I Dreamt I Schlepped Paper in my Summer Pajamas and Other Confessions

In the mid-to-late sixties there appeared on the scene with little fanfare a hand paper mill called Waterleaf Mill. The world took little notice of the event because there were only fifty people to whom Waterleaf Mill announced itself. If this sounds passing strange, think sham. There were sample sheets of handmade paper, that much was real. I made them myself at Cranbrook Academy of Art. But Waterleaf Mill as a legal entity was a fiction. Its stationery – that too was tangible – bore a letterhead, a P.O. Box number in Birmingham, Michigan and that was it.

In the annals of fraud this deceit is small bore, to be sure. (But, your Honor, it was only meant as a lark.) I prefer to think of Waterleaf Mill as an exercise in market research. It was designed to answer the burning question: what impact might an American handmade paper make on the artistic community generally and on printmakers particularly. I wasn’t planning to make paper commercially at this time in my life but I nevertheless found the proposition intriguing. Left to my own devices I could never have brought this off. I needed a partner in high jinx and I had just the person at hand –Russell E. Moriarty. With a name like that we were already streets ahead. (Readers of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will recall that Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis was named Moriarty, a criminal mastermind.)

A dear friend of the family, great pal and bridge partner, Russell was a man of contagious high spirits with enough adventure under his belt to last several lifetimes. A P-47 combat pilot in WWII, he was an authentic and much decorated hero. Shot down and interned by the Germans, he escaped to fly again – and to be shot down a second time. And to escape yet once more! With the help of the French underground he made it to Spain but the Guardia Civil in Figueres handed him over to the Germans who treated him none too kindly for his troubles (“They cleaned my clock” was his only comment). He sat out the remainder of the war in a prison camp.

Overqualified for the caper at hand, Moriarty was a manufacturer’s representative of more than one steel mill and owner of a plastics company in Birmingham. A seasoned operator in the brutally competitive world of Detroit automotive where bids on screws and other bits of hardware are nicely calculated to the second (if not third) decimal place, he handily drafted a cover letter for Waterleaf Mill. In addition to paper sizes, price breaks and shipping information, the letter, in accordance with hallowed marketing practices, was designed to elicit a response from the fortunate recipient. Thus, into cardboard tubes with Waterleaf Mill mailing labels went the letters and carefully rolled sets of full sample sheets of various colors, including white, measuring approximately eight by eleven inches. Smoke and mirrors perhaps, but a very smart looking presentation, very professional.

I should explain that we were casting a rather wide net. On our mailing list in addition to printmakers – famous American printmakers, some of whom were authors of widely used texts – were a few print publishers, graphic workshops and art editors of a number magazines and broadcast companies. The polling results, please (drum roll). And then imagine the Energizer bunny’s battery dies and he falls over. One person responded.

“Hey, two percent response. That’s not bad. One percent is considered normal.” Moriarty was trying to buck up my spirits. That or it must have been Black Humor Day. Yes, maybe there was room for gratitude after all in that one percent of fifty people is body parts. The printmakers were a screaming disappointment. Not a single word of acknowledgement. “Say, interesting paper. Let’s keep in touch” or, “Can you make this size or the other?” The novelty of the event went totally unremarked. Some months later at one of the Roten Gallery print displays in the Cranbrook Library I saw the Waterleaf Mill sample sheets incorporated in a small format, unbound book with accompanying printed illustration of one of the artists we had sent paper to, the ingrate.

Tantrums aside and allowing for skewed data, what makes artists in general so terribly conservative in their paper selection? Does the accumulated weight of tradition in printmaking – all those crafts and skills to master – somehow inhibit experimentation where paper is concerned? And I merely refer to white and off-white paper to keep it simple. The adventurous souls in this department seem a distinct minority. There is one print publisher, in particular, with a world of experience in encouraging his artists to consider handmade paper for their prints – leading horses to water, metaphorically speaking – who can best form a nicely shaded opinion on this subject. As it turns out, he is the very same person who so eagerly responded to our mailing thirty-odd years ago.

Ken Tyler, our 2% man, not only had questions about Waterleaf’s paper; he wanted to fly to Detroit to visit the mill! Claxon – “Dive! Dive!” While Moriarty and I had cunningly seen to it that no telephone number appeared on the letterhead, it quickly became evident that all further contingency planning was going to be ad hoc (Latin for “No, you answer the letter.”) I don’t remember how Moriarty finessed the situation but I wasn’t perturbed. Hadn’t Waterleaf’s CEO outwitted his wartime captors?

Anyone in his right mind would have called it quits at this point and possibly have looked into a new line of work. But before throwing in the towel we had one more card to play. The following summer we would pitch Andrews Nelson Whitehead – as they were then called – the paper importers, at their old address on Laight Street in Tribeca. Let’s see how they might react. The following August the Moriartys came out to eastern Long Island on a visit. At an early hour of the appointed day Moriarty came by to pick me up at my parents’ house and with a portfolio of paper in the back seat of his car we were merrily off for Manhatten.

The scene is the front office of ANW. General introductions all around and my recollection is I sat down off to one side and didn’t say boo. This was Moriarty’s show. So smooth, so jolly and funny he was. A millionaire salesman on a busman’s holiday, he had a product ANW hadn’t seen in decades: an American handmade paper. Oh my Lord, the blarney, the chutzpah – was this legal? One moment Moriarty was lecturing the ever-gathering group of employees on the virtues of handmade paper and the next, making outrageous claims for a phantom mill.

