According to Lee, the most challenging part of the project was actually the title. Called “Hunk, & Dora” many people have assumed the comma was a typo, and that it referred to two names. The piece originally had a performance component to it where Lee had drawn comics on loose bricks as gifts to individual audience members. She had been inspired by the comics of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat series, in which one comic had Krazy Kat comforting Ignatz the Mouse by saying something to the effect of, “don’t worry, everything will be hunk, & dora.” As in, hunky dory! Lee comments, “What I love the most about Herriman is his amazing use of his own language and spelling. This was lost on almost everyone. But that’s okay; I work in many layers and not everyone will get every layer.”

After finishing her MFA, Lee hit the “colony circuit” which took her across the country and to Mexico. It was during one of these circuits that Lee decided to knit paper. She spun and twisted handmade paper into yarn and says, “I remember that the first time I did it, I hated it. It hurt my hands a lot and was very difficult. After knitting a tiny square, I vowed never to do it again. Less than a month later, I did it again. I figured out a better way, by purling rather than knitting, to help me control the tightness better. Once I got going, it was like second nature.”

Knitting paper brought many satisfying experiences including the process of making paper to knit with, how to prepare it and turn it into yarn. She enjoyed being in between papermaking and textiles or as she says, “not quite in one or the other, because it made it possible for me to work without being bothered by either field–I made up all the rules as I went along.” Another aspect of her paper knit work she loved was figuring out a way to print on knitted paper.

However, the turning point with paper happened with a Fulbright grant to research hanji or hand-papermaking in Korea for a year. Lee trained in the northeastern part of Korea at Shin Hyun Seh Traditional Hanji, which produces some of the finest hanji in the country. Hanji is a complicated and labor intensive process that involves multiple back breaking steps.  Her hanji experience says Lee, “was life changing. I fell in love with hanji, with learning about the culture I was partially raised in, with Korean food, with the landscape, with the work ethic, and with people.”

Currently Lee is in Northern Ireland researching the flax and linen industry. At the moment she’s examining several ideas, but has no idea of what any of them will turn into. She notes that living in Northern Ireland she inevitably affects her with its “post-conflict” status. Lee says, “Some people say it’s not “post-” at all–a car bomb just went off a couple of days ago not far from Belfast–but regardless, it’s fascinating. And sad. So I am thinking a lot about death, sorrow, and war.”

To learn more about Aimee Lee visit or her blog Lee’s work is on consignment with Abecedarian Gallery in Denver, Lost Coast Culture Machine in Fort Bragg, CA, and Diaspora Vibe Gallery in Miami. Readers can learn more about her papermaking in upcoming articles in Buddhism and Culture, Hand Papermaking Magazine, and The New Journal of the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild.