The fire within handmade pages
I often get asked about what my books represent to me personally. I see each book I complete as an event or a story. I use a poem, or a sentence, or an image, and from one of those elements, I spin a tale or a page and the book grows from that point. The blank pages in the books I create aren’t just “nothing.” They might contain your dreams, thoughts, fears, or your words, or whatever you wish to put down. The pages are sturdy and moveable; the haptic quality of reading pages bound in a book—blank or otherwise—informs the brain, and connects the senses to one’s intelligence. These pages might even contain a miracle. A fire. A tempest. A teapot. A home.
I always knew books held secrets, stories, and my mother told me that as a little girl I loved being read to. Our village library, a very old structure (circa Revolutionary War), had marvelous books, an old fireplace with overstuffed chairs where I could sometimes sit and read. The reading room with vast, elegant wood tables and Windsor chairs was my favorite place. I loved shelves full of books, but we had few books at home when I was growing up. At the same time, my mom taught me to sew on Kleenex, then rags, then cloth. As I improved, I learned to weave pot holders. Thus fiber and books were there way back when I was a child. Another connection: my mom’s birth name was Weaver.
During college when I was working on a textile design degree, some of the other weaving students were talking about making paper. I almost burst because I never thought that was possible, but I talked a friend into showing me what was happening. She became my mentor, and I started an independent study in papermaking where I produced lots of paper made from a variety of materials–cotton linters and rag, linen rag and half stuff. I made an edition of blue jean rag paper from my own jeans. Later I made many collage pieces that included hand dyed cottons from my other textile work. My first teacher of papermaking was my friend, and later in workshops I learned more from Peggy Prentice from Twinrocker, Elaine and Donna Kortesky from Carriage House, Asao Shimura, and Tom Leach.
The first bound book I created came about serendipitously. After college I lived in a little Adirondack town, Star Lake. I found a book at our library about British designer bookbinders, and was blown away. It turned out that one of them, Sally Smith, summered in Cranberry Lake. I met Sally and she invited me over and taught me how to make a case bound book.
I became interested in binding papers into books once my stack of handmade papers really got tall! Book content became very important as I gained more experience and confidence. My first books were fairly simple; several were blank books, but all held something special–my paper. Often the pages were unusual sizes or shapes or had inclusions like threads, fiber, cloth, or had been manipulated by me in some way.
Over time I became interested in spinning my own paper. In Japan the art of shifu is practiced by skilled spinner/weavers using kozo (a mulberry variety) paper. These are cut, spun (they call it twisting, differentiating between that and spinning loose fibers), and possibly dyed. The paper is then woven into yardage that is used in a variety of ways. Currently I’m spinning lokta, the wonderful paper that is made in Nepal. I buy Nepalese lokta (I also make lokta paper) and find it is wonderful to spin as well as dye.
I have spun kozo, dress pattern papers, newspaper, Thai paper, and a little hanji (Korean paper). Spinning paper takes time–prep requires concentration because I must slice up large papers into one continuous strand. This cutting looks like a “Chinese lantern” cut in very fine widths. It is worked a bit then torn into a continuous strand and placed in a vessel that will allow it to be fed to the spinner’s hands. I use a bobbin winder that’s intended for loading thread on to weaving shuttles to spin paper or sometimes I use a spinning wheel. Spinning paper requires a very soft, even touch, and a light hand. It is not at all similar to spinning linen or wool, because the fibers are already processed first into paper that is later sliced. Spinning paper takes great skill, especially if you are spinning very fine. And the fiber prep also takes a good amount of skill.
I recently completed a project for Wendy Golden-Levitt who had decided that she wanted to purchase some paper or shifu from me for her therapy work with children. We exchanged emails and finally decided on a book of a variety of my handmade paper pages. Wendy said to make whatever I think would work for me. I decided to weave a cover for a collection of a variety of my handmade papers. I wove lokta weft on cotton warp shifu. I added a thin weft stripe of gold, lokta dyed with rust, after every seven rows of natural color lokta. The resulting shifu I sewed on to University of Iowa flax paper (for durability) and I sewed the pages into the cover with a traditional stationer’s style of binding which dates back to medieval Europe. Thus the book includes pages made from many papers, including day lily, cotton rag, iris, hickory, hosta, slippery elm, dogbane, and others.
Wendy responded when she received the book, telling me how much she liked it. She brought it to her studio almost immediately to work with a boy who had recently lost both his parents. According to Wendy, the boy’s grief and rage were palpable, but he took the book from her hands, sat down, and smelled the thing for at least five minutes. He made no eye contact with her, just the book I had made. After fifteen minutes of holding and smelling it, but not opening it, he said, according to Wendy, “This will be my story. I don’t want to talk to people. I want to talk to this book and tell what I want to tell.” He spent a half an hour beginning to feel one page at a time, and talking about his anger, his utter rage that his parents had died and he was left an orphan. Each page became the place where his life could be safely shared. Each page held for him the complicated grief he was feeling. He said, “Each squiggly line and spot on these pages has my story. And I like that they will not move…and hold my words. I hate that my parents are dead. I can’t talk about it. I can only talk with the pages of this book.” The boy asked who made the book, and Wendy told him my name. He said, “I want this Velma book every time I have to come here.” Wendy agreed.
Later they move into the sand tray, back to the book, into movement, back to the book, into Wendy’s arms with waves of grief, back to the book. He said to her at the end of his session, “Velma’s book stays out of the sun. Velma’s book will help me. I only got to the fourth page. I think my story will end when Velma’s book ends. That is good for me. I think Velma likes horses and wood.”
Several children and a woman have now had similar experiences now, all working with Wendy facilitating, guiding. Wendy writes or calls when there is an extraordinary interaction, for example one child likes my book to rest on her skin next to her heart, some like to “read” it, or put cloths made by Jude Hill or Glennis Dolce over, under it. Some tell it stories. This book, it seems, holds secrets and sustains those who use it. I feel like the years of learning and work (papers made over time, perhaps 15 or 20 years are in it) and the shear tactile energy of it are helping people heal.
This story leads me to wonder about the connections people feel with much of what I make. I do know that there is often an extraordinary interest in my papers and books and fiber works. I suspect there is a connection to the earth that some people feel in my work. That is actually a huge element for me in the harvesting, experimenting, spinning, weaving, dyeing, and making of paper and books.
For more information about paper artist Velma Bolyard, visit her blog, Wake Robin at: www.velmabolyard.blogspot.com. Wake Robin is the name of her paper mill.
Bolyard also wrote a book called 24 Nests, a narrative about making paper from twenty-four birds’ nests. See www.warwickpress.com for information.