The following is an edited and abridged transcript of a recent conversation I had with Emma Lucille Percy, Artist in Residence at the SUNY-ESF Newcomb Campus. Emma’s 12-week residency is generously sponsored in part by the Adirondack Park Institute and SUNY-ESF and is inspired by a college-wide commitment to strengthen the conversation between science and the arts and humanities.
There is still time to register for Emma’s final bookbinding workshop of the season at the Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb, NY. This all-levels workshop is free and open to the public. Call (518) 582-2000 or email email@example.com to register. To learn more about Emma’s work, click here.
MARIANNE: In some ways your work exemplifies the connection between art and landscape insofar as the landscape is literally embedded in your art.
EMMA: Initially, I began trying to find ways to bring part of the landscape into the work because I felt that made it more real and by doing this, the work went beyond mere representation. I began making paper my sophomore year in a sculpture class and I just fell in love with the process, in part because it was a lot less damaging than other printmaking and sculpture processes so it had a lower environmental impact. Papermaking is the sort of thing that you begin doing it and you want to keep doing it forever.
M: You mentioned learning this process in a sculpture studio; does papermaking feel sculptural to you?
E: Yes, it does. Obviously you’re making a flat surface but it starts out as a plant and then it turns into a pulp and then it can either become a flat sheet or you can use it in sculptural ways by casting with the paper. For example you might make hollow forms with certain fibers that shrink around an object, alternatively short cotton fibers can be pressed into an object to take its shape. It’s ultimately all just fibers bonding to each other in different shapes.
M: That does feel sculptural yes, and also relational. Would you talk a little bit about the relationship between you and the work, between the fibers and what becomes the paper?
E: All of my work is about relationships and trying to build relationships with other organisms, sometimes people. I have always been a solitary person but still I have a desire to be close to others and understand them. That drives a lot of what I do: investigating what’s around me developing intimacy with those others through the creative. It’s a slow process. I usually have a lot of different ideas that I’m working on at once and I tend to bounce back and forth between them, between different plants or places that I’m thinking about. But it all always starts by being in whatever place that I am and walking and really looking every day until something comes to the surface. I try to make the work as simple as it can be for the viewer but all the background work consumes everything else that I’m doing. The research and collecting material, deciding what to do with it, trying things out, and when that doesn’t work, trying something else until I’m satisfied.
M: You have primarily lived and worked in the northeast and I wonder if there is another place you’ve thought of going that might shift your work as a result of it being ecologically and atmospherically different?
E: I’ve come to learn that even just this eastern part of New York State is dramatically different from the western part of the state. Just walking through the woods the trees and groundcover are different, and there’s a different vibe to the air and the terrain. Here it feels wet, watery and that’s what I’m starting to focus on now – it feels like being inside of some kind of moss. Actually being here has furthered an idea that I’ve been thinking about for months that has to do with the fact that every living thing is held in common by being made of water, that living things are all in a way, bodies of water. I’m slowly putting a book together that incorporates photos and drawings and maps stitched together along the theme of water and of being water within a larger body of water. Water itself is integral to the paper making process. First you dry and weigh the fibers but after that the rest of the process is all water, from cooking and rinsing the fibers to submerging them in a bucket which keeps them from bonding together before they’re put into a vat of water, and finally the pulp is lifted out with a screen one sheet at a time, the water is expunged and the layers are left to dry and bond into sheets. So this very moist environment connects beautifully with the process, there’s a poetic symmetry to it.
M: Stay with that notion of symmetry, I’m thinking of your milkweed paper which was made poignant by the monarch butterflies that you superimposed on each sheet to signify the relationship between the butterfly and its food.
E: That project was an attempt to close the circle between the raw material and the creative content. The material should have some explicit relationship to the message; it should never be a generic vessel. This practice also speaks to my sense of environmental responsibility in a way that’s different from the way responsibility is typically discussed, in a way that’s more about intimacy than being didactic. Because I have to spend time with the place and with the material, the work is usually about that time spent or in honoring the living object. Another example of this is the milkweed book that I made, a tiny book on paper made of milkweed with one word written on each of the twelve pages. I had a pile of milkweed seeds in my studio for a year and was just writing about them until I could narrow it down to a handful of words. In the finished product the book is floating on a string with three milkweed pods to weight it. When the viewer nears the book to read it, the book spins away the way the seeds do when you try to grab them, and seeds float out of the pods hovering below. That project was about how much I love those little floating seeds – there’s something magical about them and I wanted to show that and also make a book that could be read but not as easily as you might think.
