A Conversation with Papermaking Artist Susan Warner Keene

Susan Warner Keene - Hand Papermaking Artist, Handmade Paper Sculptural Artwork

Susan Warner Keene, Aqueous (detail), 2009; handmade flax paper, pigment, linen thread; 20 x 22 x 1.25 in./ 51 x 56 x 3 cm. Photo by Peter Newman.

Did you know that handmade paper art can be dimensional? 

Manipulating certain types of pulp fibers can be used to create textural, sculptural artwork; paper that transcends its familiar, utilitarian existence.

Sound interesting? Susan Warner Keene is an artist working in handmade paper that you should know.

Based in Toronto, Canada, Susan transforms flax and other natural fibers into work that evokes the body, books, language and human knowledge. I first saw Susan Warner Keene’s work at Craft Alliance in St. Louis, at the Raw Potential exhibition, where I was quite enraptured. And so, I am honored that an artist that I very much admire and respect was willing to answer a few questions for Paperslurry. Enjoy!

MAY BABCOCK: How did you first come to papermaking as an art making process?

SUSAN WARNER KEENE: When I was studying weaving at a multi-disciplinary art college in the mid-seventies, I came across Central Asian felt making in my textile history studies, and was immediately drawn to this alternative means of constructing a fabric. As linen had been a preferred weaving material, I was curious to see whether it could have any place in the non-woven approach that felt afforded. My experiments brought me very close to papermaking, until I finally tipped over the edge and admitted that papermaking was really where I was going. I had come to the visual arts after studying English literature and working in publishing-related areas for several years, and one of my interests has always been in points of contact between language, ideas, and material. I am always trying to find ways to generate form and markings simultaneously that resonate with a viewer on several levels. Papermaking seemed to embrace all these concerns.

MB: Much of your work has used flax as the primary fiber. What is it about flax as a material do you find so compelling? Can you talk about how differing fibers, such as abaca or cotton, affect your working process and the final artwork? How do you choose which fibers to go into a piece?

SWK: I have great respect for flax’s strength, durability, and lean, understated personality. In textiles one refers to the “hand” of a fabric. You only have to pick up an old linen tablecloth to recognize the weight, drape, and sheen of high quality linen, made more beautiful by repeated use. I love to iron old linen damask table napkins! As a weaver, I used unbleached linen to weave tapestries with buckled surfaces because the plain, crisp surface showed relief markings so well. In papermaking I was intrigued—as many have been—by the dynamic force released in flax by beating, which can be used to build relief marking through an internal architecture in the paper (I learned a huge amount about this when I met Helmut Becker many years ago). I’m talking about shrinkage, of course, as is beautifully documented in Helen Hiebert’s film, Water, Paper, Time. Abaca fiber is also excellent in this regard, and I use it as well, but I still have a fondness for beginning with the unprocessed flax fiber itself. It’s painfully labour-intensive, but somehow that seems part of it. One of the other great features of paper made from flax processed for a long time is the way that it can bond to itself, making it an amazing material for building up shapes and surfaces of considerable variety.  I also appreciate the intensity of colour obtained by pigmenting long-beaten flax or abaca. I haven’t used cotton very much as a primary material, but it is very useful as an opaque element playing against the translucency of flax or abaca, translucency, or as a restraint on a high shrinkage surface. So I decide what I want the material to do in the piece, and make my choice accordingly.

Susan Warner Keene - Paper Art

Leaf #10, 2012; handmade paper (abaca fibre, cotton rag); 22 x 18 x 1 in. Photo by Peter Newman.

Susan Warner Keen - Paper Pulp Painting

“No two seasons …” (from Verso series), 2004; handmade flax paper; 86.4 x 68.6 x 2.5 cm/ 34 x 27 x 1 in.
Text: “No two seasons have been at all alike and it is supposed it will be still more variable as the work of clearing the forest goes on from year to year.”
– Catharine Parr Traill, The Backwoods of Canada, 1836. Photo by Peter Newman.

