A papermaker, printmaker, and artist living in northern New South Wales, Australia, Heather visited a traditional amate papermaker and several other hand papermaking studios in Mexico.
Amate paper is a pre-Columbian, indigenous papermaking tradition that survives in the small village of San Pablito.
ADVENTURES IN PAPERMAKING
During a hot afternoon in the clear mountains of central Mexico, I was off to visit the home studio of amate paper artist Julio Chichicaxtle on a investigation into traditional Mayan papermaking techniques. I had read about amate paper, the bark paper on which the Mayan codices was written, and encountered Julio at the Feria Maestros del Arte in November of 2011.
At his invitation, my husband and I were to visit his studio before the cold mountain mists rolled in and he stopped paper production until spring. After a series of memorable bus journeys from Mexico City to Tulancingo, and from there on a rattling old locale bus…we arrived at San Pablito via taxi on a crowded market morning. The taxi dropped us off with our backpacks to walk the length of the crowd selling vegetables and clothes. No one spoke English, and we didn’t know Spanish (let alone the local dialect) but were confident we would find the big yellow house where our host Julio lived.
After a ride in a policeman’s car up a hill to a tourist paper and jewelry shop, then a walk down to a small gallery, it was Julio’s father-in law who eventually led the way to Julio’s flat roofed house. He had been waiting for us, and while tortillas were cooking on the traditional oven, he led us upstairs to his papel amate studio, the rooftop terrace where he pounds and weaves bark fibre to make his extraordinary paper paintings.
It was already cold on the rooftop, although the sun was still shining. From across the valley came the rigorous tap tap tap sounds of craftsmen pounding bark fibres to make amate paper.
San Pablito is one of the highland villages which makes amate paper in the traditional way. The bark is first stripped from the tree, soaked, then boiled for many hours until the fibres are soft enough to manipulate. The skeins of fibres are separated into thin strands and sorted into colours, which make the distinctive tonal browns of the paper artworks.
Designs for the artworks are carefully blocked out onto wooden boards and the fibres are laid down on the boards, pounded together and finger pinched, twisted and woven into the outlined design. When the whole work is finished, which sometimes takes two days to complete, they are hauled up to the sunniest part of the roof to dry. The whole process can take over two weeks to make one work.
Julio creates his unique pattern work based on traditional motifs, including the fossilized shell spirals which can still be found in the mountains. He has perfected intricate woven patterns which are constructed in geometric grids of squares, circles, and triangles. These he sells at international market fairs like the Feria Maestros del Arte at Champala, as well as at similar fairs in Central and South America.
Another series of bus rides took us south and east to the highlands of Chiapas where we undertook a papermaking workshop at the publishing collective Taller Leñateros in San Cristóbal de las Casas. This was first established in 1975 by poet Ambar Past to collect and publish the poems of Mayan women. It has now become a mini society of artists, traditional artisans, and papermakers who have created a cooperative business of all things paper.
I was particularly interested in papermaking from plant fibres, including agricultural and wild plants collected by the villagers. The website for Taller Leñateros has an animated figure on a bicycle riding across the page. I finally understood the reason for this when encountering the studio’s bicycle powered Hollander beater. This was originally sourced from Africa and transported to Mexico for the collective.
If you haven’t ridden a bicycle for awhile, it can be quite a strain on the leg muscles to pedal for ten minutes, let alone the forty-five that was necessary to blend the fibres. These had already been soaked and cooked. The resulting paper was not ‘formed’ in a mould and deckle, but again, beaten into shape.
Much easier to make was paper made from the recycled office paper and cardboard. Brightly coloured dyes are added to the mix as well as flower petals from bags of collected local flora. This was mould and deckle formed then couched onto sheets of lightly greased metal. Once the metal sheets are filled up with wet paper they are hoisted onto the building’s roof to dry in the hot sun. The resulting paper is easy to peel off the metal when dry and makes a colourful thick flat paper. Books, prints, posters and cards are made from the papers using a variety of printmaking methods including screen-printing and woodblock prints.
Another papermaking studio which uses similar metal sheet drying methods is Arte Papel in Oaxaca. This studio utilizes channels of fresh spring water for intensive paper production and produces distinctively patterned and decorated papers. Woven mats and other textured boards are hand pressed onto the post of newly couched papers, which are then compression pressed and laid onto metal sheets to hang in the sheet drying racks. Arte Papel makes exquisite rolled paper jewellery and kites as well as selling sheets of large and small papers.
On returning home I trialled the metal sheet drying technique which worked surprisingly well. I’m just glad I didn’t have to haul metal sheets onto the roof to dry!
– Heather Matthew