M: There are layers of elusiveness to the way you describe this and I wonder if you would agree that all art is portraiture and if so, I’m always wondering: what does this piece of artwork say or what does it resist saying?
E: My art documents my experiences in a way that hopefully doesn’t seem as though it’s entirely about me but it is nevertheless a representation of what has gotten through my filter. How, and how much to show what I want to illustrate in a way that is in my voice without also being obvious is often a painstaking and confusing internal negotiation. I also struggle with how to make something that is true to what I’m thinking, that retains a poetic element, while also being accessible to a general public. I do this work in part because it keeps me grounded and I love using art as a way to teach myself about the landscape and about natural processes. That groundedness is also important because I feel so much art is unreadable in a way that even other artists can’t relate to it. In college I participated in a one-year foundations program that included a component called “The Line.” A single mile-long line that was drawn on a map of the village and students were required to walk that line regularly and to make work related to that space. It was a fascinating concept and that’s what intially pushed me in my current direction, I realized that art could start simply with walking and learning about a place, that art can be rooted in the particulars of a space and those particulars can literally make the art. This way of working brings art and creativity back into the real world and also elevates the everyday world to a higher status that’s worth looking at, caring and thinking about.
M: Do you agree with those who say that art is a conversation between the artist and the art that cannot extend out to the viewer without a common language or the kind of shared grammar that language, or text for example, has?
E: It’s hard to get through that barrier as a viewer and as an artist because as a viewer a lot of the art I see I don’t understand, at least not without spending a lot of time with it, which is interesting because I’m an artist and I have the background knowledge and training that comes with being educated in that way. When I look at someone’s art I’m trying to read another language, someone else’s language that they’ve made without thinking about how that will read as to the viewer. So as an artist, as I’m making, I am thinking about that a lot. Which goes back to what we were talking about around the meaning and the material, particularly how can I just use a material and have that represent something and tell someone something without putting an image on it.
M: Does the viewer looking at a piece of your paper have any idea that it matters in all the ways and on all the levels that you’ve described?
E: I have noticed that when people just look at the work that I’ve done with handmade paper they notice that it’s different from anything they’ve touched before and they’re interested in that and they come to it with a kind of delicacy. Noticing that difference seems to make people a little more sensitive about touching it and [when] looking at a book, they’re not rough with it because they can feel there’s something unusual about it. That’s how I would approach a space or a plant that I’m looking at, with that delicate touch, stopping and noticing the physical features of something. So I like that by using this material I can make people confused for a second about what they’re actually touching. It causes them to slow down and to notice.
M: That’s something different again about your art, that the viewer is also meant to handle it which reminds me again of that relational aspect that we talked about earlier.
E: Yes, it’s not just something for them to stand back and look at and I definitely want people to touch the work. When it comes to making Coptic journals, I make them often because I like that particular bookbinding process but also, I sell them at art fairs where they sell well in part because people can touch them. People also say they’re hesitant to write in them but I’m not afraid to ruin things, that’s what it’s for, it’s an empty space for you to fill with whatever you want. Especially given the materials that I use, paper and plants and dirt, all of that is obviously not going to last forever. I have no idea how long any of my work will last and I also don’t care. I think that desire to preserve art speaks to a deeper problem, that desire to live forever or to make a permanent impact on the world. My work is meant to change or eventually to disappear; it’s made in a way that it will just biodegrade. Symbolically the art recognizes its own impermanence.
M: Making paper the way that you do is entirely original. By that I mean your work is only a result of your handmaking so it feels like what you’re doing is pure art. But your art is often considered craft and craft is the thing that is typically subordinate to fine art. Have you given that imbalance any thought?
E: My work doesn’t usually fall neatly into a category but I think that distinction seems to be more of an issue among fine artists, within high art whereas things that everyday people would make or that come from non-western cultures, these practices don’t have the same kind of ego attachment. If I’m just making paper I would think of that as craft, but if I’m making prints on the sheets or if I’m making a book with images or text, then it becomes art because it takes a lot more thought and effort and time and also they are harder to replicate or make multiples of. So if I make a book that has content with my limited materials, maybe I can make ten copies depending on the process whereas if I’m just making paper I can make 100 sheets.
I tend to be drawn to processes that require a lot of physical labor and time and repetitive action. Everything I do always has a slow repetitive element to it and I like that because I can be totally engrossed in it. I’ve always been interested in going back to traditional ways and what I do for my art is not exactly that, but it is going back to completing an entire process from start to finish. There’s something about being part of every step that just makes me feel better.
Photo: An impromptu paper-making lesson last week (Emma Percy photo).