MB: Can you tell us a bit more about the specific technique behind some your work? For instance, in the Leaf series, how are you able to create such a variation in texture across each page?

SWK: I work in series, or bodies of work, in which I explore a particular set of ideas, using means that seem pertinent to those concerns. It can take a long time to get to this point, because I try to find an authentic connection. In the Leaf series, I was working with minimal imagery, really just the idea of the page itself and the question of whether or not it was blank. My fundamental mark-making tools were water (presence/absence) and shrinkage/resistance. I used my version of a deckle box to form a base sheet of abaca beaten for 6 hours in a Reina beater, then added to the surface using squeeze-bottles of cotton and abaca pulps in various dilutions, sometimes masking areas of the base sheet, sometimes adding a few fibrous or thread elements, or another couched sheet.  Sometimes water alone was used to displace fibers already applied. Formation aid in some pulps and not in others makes a difference. The finished sheet was pressed in my improvised version of a vacuum table, then air dried with various restraints. After drying, areas were sometimes re-humidified lightly and re-dried.

The text works in the series Verso and ReVisions, begin with the simple technique of using squeeze bottles full of long-beaten flax or abaca mixed with formation aid to inscribe a text, press it, then assemble it into the form. As with much in life, the devil is in the details. The trickiest part is transferring the pressed lines of text from the pressing boards to the finally assembly on the vacuum table in a state that is still sufficiently wet that the paper will bond with itself, but not so wet that its loops all stick to each other in transit. It’s a lot like handling pastry! What was interesting to me about the production of these texts was the performative aspect—apparent only to me, perhaps, as I work alone in the studio—but the repeated inscription of texts was one of the conceptual origins of these pieces, and it went on for weeks in my studio. This is the kind of congruency I like to find in my work. (Actually, the trickiest part is flipping these often rather large lacy damp pieces off the vacuum table and onto the drying rack by myself — another kind of performance. The pieces shrink at least 30%, so I have to make them that much larger than the finished size I want.)

MB: A continuing theme through each body of work is a reference to books and text — an opened book, the Western codex form, scrolls, series of pages, or even calligraphy. Can you talk more about how this theme has evolved through your career?

SWK: Paper pulp is a versatile material, and can be used to make all kinds of forms. In my work, I have always tried to find congruency between what I make and the way it is made. I believe it makes a difference to the work. One of the aspects of papermaking as an art-making strategy that interests me is the connection with human history of inquiry, observation, and reflection. In my view, the role of paper in enabling human cultures to pass on knowledge to others has been key to developing much of what is worthwhile in our humanity. Because of the way paper is made, sheet by sheet, this rectangle suggests to me a particular kind of space. Within the Western tradition of the codex book form, the open book, whose structure requires the turning over of successive pages, is familiar to anyone who reads. The format of the paired rectangles of the open book, while in itself a stable and even timeless form, carries with it the implicit notion of time, as what is the front becomes the back, and what is hidden is revealed.

The text works came about in 2003, when I suddenly had the sense of the precariousness of survival of knowledge, and saw language itself as an endangered artifact.  As we know, hundreds of languages have, in fact disappeared. The poet and designer Robert Bringhurst has elegantly described writing as “the solid form of language”. That led me to think about words that have survived (sometimes arbitrarily) as particular lenses or filters through which we regard the past, and to practice a kind of calligraphy with paper pulp to give form to some historical examples.

Susan Warner Keene - Handmade Paper Artist

Life Study #3, 1996; flax paper, linen thread; 29 x 44 x 4 cm/ 11.4 x 17.3 x 1.5 in. Photo by Peter Newman.

MB: Another aspect to your work seems to be a contemplation on paper as analogous to our own bodies, reacting to stresses of water, pressure, and change. Can you talk more about that aspect of your work?

