Touring Rie Hachiyanagi's Paper City

Thursday, April 7, 2011 - 10:05

A pair of local media outlets recently visited MHC professor Rie Hachiyanagi's Paper City--an art installation that traces Holyoke, Massachusetts' history as a major American paper manufacturer. The article belowed originally appeared in the April 7 edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Hachiyanagi also talked with WFCR's Karen Brown about the exhibit.

Artist Rie Hachiyanagi's Installation Traces Holyoke's History as 'Paper City'
By Sandra Dias

Artist Rie Hachiyanagi turned decades-old paper pulp reclaimed from a Holyoke mill building into an ethereal installation that traces the city's papermaking history.

Hachiyanagi, 39, a Mount Holyoke College art professor specializing in performance art and installations using handmade paper, also is interested in local history - especially in Open Square, the redeveloped former mill, and in Holyoke's role as the nation's premiere manufacturer of paper in the late 1800s. The mill was primarily a textile factory but also produced paper from the 1920s to the '60s.

When she first heard there was a large bin of paper pulp in the basement of Open Square, where she has a studio, she was doubtful that it would be usable.

"I assumed that anything in a New England basement for that many years would be moldy, especially paper pulp that was once wet," Hachiyanagi said.

But when John Aubin, the owner of Open Square, told Hachiyanagi she was welcome to take the 60- to 80-year-old pulp, she decided to check it out.

"When I went down to the bin, I found a large mound of paper pulp that was still intact. I was surprised and delighted and I said, 'I really want to work with this, if I can,' " Hachiyanagi said. "My work has a special connection and parallel to the history of this building. I wanted to make an artwork from this paper pulp and install it in this very building, to complete the circle."

Large windows in the fourth-floor gallery where she has set her installation face out onto the canals and neighborhoods that played a critical role in the city's papermaking industry. The installation, "Paper City: Trace," can be viewed through April 22 at the Open Square building off Dwight Street in Holyoke. The title refers to a time when Holyoke was known as Paper City.

"In my mind, the installation explores the relationship between the Paper City, and how in the old times, paper took off from Holyoke to all over the continent," Hachiyanagi said.

Once Hachiyanagi discovered the pulp in the mill's basement, she researched the history of paper manufacturing in the city, with an eye toward reclaiming, re-imagining and reshaping the old material.

She learned that Holyoke was once a manufacturer of fine paper made from cotton pulp, paper that was prized throughout North America. But later generations of mill owners switched from cotton-based paper to producing paper from pulp derived from trees, which was cheaper and more abundant.

As late as 1968, mill workers in what is now the Open Square building blew wet paper pulp into a large concrete storage bin in the basement, a process that caused pulp to splatter onto the ceiling, as well as into the bin. Hachiyanagi peeled this material off the ceiling and incorporated it into her installation.

Eventually papermaking died out and Holyoke's last paper mill, Parsons Paper Co. - also the first paper manufacturer in the city - closed its doors in 2005.

Traces of the past

To prepare her exhibit, Hachiyanagi used an electric saw and a handsaw to cut 8-inch-by-12-inch cubes from a large mound of fragile paper pulp filling a 19-foot-long bin. Although much of it was dried out, condensed and somewhat rusty from years of storage, on the top layer she found delicate tufts resembling sheep's wool, and from that she was able to make new paper by hand. She used the cut-out chunks of solidified paper pulp to form a configuration that resembles a city block - literally a "paper city" - that is evocative of the downtown neighborhoods of row houses and tenement buildings where laborers in the city's paper mills once lived.

The cream-colored blocks are slightly discolored in shades of tan, gray and rust, and sections are scooped out to suggest windows and doors. Hachiyanagi said she did not intentionally carve into the slabs, but they are so fragile that they started to crumble in certain places while she was unearthing them from the bin. The various imperfections are like traces left from papermakers, most of whom have long since died.

"It is so poetic and fascinating," Hachiyanagi said. "I wanted to honor that in the process of my own papermaking."

Carefully prying rough swaths of the paper pulp that had splattered on the mill's ceiling all those decades ago, Hachiyanagi then attached them to span of netting suspended from the ceiling. The effect of drying and hanging on the ceiling produced small icicle-like filaments that hang from the paper, creating an effect that Hachiyanagi said would be impossible to produce now.

"What is fascinating about those paper icicles is that shape cannot be made today, with all the technology of the 21st century. Only a repetitive movement over a long period of time makes this shape in paper."

She also crafted sheets of cream-colored paper from the wispy bits pulled from the top of the mound, which would have been the most recent pulp blown into the bin, she says.

That paper is attached by thin, transparent wires to the netting and appears to float above the cityscape like thin stratus clouds rising into the atmosphere.

At one end of the draped netting, there is an abundance of paper, evoking the city's heyday as the nation's papermaking capital, and then, suddenly, the floating paper encounters a seam in the netting. The paper sheets dwindle, illustrating the decline of the city's paper industry.

The artist contoured the suspended netting, she says, to reflect the movement of water, evoking the canals around Open Square that once powered the textile and paper factory. The netting also brings to mind the screen that moistened paper pulp is pressed onto to make paper.

But Hachiyanagi said the netting also relates to the stories she collected during her research into papermaking in the city.

"I was thinking of the Paper City and what is left of that," she said. "You get little bits and pieces of stories, anecdotal things. I felt like I was using my mental netting and scooping these stories up. Traces of those stories are mixed into the wetting of the pulp and woven into the handmade paper that floats into the netting."

Shedding tears

Hachiyanagi says she was particularly interested to learn that an entire industry of rag picking evolved in the United States and Europe to produce cotton fiber for paper mills because of a cotton shortage in the American South. Some of the people who collected, processed and shipped rags from abroad were infected with smallpox and Holyoke papermakers who handled the imported rags also became sick, resulting in two smallpox epidemics in the city, in 1870 and 1873.

"So many people have shed tears and sweat to make paper," Hachiyanagi said. Those tears are reflected in marks and water drops on the paper that she made for the installation.

Hachiyanagi only used about 25 percent of the paper pulp stored in the basement, and since she is the only artist who makes paper at Open Square, she is free to use the material for future work. Holyoke's Wistariahurst Museum has commissioned Hachiyanagi to make a work of handmade paper next year and it is possible that she will use some of the remaining pulp.

"There are definitely more opportunities to explore the history of the Paper City and the continuation of this installation," she said.

In the meantime, Hachiyanagi, a native of Japan, is preparing to show work at the Sofia Paper Biennial in Bulgaria in May.

In addition to reflecting on the city's history, Hachiyanagi says, the Paper City installation gives viewers an opportunity to ponder the concept of aging and beauty. At the end of a statement about the installation, Hachiyanagi writes, "Old is graceful."

Hachiyanagi says that handmade paper actually becomes more beautiful as it ages, taking on a shimmering quality and greater flexibility.

"In this age of craziness and fascination with newness, we should appreciate that as time goes by, something old becomes something beautiful and graceful," she said. "I find that very inspiring. Paper is one of the rare objects that gains beauty over time."