As I mentioned in my blog post from last week, “Finding Humanity in Process: The Tender Work of Claudia Roma,” I had the pleasure of touring the Academia di Belle Arti Roma’s papermaking studio! It was a sunny Friday afternoon. I walked to the Piazza del Popolo from Temple’s campus, past the art store Poggi (where our University’s art students get a 20% discount on all materials) and a little cafe where classes often go for critiques. I arrived at the Academia di Belle Arti Roma in preparation to interview artist Claudia Roma on her work “Il cassetto.” Much to my happy surprise, I was gifted a tour of the paper making studio and dye lab! Unlike America where we bulldoze over all old buildings to create new, Italians have been keeping the old and restoring them for centuries (stories of ancient ruins being recycled into new architecture are frequent in our art history lectures)! As I walked through the ornate gates into the front courtyard littered with chain smoking students, I noted the beauty of the building. Only several stories high and quite compact, it stood shaped in a semicircle, the courtyard filling its crescent shape.
Once Claudia rounded the corner and we greeted each other, she took me into a ground level room that smelled of the tannic earthiness of paper pulp and natural dyes. Different handmade dye charts and works in progress hung on the walls and on clotheslines strung about the studio. My friend chatted excitedly about the purpose of each of the stations and tools in the various rooms and introduced me to her fellow students. Upon showing me the dye lab, we chatted for hours about the different ways to make pigments! It is of particular interest to me because I am in Bill Petit’s class “Painting, Materials and Techniques,” which gives an overview of making pigment from organic, non-toxic materials. We prattled on about crushing and fermenting oak galls to make ink and drying, crushing and boiling down buckthorne to make green pigment, onion skins for yellow, and avocado pits for pink. Claudia’s cohort Giacomo even chimed in to give me instructions to make my own pastels!
After hours of nerdy art jibber jabber, Claudia offered to teach me to make my own paper. I gladly accepted. I had made my own paper once in Thailand out of elephant excrement (which is basically just grass) by drying it in the sun, boiling it down and putting the pulp through a screen and letting it dry in the sun. This process was a little more challenging. Claudia instructed me to get two screens, one to collect and filter the pulp and glue mixture from a large tupperware bin and another to hold the paper while it dried, and clean them thoroughly. Once cleaned, I was directed to sponge water onto a strip of thick felt covering a medium-sized wooden table until it squelched with water. This would be the surface the filtered paper pulp would be transferred onto. It needed to be wet so as to keep the paper from ripping apart during transference. Once my tools and surfaces were prepared, I went to the bin and gave the pulp-glue-water mixture a good stir with my hand. I needed to stir up all the particles that had settled at the bottom of the container. Once the water stilled, I dipped my screen in and pulled it up as evenly as possible. If the papermaker tilts the screen too much to the left or right, the amount of fibers pulled will be uneven on one side or another, and the piece of paper will be strangely weighted. Once the excess water dripped off, I took it back to my felt-covered table, which now had a large, newly-cleaned screen on it and placed my smaller screen face-down on its surface. My new friend instructed me to take a wet sponge and daub the surface, then with both hands apply pressure evenly to both sides and, with the quickness of a snake plunging to grasp its prey, jerk the screen up rapidly and with strength.
Much to my dismay, my first half dozen attempts were ghastly. Technique is almost always harder than it looks. To achieve a steady hand, one must build up muscle memory first. And, as always in process based arts, there is a lot of troubleshooting involved. I realized it would be easier to learn with a smaller frame, so I quickly switched from a 12”x16” to a 7”x12”. Claudia also helped me switch the large screen holding the paper just above the felt cloth because it was too loose. The more taut the wires the easier it is for the wet paper fibers to transfer during the press. After this things became much easier! I cranked out four more pieces before we had to clean up! We popped my half dry paper in a super hot paper iron press and I was able to slip it into my sketchbook before heading out!
The best friends are people who you get to learn something new with. To quote myself from a past article for Storytellers (“Gay Culture in Rome: Taking Comfort in the Privacy of a Moment”) “My favorite part of travelling is the serendipity with which people are brought into your life” and the serendipity with which we learn! I had not expected to be given the gift of the knowledge of another art practice that week, but I was simply by showing up! I am mesmerized by what can happen when we open doors for ourselves to meet new people and try new things. Perhaps that’s really what studying abroad is all about; openness.