Innovations with Traditional Roots at the Morgan Conservatory

Paper is often considered a given in our modern age. Almost 2,000 years ago in China, however, the production of handmade paper was recorded for the first time and revolutionized the documentation and exchange of information. This innovation ousted bulkier, cumbersome writing agents such as strips of bamboo, and it allowed information to be stored and shared more efficiently. Papermaking subsequently spread to Korea and Japan, adapting to each culture and environment and produced distinctive techniques.

The traditional practice of Eastern-style hand papermaking has since become a fading craft, due to the mechanized paper industry. What was once handmade out of necessity is now only made by hand to propagate tradition and produce high quality papers. The Morgan Conservatory actively promotes the versatile nature of handmade papers to raise awareness of their value to artists, conservators, and papermakers. While the Morgan is currently producing artisanal Western-style papers, it is now launching an Eastern Paper Studio to produce a collection of papers made in the traditions of Washi (Japanese paper) and Hanji (Korean paper).

Hand Beating cooked kozo fibers. Photo by Charity Thomas

Hand Beating cooked kozo fibers. Photo by Charity Thomas

The development of this studio increases the capacity of the Morgan’s educational scope and complements its strengths in Western papermaking. The Morgan already cultivates the largest grove of Kozo (Japanese paper mulberry) trees in America, which allows us to engage in the full life cycle of Eastern paper. Each year the Kozo plant is harvested, steamed, and stripped of its bark, which is then cleaned down to its white meaty fiber. Cleaned bark is then cooked and hand beaten to a pulp, which is finally ready to disperse into water and a gooey formation aid, where sheet formation begins.

With this full cycle in mind, the Morgan has invited thirteen North American artists to exhibit their explorations of Eastern papermaking and traditional fibers in the gallery. The exhibition, titled Revive & Renew: Contemporary Artists and Eastern Papers, runs from August 1 through September 20 and offers a unique opportunity to experience how the roots of tradition can drive innovation. The artwork ranges from Julie McLaughlin’s transformation of 6-by-9-feet sheets of handmade Kozo paper into elegant and wearable garments, to Melissa Jay Craig’s organic, sculptural kozo forms of deceptive strength that contrast their perceived fragility.

This exhibit is presented in conjunction with the Morgan Conservatory’s newly established Eastern Paper Studio, funded generously by Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, the Gund Foundation, the Cyrus Eaton Foundation, and numerous individual donors, and will provide public outreach about Asian papermaking techniques and their myriad artistic innovations.

Jingles, by Aimee Lee

Jingles, by Aimee Lee

Hand Papermaking as Meditation

by Charity Thomas

In February, I began working as an apprentice to Hanji (Korean paper) expert and artist Aimee Lee at the Morgan Art of Papermaking Conservatory & Educational Foundation in their new Eastern Paper Studio. Getting an inside look at this plant-to-paper operation right here in Cleveland is one of the richest, most engaging experiences I’ve ever had.

Before starting my work at the Morgan, I had little understanding of all that goes into (and all that can go wrong with) making paper. The process is comprised of many steps and each step lends itself to error. But rather than allow myself to become frustrated by this, I have embraced the delicate nature of Eastern papermaking. Though I’m far from perfection, I improve each day that I practice. The act of papermaking, with its repetitive tasks, is a kind of meditation for me: it quiets the mind. There is something infinitely satisfying about laboring with my hands to produce something as simple, beautiful, and functional as a single sheet of paper.

My days at the Morgan are spent scraping bark from the Kozo trees that were harvested this past fall from the garden out back, cooking and beating fiber, and making paper. I’m learning how much I enjoy working with my hands, and making something useful affords the satisfaction of feeling self-sufficient and able. I love every bit of working at the Morgan, because I’m always learning something new, and because both my body and mind are actively engaged. I’m growing stronger from lifting buckets full of water and loading the hydraulic presses with stacks of wet paper and heavy wooden boards. The physical labor makes me feel competent, empowered, and healthy. Even when I’m scrubbing vats and cleaning the huge pots in which we cook fiber, I have a smile on my face, and feel I could do this kind of work all day, every day, and never tire of it. It’s good for the soul. When you’re working really hard at something you love, it becomes energizing rather than exhausting. I’m fulfilled and the satisfaction of work done well is the reward in and of itself. In addition to feeling good about my duties at the Morgan, there’s the added bonus of preserving ancient papermaking techniques and educating the community about papermaking’s rich history.

The simplicity of the paper we make at the Morgan does not belie its rigorous production process. We labor long and hard—and willingly—to get something as simple and beautiful as a sheet of paper. That sheet of paper has infinite possibilities.

The Morgan Conservatory

1754 East 47th Street

Cleveland, Ohio 44103




2014 Exhibition Schedule

OH, Letterpress: April 11 -J une 7

Transformation: 2nd Regional Juried Exhibition: June 20-July 17

Revive & Renew: Contemporary Artists & Eastern Papers: August 1-September 20

7th Annual Benefit & Silent Auction: October 4

Char Norman & Elena Osterwalder: October 17 – November 29

Abecedaria VII: Art Books Cleveland: October 17-November 29