Traditions: Ohio Heritage Fellows; 401; Aimee Lee Interview, Camera 2, Part 4 of 4
OHIO HERITAGE FELLOWS
AIMEE: Technically paper is made from cellulose and plants con… contain cellulose. So, lots of people then think that, oh, well, could I use my lawn clippings or whatever? And, it’s more about how much available cellulose there is in a given plant. And, so there are certain plants that just don’t have a whole lot and so it doesn’t make sense to even try because you’re gonna end up doing a lot of work and just getting a lot of mush. But over human history people have figured out the ideal plants for paper which are very closely aligned to the ideal plants for textiles because you kinda of need the common qualities, you need this durability. And, um, so in Asia one of the main plants for making paper is the paper mulberry tree which is related to the mulberry tree but a little different and there are some native versions that are in east Asia but then others that came up from south east Asia. So, if we think of Polynesian, um, what they call bark cloth or toppa or coppa, they would take the inner bark of this tree and pound it until it became very pliable and soft and they would even print it and you could treat it essentially like fabric and you’d make ceremonial clothing out of it, people get married in that kind of thing. So, these trees have really, really strong fibers, apparently there… people have even tested you could tow a car with just the raw paper mulberry bark. Um, and so you want to start with a plant that’s already very strong on its own and they would take that and it didn’t take a lot, it takes a lot of human labor but it doesn’t take a lot of chemical intervention to actually access that, that cellulose. So, that’s why it was one of the great plants and still remains a great plant for hand paper making. For me in the U.S. I’m more interested in… I’m more interested in the U.S. and using paper mulberry if it is helping deal with invasive stands. So, it’s fine in, in east Asia but then once you bring it over to another country in the U.S. and especially warmer climates it’s actually becoming incredibly invasive. And, so it’s on the all invasive list say in Florida but then I have a source in Florida and she will cut down and sell paper mulberry bark and to me that’s a much more sustainable way of working than again from trying to order it from around the world. So, um, there are other plants say, for western paper making that you can use, cotton, you can use flax, you can use hemp and it makes beautiful paper and it just depends on the type of paper making that you’re gonna use. So, for Korean paper making you want long fibered plants and so the preference is paper mulberry and then my preference in the U.S. or North America is to use milkweed cause it also has those long fibers.
AIMEE: When I learned how to make Korean paper I then moved to learning the things I could do with it and one of those things was making essentially baskets out of it and I would take paper, cut it into strips, turn those strips into cord or rope and then use those, um, like twists of paper and then I already knew about a tradition that was more based in Japan that was about making thread from paper and so I had already learned how to do this but now that I had a much better material and I could make my own paper to suit thread spinning then I started doing more of the spinning. I also, um, learned a lot from a colleague, Velma Ballard in upstate New York about using different, uh, western tools say, uh, Swedish bobbin winder or even, um, the ancient tool of a drop spindle to be spinning thread and, um, and then I could use that to either sew with and part of that came from the impulse of wanting to make, again, I was very interested in making books which got me to making paper so to make a book wouldn’t it be interesting if I could make the whole book out of paper but make it look as if it was made out of traditional materials that a book was made out of. So, if I had the thread I could sew the, the book with thread or I could just make the covers out of thread that I’ve woven and so I had to then learn how to weave, um, weave… so I had to learn how to weave on a loom. I also set up really small looms that Velma Ballard helped inspire me to do which were based on Peruvian, uh, full salvage weaving so that you don’t have any unravelling and you just drive nails into small pieces of wood and you set up your little loom and you sew with a long needle. And, so that’s been a part of making books, making collages, uh, making different kinds of dresses. So, it just was another, to me, a natural progression in playing with all the things that paper could do because I knew that there was a history in Korea of using it for very utilitarian purposes. So, you could make a teapot out of paper. You could make a chamber pot out of paper. You make it waterproof by lacquering it with a natural sap of the lacquer tree which is, again, a plant that grows and is native to that area. And, just taking advantage of all the natural things around you. You can then take the flowers or the insects or different kinds of, um, material, roots, bark and you could boil that and make dye to dye your paper and then you have colors because humans, we love color. And, so, um, learning how to dye paper was also an interesting learning curve because its cellulose and cellulose doesn’t take natural dye as well as things like silk or wool which are more protein animal fibers but there are ways of kind of coaxing it to get to take the color and so I was really fortunate to have a natural dyeing teaching in Korea who just let me play. He just… my teacher in Korea just let me experiment with all different kinds of dye stuffs and he usually taught them on fabric, but he let me bring my paper and I would just… I would just experiment. And, and to this day I… every time I cook, I save all of my onion skins. I keep, um, when people are eating pomegranates you take the rind so you can get, uh, gold essentially, a golden color and you can eat all of the seeds. Um, there are avocados skins and pits that you can use. One of the very traditional, uh, colors was from Persimmons in Korea and so that is harder for me. I can’t grow that in this climate because it’s too cold, but I buy that powdered and I mix up the dye. So, there’s so much… I call it paper manipulation but it’s really just all the things that you can do with paper that most people don’t even think of. Even the simple act of taking a piece of paper and getting it damp and crumpling it up changes the entire texture of it and the way that it drapes and suddenly you get something that’s a crisp sheet of paper and it starts acting like a piece of fabric. And, so once I started doing more of that then I could think about making garments and I could… and of course, when you’re sewing you need thread and I could make that out of paper. You need fabric which I could make out of paper. And, you need color which I can make, you know, I can make my own dyes and so it just becomes, um, this little world where I can control every single substrate. And, also again, know that I’m not impacting the environment in a bad way.
