For Art School paper arts instructor and docent Allison Roscoe, papermaking is second nature. Sitting at a table in the museum’s Central Courtyard, she thrusts her arms forward and back, rocking in her chair, demonstrating the kind of muscle memory needed to master Japanese kozo papermaking.
“You pick up the water and the fiber, and you get a wave going,” Roscoe says. “You have to ride the wave and you throw off the excess water, and a very thin film of fibers have been left on the mould, then you do it again and again.” All papermaking techniques require some variation of sifting fibers from vats of water, but this Japanese style is especially labor intensive—and that much more rewarding. Incidentally, the kozo, or paper mulberry, tree used in Japan is the same as wauke—what Hawaiians traditionally use to make kapa.
The history behind these processes, and the hands-on techniques required to make Eastern and Western paper arts are all covered in Roscoe’s classes at the Art School, which range from beginner to advanced levels. At each level, “it’s magical,” says Roscoe, who has been making paper for 25 years. As she sees it, paper isn’t just a vessel for other mediums, but a beautiful end result in itself.
When you start your first class, she explains, “you have this vat of what looks like dirty water; you know stuff is floating in there but you can’t really see what it is, and you dip your mould and deckle”—a sifting screen within a frame—“and the water strains out, and this stuff is on there, and the next day it transforms itself into a very usable piece of paper. You can print on it, you can draw on it, emboss it, shape it—all depending on the fiber you use, and the way you treat it, the hours you beat it, and the amount of time in the beater.”
To make a true, good handmade paper, says Roscoe, this “beating,” which separates the fibers, is best done with a Hollander beater—a pulping machine developed by the Dutch in the 17th century.
A year ago, the museum did not possess a Hollander beater. So Roscoe bought one for $10,000—a hefty investment. “My passion has always been in handmade paper art,” Roscoe says. “So I thought, ‘Why not?’ When I die I’ll just leave all the equipment to the museum; that’s what I would really like to do to give back to this community.” Following a suggestion from Spalding House director Aaron Padilla, Roscoe generously placed her prized Hollander beater at the Makiki Heights campus. In the past year, Roscoe has developed, in tandem with guest teachers, five paper arts classes that use the beater.
For Roscoe, the value of papermaking all goes back to “the touch and feel,” as she puts it. “When I go to museums I always want to touch the fiber things,” she says. “It’s so real. It’s not shiny; I don’t want to color it. There are some people that learn differently. Some people are attracted to flatness, but some people need that touch.”
She discovered that she needed that tactile type of learning 47 years ago when she left New Haven, Conn., to attend the BFA program at the University of Hawai‘i. All these years later, she still can’t stop recreating that feeling.
Pictured above: Allison Roscoe with her piece Seed Thoughts, which is made from handmade pieces of cotton, rag, kozo, agave paper, and thread that were discarded by students in her paper classes. Each piece features small notes from her students’ respective processes. You can see Seed Thoughts in the all-staff exhibition at the Art School through Jan. 31.
Want to take a class with Allison? She offers four classes this spring. Her Intro to Papermaking starts Feb. 2.