I love paper the way Imelda Marcos loved shoes and in my “art room” there is a pretty good — if small — collection of beautiful handmade papers. Paper is a miraculous thing.
When I started writing Martin of Gfenn, a novel about an artist set in 13th century Zürich, Martin had paper. Then I learned that he could not have had paper because Northern Europe did not have paper and even the exotic, cosmopolitain trading center of Venice had only two or three sheets brought in from Asia. Yep. It was very difficult for me to imagine being an artist without paper, but Martin had to succeed at that and I had to write so no one reading it would feel the absence, would feel — as I felt — that Martin had a big challenge. No one’s challenged by the absence of something that has not yet existed, right? I couldn’t really do it until I acquired my own small piece of parchment. Wow. I have kept it safe for a decade and don’t think I’ll ever do anything worthy of its surface.
THEN I had to consider that every animal back then was skinned and many of the skins were made into something to write on. Squirrel skin was especially prized for parchment. However, squirrel pelts were also highly valued for the linings of rich peoples cloaks… I began to imagine incredibly high prices for dead squirrels, and that led me to imagine a completely different economy. In fact, the problem of paper more than any other thing, awakened me to the fact that the 13th Century was an alien world.
When paper paper took off, the squirrels must have been really, really, really happy about it.
Early paper was made from something plentiful in medieval times — linen rags. There are echoes of this in some papers used for stationary (Classic Laid) and for charcoal drawings in which you can see the “laid,” the way the fibers were pressed. Laid paper was all there was for the first 500 years of European paper making.
I’ve made paper — recycled paper made from, uh, paper, and fibers and leaves. My brother taught me and I made it on my stove, using macaroni and/or rice for binder. It was fun and I did a few paintings with it. I didn’t have a lot of the fancy tools or expertise many other people have. I had only an old silkscreen and pressed the pulp by hand. I am pretty sure everything I made that way has disintegrated by now — I don’t have any of it. I sold the two or three pieces.
There is an art supply store in Denver — Meiningers — that in these days has, of course, branched out to more than one store, that sells more kinds of paper than any place I know, except the vast world of the Internet. I recently bought a selection of papers — and I think the most beautiful papers come from India and Japan. Since I’m not an artist any more, I don’t know what I’ll do with it, but it’s there, safely rolled and cared for.