AIMEE: The dresses I have in this show are a mix of different styles and so I will use patterns for some, and I actually had to teach myself… I taught myself dress making by doing these and they’re not meant to be wearables. They just are art that they… that hands on the wall. But I learned so much about the skill that it takes to draft patterns to make clothes and the skill that’s actually been lost even in this country. If we think about just even one generation behind and, and they were, um, people making, you, you would have your, your mother was making your own clothes. And, so I learned so much about clothing which is essentially like taking 2-D and turning it into 3-D. So, it’s taking… which is exactly what I want to do, take 2-D sheet of paper and make a 3-D object or sculpture. And, when I started doing that, of course, I started with the easy to buy patterns which are western dress and then, of course, I wanted to look at Korean clothing. So, I got a pattern for Korean dress and so hanbok is the Korean, uh, very traditional style and technically that word just means Korean clothing. So han is Korean and bok is clothing. But we think often of this… this jacket, the short jacket that has these kind of, um, big sleeves cause you could kind of hide things in there as pockets with this special kind of tie. And, then you have a very long skirt and so I was making those but then I also looked into other kinds of dress that were traditionally Korean and there’s one that I had made that, um, had a pleated skirt and it’s based on something called the chalik (SP?) and it was actually hunting clothing and so it was meant for mounted hunters. So, they figured even if you’re a man it’s easier to get on and ride a horse if you were wearing a skirt. And, so you have this pleated skirt and then you also have these sleeves that are detachable because invariable when you’re hunting on a horse you’ll probably get hurt and so you can rip off these sleeves so you can have bandages while you’re… while you’re riding. And, so I was really inspired by those and then, of course, looking at different ways of manipulating fabric. In Korea there is a way of… there’s, um, a tradition of making pojagi which are carrying cloths and they’re, uh, Koreans would often instead of thinking of packing a suitcase they would actually just have a cloth and you’d wrap the cloth around what you’re carrying and then you carry it with this cloth and women who are sewing would never throw away scraps, they would save all the, the pieces and then they’d patch them together in a very specific way and you’d have these beautiful carrying clothes. And, this is emerged as an artform and so there are artists from all around the world who are making pojagi art. They’ve created a pojagi forum that meets every other year and it’s this beautiful kind of mix of… there’s something that came from Korea that now people from all over the world are exploring. So, I incorporate this idea of patching scraps together because, again, when I’m… I’m… I’m… for my dresses I incorporate patching scraps together because they have so many fragments left over from sewing. So, I you know, if you have a rectangular sheet and you cut out a form you have all the little bits and I never throw those away. So, I use them until they get too small and then when they get too small I put them in a little bin and after a few years I have enough to pulp and then turn into more paper and jus recycle and that’s the beauty of using paper. So, I think that…
AIMEE: In Korea, often, uh… In Korea, one of the very common wedding gifts is a pair of carved wooden ducks and they’re made to look like Mandarin ducks which are a species that are known to mate for life. And, so they’re carved, so there’s a male and a female duck and they are given to bride and groom to promote marital fidelity and also fertility and that… you see these everywhere in kind of trinket shops and, and, um, pretty much every married couple I know who’s Korean or even who’s partly Korean has, has these ducks and one day I came across in a museum catalog from La Jolla, California this duck that was clearly woven out of paper in the way that I knew how to weave paper and it just looked so weird and, um, but it, it was so strange looking but so obviously that duck. And, it was from the 19th Century and I read that sometimes people would have to resort to other materials. Maybe they didn’t have access, maybe they didn’t know a wood carver, or they didn’t… or they needed to use the wood for something else and so you could have paper versions. And, I immediately wanted to make this. So, I didn’t know how exactly to do that because I had been trained to make things like vessels that looked like pots and very symmetrical but I just started