A Journey from Westbury to Chillicothe
by Laurence Barker (versión en español...)
I came up with the title of this article on the spur of the moment some months ago. It seemed like a suitable way to link Douglass Howell, with whom I studied in Westbury, Long Island, to Dard Hunter, whom I later briefly met in Chillicothe, Ohio—the two great ur-figures of twentieth century hand papermaking in America. These two men, who shared the same initials, pre-figured almost every paper activity we engage in today, from hand production to books and art.
Important philosophical and temperamental differences existed between them, as their approaches to papermaking show. Based on an impressionistic overview drawn from personal experience, I will try to identify and examine these differences because they have a significant bearing on present day attitudes toward the subject and probably influence the way it is taught. This is the journey I have in mind.
In synthesis, papermaking is a two thousand year old craft on the one hand and a relatively recent activity in the world of art on the other. It is somewhat simplistic, but not altogether misleading, to demarcate the primary fields of interest of our two protagonists along this fault line. The first D.H., Dard Hunter—as artist, type designer, type-setter, printer, world traveler, paper historian and author—resuscitated hand papermaking and its commercial practice early in this century. In this he closely hewed to traditional, old-world methods and practices.
If his good efforts had not essentially died off we would not be speaking about another papermaking revival at the hands of the second D.H., Douglass Howell, decades later. This time, at mid-century, hand papermaking took on another complexion altogether. In his curriculum vitae, Howell describes himself in these terms: "Professional Artist. Writer, author, editor, hand-engraver, typographer, hand printer. Adjunct Professor. With a working knowledge of more than six languages, their classic bibliography, historical, and into Science and Philosophy. Designer in Mechanical Engineering. Writer in the Aesthetics of Skill." Both D.H.’s packed full bags indeed.
Howell’s approach and attitude differed radically from Hunter’s. As one would handle dynamite, I would like gently and respectfully to introduce the word "amateur." Its pejorative meaning seems so pervasive that we do well to remind ourselves that an amateur is a person who does something out of love and not for financial gain. No one would classify the efforts of those amateur athletes at the Olympics in Atlanta last summer as being unskilled. I like the following example given in Webster’s Dictionary, from T.H. Williams: "the professional historians...have again let an amateur make off with a theme of real significance." With these positive meanings of the word in mind, I think of Howell as an amateur papermaker and visionary. He did indeed make off with a theme of real significance—an insight into the aesthetic dynamic of paper.
Just what, exactly, did Howell do? In essence, beginning with designing his own laboratory-sized beaters, he scaled papermaking down to domestic proportions. He set the stage for home-made paper—a basement revolution—and devoted a lifetime to making beautiful paper and to establishing paper pulp as an art medium in its own right—an aesthetic revelation. With his long-fibered, gelatinized flax papers especially, he utterly changed the way we see and think about paper.
Douglass Howell ushered in a Golden Age of hand papermaking. I know of no historical precedent for today’s activity: look where you will, the joint’s jumping. You would have to know to what degree papermaking’s very popularity was anathema to Howell to appreciate the mischievous pleasure I take in voicing this simple truth. His scrupulous standards of conduct and work somehow prevented him from taking much joy in any of this.
Anyone who speaks or writes about Howell must face the difficult task of reconciling the importance of what he did with his own assessment of his work; he was deeply conflicted over the nature of his achievement. I felt, absurdly enough, obliged to explain to him time and again that he was barking up the wrong tree. Namely, that the nature of his accomplishment lay primarily in the field of aesthetics and that, by his lopsided insistence on the scientific importance of his investigations, he was losing his proper audience: artists and crafts people. Meanwhile, as far as I could see, the academic world was scarcely holding its breath for the results of his scientific research. In that sense he was curiously at odds with himself.
While he may have been interested in what a small coterie of friends and former students were doing, he clearly disconnected himself from what was going on around him further afield. Rembrandt’s concern for the "Optical Effect" in his prints, for example, may have been uppermost on Howell’s mind, but he took a dim view of contemporary artistic activity. In a final incongruity, despite being the very person who introduced the idea of creating paper works at the vat level, he disavowed those who so eagerly followed in his footsteps.
This saddened and frustrated me. In 1983, when the American Craft Museum dedicated an exhibition to him, I believe he never even visited a second, related venue, which featured a wide and fine selection of paper art. He revealed to me not the least bit of interest in the artwork of others, neither during the exhibition nor later.
In 1986 the Leopold-Hoesch Museum in Duren, Germany, held its first international biennial of paper art, which, by way of homage to Howell, featured his work in a separate gallery. There was a catalogue in German and English, thick with reproductions and various essays, an undertaking of no little magnitude: a first for Europe and, perhaps, the world. I sent him a copy. His reaction? With no cover letter attached but with the clear intention of minimizing the event, he sent me, for the umpteenth time, a photocopy of a ten year old certificate from The New York Academy, in recognition of his outstanding contribution. I congratulated him, as I had done years before, for this piece of old news. But I added, a bit crazed by now: "Tell me you’re enjoying a huge joke. Wink at me, give me a sign to indicate that you are aware of the importance of the present occasion." No sign, no comment.
