November 8, 2010

Workshop Review--Exploring Himalayan Papers and Books

Emily Marks
Sonoma, California

A couple of years ago I discovered a wonderful paper for bookbinding and art projects called Lokta. I researched Lokta and found that the paper is made from the Daphne plant, found principally in Nepal, growing luxuriously in the foothills of the Himalayans, 6500 feet above sea level. I immediately fell in love with this wonderful stuff and planned to go to Nepal to learn to make the paper. I found a site on the Internet that offers classes for the novice. (I have to admit that once I checked on airfare to that distant land, I was a bit daunted by the idea.)

Imagine my delight when I heard of a workshop in Portland, OR, taught by Jim Canary, who would lead his class in the making of the paper, dyeing it with natural dyes, and making a Tibetan prayer book using Lokta. I contacted Shu Ju Wang, the organizer of the Book Workers Guild workshop immediately.

Jim Canary, I found out, has a long-standing interest in Tibet and Nepal, stemming from his undergraduate days at Indiana University, where he concentrated on Inner Asian Studies. He also completed graduate studies at Indiana in Major Classical Tibetan and for three years received a Department of Education Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship in Tibetan. Since 1994, he has been a project member of Paper Road/Tibet, an organization that provides research, technical expertise, and development of hand papermaking operations in Tibet. He is also a board member of the International Tibetan Archives Preservation Project, responsible for coordinating cooperative conservation work in Lhasa, Tibet.

Jim has been Head of the Conservation Department at Indiana University's Lilly Library in Bloomington since 1993. He has lectured widely on Tibetan themes, as well as on various aspects of conservation and the book arts.

The workshop with Jim took place October 23-24, 2010. The night before we were to meet as a class, Jim showed digital pictures of his travels in Tibet and Nepal researching the practice of book art in those countries and the making of the paper itself. This free lecture was an inspiring introduction to this handmade art.

Our workshop was held in the wonderful studio space of William Park, who graciously let us use this large and light warehouse for the two days. We met at 10 am, ready to work and to learn.

First, Jim talked about the plant, Daphne Paparacea. This plant is a relative of our Daphne but grows into a tree in Nepal. The root is the source of the paper. The papermaker strips the outer bark off and exposes the inside fiber. (Photos by Emily Marks except as noted.)

The inner bast fibers are then cooked in water with an alkali substance like soda ash. Jim cooked about one pound up for us to use.

Jim then went on to explain that the Tibetan prayer book usually has a soft cover, often made of silk on front and back. The interior pages have beautiful written chants, often applied as wood block prints. If the calligraphy is written, it is applied by an ink made of burned resinous pine ground with yak-skin glue.

The picture below shows the dried bast fibers, the silk-covered prayer book, an ink bottle, handmade pen, with its wooden container.

While the fiber was continuing to cook, we each built a frame for papermaking out of four heavy wooden pieces that Jim provided. These fit together and were made tighter at the joins with little pieces of wood that swell when wet. Then we cut simple cheesecloth and pinned this to our frames.

Once the fiber was cooked, it was sweet-smelling and slightly gelatinous, reminding me in feel of cooked okra. We divided up the fiber in small amounts and pounded it with wooden mallets. This was a long process because as we beat the fiber, we removed small specks of dark matter to keep our paper as pure as possible.

When all the fibers were beaten enough, we combined them together in a big basin with a lot of water. Jim showed us how to float our frames in the water and to add about 2 cups of the pulp to the screen. Then we were to swish the pulp around so that it lay evenly on the cheesecloth. Raising it straight up, the water drained out, leaving wet pulp to cling to the cheesecloth. (Group photo below by Elizabeth Uhlig.)

Once our papers were stacked up against the walls to dry, we worked on the inner and outer papers for our Tibetan style prayer book. Jim had brought some cream-colored paper-backed canvas for our covers which we could dye in natural dyes he provided. We were also encouraged us to dye our papers, and most of us chose to dip the edges into the brown, yellow or blue dyes.

The next day we arrived back to find our handmade paper was ready to pull from the screen. This was a satisfying process as the paper came off in one sheet, and made a good sound as it was pulled.

The book we were to assemble in the afternoon typically has writing and images in it. To give us the full experience of the Tibetan prayer book, Jim had brought wooden printing blocks of Tibetan images. The class had a great time inking up these blocks and printing them on our pages and covers for our books to come. (Photos below are all by Elizabeth Uhlig.)

Assembling the book was fun. Jim taught us the construction of the chain-link sewing, using three “stations.” Our books were each different and very pleasing.

Our two-day workshop had come to end and we had learned a lot! Hugs were exchanged; e-mails circulated; and we went back to our individual lives, newly enriched.

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