Many artists paint on paper. Helen Frederick paints with paper.
Frederick, who will speak at 7 p.m. tonight in the Hultquist Center on “Investigating Cultural Literacy,” is fascinated by paper as an artistic and cultural medium.
“I’ve always been interested in the substrate I was working on,” Frederick said.
In art school, she found the lack of variety in painting surfaces dull.
“I never enjoyed working on canvas,” she said.
Beyond the artistic interest of a more original medium, though, Frederick is also interested in the political and historical aspects of papermaking, and she recently visited traditional paper industries in Mexico and China.
While these are industries and not art studios, Frederick finds the distinction between the two irrelevant — a construct created by museums.
“In Japan, any piece of paper is the art,” she said.
She is interested in learning from a wide variety of disciplines, both within and outside traditional art forms, including sociological research into these traditional paper-manufacturing societies.
Despite her interest in traditional paper manufacturing, Frederick does not make paper for others to use. Instead, she uses the dyed, pulped fibers to build an image in the paper. The qualities of paper can complement and build on the message of an artwork, such as her piece “Noose” in the “Politics and Art” show in the Strohl Art Center.
Depicting a black rope circle in a large blue circle of handmade paper, Frederick used two different kinds of pulp to force the paper to split and crack as it dried.
This piece also highlights another important aspect of Frederick’s work — political messages.
“As an artist, I attempt to have a social voice and accept a responsibility as an art activist,” she said. “How does the artisan industry relate to historical process, to aesthetics and contemporary studio practice? How can we evaluate hand papermaking and the politics of skill?”
Frederick thinks finding ways of preserving traditional skills, like papermaking, is vital as environmental and political issues kill old industries.
“In China, there was a long, long history of papermaking,” Frederick said, but Maoism and famine broke the tradition.
Now it has been revitalized through people who kept the knowledge safe during the break. Western cultures may soon have to face similar challenges.
Unlike Chinese paper making, though, this preservation takes place in the digital age. Frederick talked about the possibilities of looking up information instantly — seeing a piece of art created with traditional methods, for instance, and being able to instantly view a video of village in India where it was made by simply scanning a code.
“I hope we won’t lose the prowess of handmade objects,” she said.