In his last years Howell felt the need to organize his research and publish his findings. I urged him to do so but to scrap the projected two volumes and settle for one. This came on the heels of his complaining of the lack of secretarial help. Then he needed a more powerful microscope. "Why do you need a more powerful microscope?" I asked, wondering to myself why he needed one at all. "What’s taking place on the microscopic level that’s so important for artists to know about?" Silence, more guarded silence.
My thirty year correspondence with Howell boiled down to a dialectical tug of war in which I could never sufficiently draw him out. Stratagem after stratagem failed. He proved marvelously resistant to dialogue, to sustaining a reasoned argument or thesis, much less a reasoned rebuttal. The letters he wrote to me—I never counted them but I received well over a hundred—were essentially exhortatory. They never really expanded on his positions, just repeated them. His letters were kind and full of yearning for the Verities but I found them too fragmentary to deal sufficiently with the issues his own work had raised or to coalesce into anything like a well-structured agenda.
After my two week seminar with Howell in the summer of 1962, I returned to Cranbrook Academy of Art determined to set up a paper program in the printmaking department. Guided by nothing more than a sense of blitheness, I wrote directly to Dard Hunter, out of the blue, inquiring if he might not have a spare laboratory beater that he could give us in our effort to start a papermaking program. I received a reply from Dr. Harry Lewis, then curator of the Dard Hunter Paper Museum at the Institute of Paper Chemistry, who explained that Hunter was in Puerto Rico cataloguing Spanish incunabula for the local government, but yes, they had a used Hollander they would clean up and send along.
The title of this article refers to a journey mostly in a metaphorical sense but I took a real trip by car to Chillicothe a year or two later, which actually led me right past Westbury on the Long Island Expressway. I was returning with my family to Cranbrook at the end of August, after a month’s vacation at my parent’s house in North Haven, Sag Harbor. We arrived at Hunter’s home in Chillicothe—Mountain House—around noon the following day.
Mr. Hunter graciously invited me in and was thoroughly hospitable in a rather courtly manner. He could not have been more cordial and informative. I asked him, "Why size paper?" I meant it as a general question but he answered me in terms of his particular experience. He told me that he had lost a ream of paper in the printing of Papermaking by Hand in America due to uneven expansion and shrinkage of the waterleaf. He made it sound like a purely practical matter: sizing paper reduces the coefficient of expansion. Hunter also confided that in his view the greatest artistic potential for paper lay in the area of chiaroscuro watermarks. I nodded politely.
Our program at Cranbrook was still quite new and I showed him paper samples, including a printed announcement of a visit The Grolier Club made to the school in May, 1963. In my youthful exuberance I may have innocently made some remark that struck him the wrong way, because at one moment he said with a flash of disdain, "Any fool can make paper. The trick is to make a ream per day." There was nothing personal in this outburst, however. He was merely voicing a manufacturer’s credo, which should have come as no surprise, yet the sentiment somehow jarred me. I was not convinced that was the trick at all.
My hour long visit with Dard Hunter ended with a polite leave-taking, and my family and I were soon on our way. I left with a lapidary phrase: "Any fool can make paper." For brevity and clarity you cannot beat it. "The trick is to make a ream per day." To be a dabbler on the one hand or a full time vatman on the other—Hunter’s choices are dispiriting. We may squirm under the amateur label but we find the grim, life-is-real/life-is-earnest alternative even less attractive. It sounds suspiciously like work.
Very few of us aspire to make paper for a living and it is a measure of the Copernican shift that has occurred in approximately the last twenty-five years that a wholly new order of amateur papermakers—and nobody’s fools—has arisen, a group engaged in serious pursuits other than manufacture. This is entirely due to Howell’s example of artistic, small-scale activity with paper that has resulted in crossed categories. More than papermakers we are principally artists working with pulp and we confer our notions of skill and excellence—of professionalism, in a word—on the medium. We may work at the vat all day producing one piece of art, one sheet of paper or one post of paper, but our activity is not to be measured against a standard of commercial hand production.
Compared to today’s activity, Hunter’s approach to papermaking was more conventional but that does not diminish in the least his pioneering role, which rests equally upon his contribution to the book arts. Overcoming innumerable technical difficulties, he established a benchmark of excellence with The Etching of Figures, produced for the Chicago Society of Etchers in 1915, possibly the first book in the history of printing for which one man executed the entire production. This was a tremendous accomplishment. Nevertheless, it is the philosophical differences between Hunter and Howell, where they exist, that concern me here and the latter papermaker presents certain contradictions that require further consideration.
The following serves admirably as an example of Howell’s letters to me.