Meanwhile I was squirming in my seat. Only Toad of Toad Hall drove more recklessly. Moriarty was building up a dangerous head of steam; he was bound to derail his great machine at any moment. I was also squirming for another reason. At one point mid-morning I discovered I wasn’t wearing underwear but, rather, pajamas. Dressing in the dark so as not to awake the family I had groggily slipped my trousers on over pajama shorts. Hence, the somewhat surrealistic Maidenform Bra moment, except that I wasn’t dreaming.

Or was I? How we got out of ANW offices with our cover intact, I don’t know. Equally perplexing was bumping into Jack Robinson from ANW in New York some years later and being asked, “How come you never delivered the ream of paper we ordered?” WHAT ream of paper? Moriarty had done his job too well. So much tomfoolery had addled my brain. I must have pushed the whole matter to the back of my mind because the purpose of Waterleaf Mill was never really to sell paper but rather to stir up a certain sector of the art community, to beat the bushes and see what might jump out.

In a fitting coda Ken Tyler came to Cranbrook in the spring of 1970 to give a lithographic workshop and predictably enough got excited over our modest paper operation which, as I have described many times before, was contained in what had been a double janitor’s closet. This small room contained beater, vat, couching table and standing press. I don’t think he ever realized he was at last, in a very real sense, visiting Waterleaf Mill.

That summer at Cranbrook John Koller and I made paper at Tyler’s bequest for an edition of Roy Lichtenstein’s (a black and white line cut). I was on my way to Spain and Koller to Connecticut. The following year 1971 turned out to be a banner year for small paper mills. By then along with Kathryn Clark – Cranbrook at one remove, if I may respectfully cast my wide net again – Koller and I had established our respective paper studios and were making paper early on for Gemini G.E.L.

Even after Tyler left shortly thereafter to start his own publishing company Gemini continued to provide handmade paper for its artists. Ken Tyler may not have been the only paper sensitive print publisher on the scene thirty-odd years ago – I’m thinking principally of Tatyana Grossman of Universal Art Editions Limited for whom Douglass Howell occasionally made paper – but he was far and away the most enthusiastic. After a long working relationship with Koller, Tyler eventually installed his own in-house paper facilities at Tyler Graphics and has since employed paper in ambitious and imaginative ways.

While Koller and Clark had no problem in naming their mills – HMP and Twin Rocker respectively – I dawdled forever. I considered King’s Mill, not out of any twisted megalomania, I hasten to add, but only because my Hollander beater was made in Molins de Rei (Catalan for Molinos del Rey). Lying just to the west of Greater Barcelona, the municipality of Molins de Rei, which was founded in 1190 under Jaume I, is predominantly industrial and manufacturing in nature. Thus, while overly splendid to my ear in English translation, the use of the Catalan or Spanish name to identify a paper studio in Barcelona could be confusing (not to mention seriously lacking in cachet).

Meanwhile, in the setting up of my studio, I ordered two pairs of moulds and a single mould with watermarks consisting of an overhand knot with my name beneath, all meticulously jig-sawed out of copper flat stock and sewn to the wire screening. In the very first Gemini order Tyler asked that the watermark be removed. Ouch, that hurt but he was right. The design was showing up in ghostly fashion through the ink in a proof of a Jasper Johns print, a four-panel lithograph. This was the first of his “flagstone” series, which, incidentally, was that rare example, I was later informed, of the statement of a theme first appearing in a print and then subsequently in painting rather than the other way around.

As I never replaced the watermark of my large mould, most of the paper I made was unidentifiable and I still didn’t have a name for my studio until nine years later in 1980 when I finally called it, unimaginatively enough, Barcelona Paper Workshop. By then my papermaking days – making paper for others, I mean – were largely behind me. I had started to have artists coming to work in the studio. This too, like the paper production, was on an irregular basis.

One day some years later Pat Baldwin, a fellow artist, came to visit. A former colleague of a mutual friend from their days in an animation studio in California, she explained that she was living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico where she taught a class in papermaking at the art school there. She told me the name of her paper studio was Waterleaf Mill.

There was no sudden drop in temperature nor did I feel compelled to believe in parallel universes. Shades of paper mills past, to be sure, but nothing to get creepy over. Indeed, my overriding emotion was one of quiet satisfaction. Waterleaf Mill, its madcap and slightly disreputable past having been redeemed, so to speak, now had a nice permanent home. Pat subsequently moved to Bisbee, Arizona, a former copper mining town near the Mexican border and maintains a web page for her art activities: Waterleaf Mill and Bindery and Pequeno Press. To visit her website, go on line and just type “Waterleaf Mill” – a beautiful name – in your search engine, press SEARCH and then cross your fingers you aren’t x-filed back to Detroit of the sixties.

Certainly there are many ways to slice and dice the events of the past few decades in the world of handmade paper and I have highlighted just one particular aspect of its development. For example, in addition to making paper for printing Koller and Clark almost from the beginning were collaborating with artists in the making of paper art. And just a few years later in 1976 Sue Gosin founded Dieu Donne, a singular and pioneering event for New York especially, where art collaboration is very much the order of the day.

Yes, the paper movement was jump-started by the needs of print publishers and anyone who intends to make paper commercially will want to pay special heed to them. But simultaneously a growing number of artists in parallel fashion were steadily exploring the esthetic qualities of pulp and paper all along. Names made famous on canvas (Stanley William Hayter’s phrase) making prints on the one hand, and lesser known artists getting their hands into wet pulp on the other – this top-down-bottom-up dichotomy was strongly characteristic from the beginning. However, this effect has arguably softened as papermaking has expanded in the intervening years hyphenating with other artistic disciplines.

From university art departments and art centers to paper mills, from private presses and print publishers to artist studios – on the evidence there is an ever richer mix of artists bringing to the world of paper and pulp a splendid vitality.