Paper is so embedded in daily life as to be almost invisible. It is a transmitter. The message it bears, whether a scribbled note or a printed contract, is the focal point. But to consider paper simply as a material to facilitate communication is to overlook what the paper itself has to say. “Fiber has a language of its own,” said Sandy Bernat, owner of Seastone Papers and guest curator of The Art of Handmade Paper, opening this Sunday at Featherstone Center for the Arts. Ms. Bernat has been making paper since 1988. Seastone Papers, a large, inviting space in West Tisbury, is the only professional paper studio between the Cape and Boston.
The exhibit features work from across the country, highlighting pieces by Vineyard artists, as well as those from as far away as San Antonio and Chicago. Ms. Bernat began reaching out to artists in early spring with the aim of showcasing diversity in terms of how each artist uses paper and fibers.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, paper was made from plant fibers, mostly cotton and linen. These fibers are still used to make high-quality papers, such as those used for resumÃ©s. Parchment, on the other hand, is not a fiber and is made from animal products, mainly sheep skin. With the invention of the Fourdrinier machine in 1799, paper could be made in continuous rolls, not in single sheets. Fourdrinier machines use wood pulp as the root material.
The paper creations of the Featherstone exhibit are all made from plant fibers. Ms. Bernat has used daffodil, gladiola, grapevine, yucca and milkweed in previous projects. Cornhusks and abaca, a fiber made from banana leaves, are commonly used, as are fibers from Japanese plants such as kozo (mulberry bark) and the mitsumata shrub.
The cellulose fibers of each plant are inherently different, and also behave differently, depending on how they are treated before actually becoming paper. On Tuesday Ms. Bernat was cooking down a pot of cornhusks from Morning Glory Farm. The leaves would be rinsed and put into a Hollander beater, where the strands of fiber would be separated and pulp would be created. Depending on how long the leaves stay in the beater, a different chemical reaction takes place and changes the consistency of the pulp. The Featherstone exhibit features a video installation, created by Helen Hiebert, showing the process of pulp and paper-making.
Paper pulp can also be dyed with pigments and used as a paint; featured artists Shannon Brock, Sheila Fane and Kanta Lipsky all used this technique to create works in the show.
“Artists have really been the ones keeping hand papermaking going,” said Ms. Bernat, who has studied the art form in Burma, China and Tibet. And papermakers, she said, are the only artists who make their own materials.
One artist, Aimee Lee of the Morgan Conservatory in Cleveland, Ohio, practices the art of Korean papermaking called hanji. Ms. Lee creates paper threads from pulp and uses the material to knit, among other creations, books.
Artist Deborah Baldizar creates sculptures from paper. Her three-dimensional figures look as though they could have been carved from marble. Ms. Bernat also worked on a three-dimensional level, using paper as a conceptual tool to define spaces, a far cry from the flatness usually associated with paper products.
The methods for creating these pieces are of equal importance to the pieces themselves, and Ms. Bernat asked each artist to submit an extended caption describing the behind-the-scenes process.
Each process is a humbling one, one that forces the artist to adapt their vision according to what the material wants to do.
“The magic of the fiber, or the lesson, is that fiber has a mind of its own,” Ms. Bernat said. You can try to mold it exactly to your specifications, but ultimately, “You have to let it be what it wants to be.”
The Art of Handmade Paper exhibit opens Sunday, Sept. 16, at the Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs and runs until Oct. 3.