January 24th, 1992
A letter written with great brevity. Do know, I never did stop my Research. It has been continuous.
Back in 1962, I thought you faced a great deal, at the start. I thought it wise not to complicate matters—by introducing you to all the Applied Physics, reaching into thermodynamics. That is why I never introduced you to what was ongoing in that special room.
One step at a time, was the wisdom.
And, you had reading to do, particularly for the exact meaning of Words, in the Technology.
Further—you had to find your own way, in this hand-papermaking.
But did you glean: "What is meant by what?"
With all my best wishes, [signed] Douglass
This letter captures perfectly Howell’s kind and generous spirit. His abiding concern for my progress "in this hand-papermaking" I found touching but I must confess that I do not recall any special room. I remember only the laboratory installed in his garage in Westbury. Is there a hint here of transcendental goings-on? Whatever he meant, I have always been grateful in equal parts for what Howell gave me and for what he withheld. He taught me the basic principles of papermaking, which have served me well, but he probably sensed, correctly, that "Applied Physics, reaching into thermodynamics" would have over-taxed my brain.
Howell had inscribed "What is meant by what?" in chalk on an air duct in his basement, and I made reference to it in a paper I later wrote describing my seminar with him. It was probably the equivalent of True Understanding for Howell and while no field of study was too arcane for him—toward the end of his life he was studying medieval Japanese science and contemplating Sanskrit as well—he had clearly and effectively created a labyrinth with no exit. I suspect True Understanding in his terms had more to do with a state of grace than any amount of accumulated knowledge.
The bracing sentiment of Hunter’s dictum, "Any fool can make paper," clears the air, to be sure, but as applied to Howell the offending word is any. Howell had highly commendable elements of windmill-tilting fooldom about him. Idealistic and single-minded in the pursuit of his work, he appeared out of joint, uncomfortable with the times. Small wonder, in that he largely grew up in Italy where he was steeped in Renaissance art and scholarship from an early age. Howell credited Guido Biagi, Director of the Laurentiana, the great Medici Library, with awakening his consciousness, and he spoke of the Room of the Drawings where he studied works by the great masters "on and in handmade papers" as his favorite place. These were clearly among the most powerful and character forming events of his life and may creditably account, in part at least, for his dual interests in art and science.
From Chillicothe to Westbury, from anyone can make paper to no one is truly worthy to do so who has not drunk deep at the fountain of science, we arrive at two viewpoints that can scarcely be more divergent. But together they raise a pertinent issue. Many university art departments offer hand papermaking. Clearly attention must be paid to the teaching of basic, underlying principles, to a theoretical scaffolding. This is both necessary and desirable, but how much is enough? I tried, unsuccessfully, to introduce Howell to the idea of intellectual triage, the ordering of priorities of knowledge. I did not want the theoretical aspects of paper to be so equally eventful as to crowd out art. My correspondence with him followed this major theme over the years.
Final questions like "What is meant by what?" are perhaps best left on air ducts to serve as epistemological reminders of our very imperfect understanding of this world. As artists we must sniff out our own path to creativity and find inspiration where we will: high on a windy hill, in art and ideas, or, just as plausibly, in a crack in the sidewalk. We share craft instruction but then freely roam with our imagination. We need hands-on experience quickly: it’s the way we’re wired. Our papermaking is art driven; it propels us to shape and to make images. That we deal in sense-data and gain empirical knowledge through doing (we learn not so much why things work as how) explains why very much theory can pall.
We must be able to go about our work without complexes because enough anxiety floats over the creative act without the need to compound it with disproportionate concern for the "Immutable Laws of Physics" and the exigencies of organic chemistry. The making of pulp from textiles and vegetable fibers in the ancient manner, as luck would have it, is the one area in papermaking where these demands are mercifully minimal. Enthralled though he may have been by the science of it all, Howell in fact revealed the stark simplicity of the basic process for making beautiful paper. This has proved to be the secret door in the garden wall for many of us and, in my opinion, constitutes his chief legacy.
Not that the boundary was always clearly drawn, but Howell essentially completed his work as an artist many years ago, whereas his work as a scientific researcher, by his own admission, lasted to the end of his life. While in my view this aspect of his work remains problematic, the contents of the "special room" may yet yield a surprise or two. He gave a graphic working title to his assortment of writings and notes, My Bare Bones, which suggests a distillation of his thoughts and observations. Big book or little, I hope someone publishes it, because it should do much to burnish the scholarly claims about which he felt so passionately.
To the degree we travel around the world in search of papermaking adventures or do historical research, to the degree we employ handmade paper in our books and in our art, the spirits of Dard Hunter and Douglass Howell quietly hover, individually or collectively, over our enterprises. Our debt to these two pioneers is enormous, mine specifically for the kind attention and generosity they showed me. Sensible of my good fortune, for this I have long been keenly grateful.
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