SWK: One of the instantly recognizable qualities of papers made from flax or abaca pulps that have been beaten a long time is the resemblance to a dried animal skin — gut is probably the most similar material. If you work with leather in bookbinding at all, you become aware of the sensitivity to moisture in the leather, how easily it can stretch, be marked, then dry taut. Papers made from flax pulp behave in similar ways. I can’t help feeling that I am dealing with a living membrane when working with these wet papers. They behave the way that leaves do as they dry, but if we regard our own bodies, we can see the marks of accident, injury, and age written upon us. Sometimes this is deliberate. It’s just one more example of the fact that we are not separate from nature, although sometimes we think we are smarter.

MB: Each of your pieces have such intense textures, to the point where one can spend forever exploring the subtleties in fiber, tone, and texture. Haptic visuality is the idea that seeing an object and its tactile surface is almost a way of touching the object itself. Do you feel like your work is more concerned with the process of making or with the resulting objects and how viewers experience them? Or maybe a combination of both?

SWK: My entire practice has been concerned with trying to make objects that create an imaginative space for a viewer, and to do that I believe I need to engage the haptic, the optic, and the conceptual. I’m not interested in literal messaging. I want a viewer to have an experience that is stimulating to their own sense of themselves in a world of possibilities. But I feel that the process of making is important to the integrity of the object, and it’s certainly important to my conceptualizing the piece in the first place. 

Susan Warner Keene - Water Books

Susan Warner Keene – Water Books, an Experiment. Photo by Peter Newman.

MB: The making of Water Books seems like such an amazing experience. What was it like to work in collaboration with a Fourdrinier paper machine?

SWK: I always think of myself as being in collaboration with my material, but I must say that collaborating with a Fourdrinier is on a completely different scale! Thanks to David Carruthers at Papeterie St-Armand in Montreal, and the support of the Ontario Arts Council, I was able to have this unusual opportunity.

The biggest challenge was dealing with the relentless quality of the machine: once it is running, that’s pretty much it. In my studio work, I can change and adjust constantly, and of course working at a smaller scale I can stop and start over completely with no great loss. Here, there was much more at stake. I was reminded of the writings of the English woodworker David Pye, who contrasted machine production and hand production, describing them as the “workmanship of certainty” and the “workmanship of risk”. With so much prepared raw material producing a continuous web, the design decisions had to be well worked out in advance. In the workmanship of certainty, the design parameters must be built into the machine set-up. This is the genius of machine production, and the challenge to one who always likes a second chance if the risk doesn’t pay off!

I wanted to capture the “language” of the machine, which is to continuously form paper in an endless ribbon, as long as the material lasts. I had decided to mark the paper using jets of water arranged across the width of the web, so that lines appeared along its length as the web moved past, resembling lines of text or musical staves, and it seemed that, based on tests and David Carruthers’ previous experience, a flax pulp would give me the clarity of line I wanted. The other factors to control were the speed of the moving web and the water pressure in the jets. I wanted to interrupt the flow of the water at intervals, so we concocted a piece of modified eavestrough so that I could catch the water when it wasn’t wanted and pour it away. Knowing the speed of the traveling web (12 feet per minute) enabled me to translate the pattern I wanted into a series of time codes, which I followed like a musical score. It was simply on/off, ones and zeroes, or, harking back to my weaving days, up/down. I followed my score pinned to the opposite wall and manipulated my rain gutter, a less-than-graceful performer in a collaboration with the machine. I can’t say that I felt particularly in control, but it was very exciting —and all over surprisingly quickly. 

MB: Can you tell us what plans you might be making with the paper that you made at Papeterie Saint-Armand?

SWK: This is still very much a work in progress.  My ideas have gone through several iterations, and I’m quite enjoying the ability to arrange and rearrange the 600-plus running feet of paper.  This paper has much more in common with the scroll form than with the codex, and my recent trip to Japan has provided ideas for several approaches. But today the scroll has become very current as well, as we read our e-mail threads and search the web by “scrolling”. Isn’t it interesting how our language strives to materialize our digital reality?

See more of Susan Warner Keene’s artwork at www.susanwarnerkeene.com.

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