and my first duck, I remember when I was working on it I had people around me say, Aimee have you ever seen a duck in real life because that looks more like a swan because the neck was so long. So, you know, I ripped out part of the neck and tried to make it a little shorter but so I started with one weird funny looking duck and then I made another and essentially just got better and better. And, luckily was able to go back to Korea in after making about two to go back to my teacher and get advance lessons on… well, how would I do this? And, what would it take to kind of curve the head of a duck? And it was amazing cause he taught me… my teacher in Korea said, you have to start with a teapot first and I said, I don’t want to make a teapot and he said, no you have to make a teapot. And, it was a really hard project, but I realized, oh, now that I can make a teapot, I know how to make… I know how to curve things, I know how to make things sprout out of a body and so I can curve the duck, I can make wings, I can open it’s mouth and do all kinds of things I didn’t know when I had first done my initial study with him. So, I started doing those and I just couldn’t stop and for me it was based, of course, on this tradition but then it was about looking at the animal itself, like, what does this bird want to do or say? And, you just… I, I would just start weaving either I would start from the tail or I would start from the beak and, and just see what it wants to do. Does it want… maybe it wants to turn its head or maybe it wants to look up or look down or, and it’s just this dialogue again with the material and I just think it’s a great way to… it’s making ducks has been a way… another way for me, like making books, to incorporate all the things that I love about storytelling, about combining color, combining, um, different techniques, making the paper, dyeing the paper, weaving the paper, and, and then working with other materials to figure out how to get it to stand up because sometimes they need to have stands. So, at this point, they’ve really taken on a life of their own. And, of course, people love buying them for weddings and Americans will say, oh I know someone getting married, and let me buy a duck. And, at that point, I’ll say, you really should buy two ducks not one. But for me as a… as an unmarried person, I’m happy with the single ducks or the group ducks or the flying ducks doing whatever they want. So, that’s where that tradition comes from.
AIMEE: Because I grew up along a river, I think very early on I had this connection to water that I did not appreciate until I moved to Ohio to go to college in a landlocked area and, and I felt that absence of something. I didn’t quite know what it was and then when I went to graduate school in Chicago and it was on this huge lake that almost looks like an ocean, it felt a little more like I was connected to something I was accustomed to and that’s where I started paper making. But I think there’s also a very calming sense with water and there’s been a little bit of research done about the way that water actually… making… making paper may release more oxygen into the atmosphere right where the paper makers face it. And so that… that induces a kind of exhilaration but even if that’s not the case, just the process of being engaged in something really thoughtful and repetitive. So, it seems like two different things, like, oh, it must be thoughtless if it’s repetitive but it’s something that I’ve trained my body to do over many years. So, when, when I get to the vat you just… I can just drop into that zone and, and the great thing about when you are physically moving and doing something that you’ve trained yourself to do very carefully over many years is that then it frees up your mind to go to another place that you might not have gotten if I was just sitting around. So, that’s when I get really great ideas. It’s also just a wonderful meditation. And, I think that’s why, um, so many paper makers really keep working because even though it’s difficult it brings a lot of peace.
AIMEE: Even… even though as a child I was a little bit and I think a little bit scared of nature. I don’t like bugs and, and so I would be outside, but I wasn’t the kind… I wasn’t the kind of kid that would just run rampant through the woods. But I would notice little things and I always felt very much like people shouldn’t do lots of things to harm nature and on whatever level that is and that may have been a very naïve thought but that’s continued through my whole life. And, when I first started out as an artist and I had no money I would always just use found objects because I didn’t want to contribute to taking nature and turning it into something and selling it and then buying this. And, I especially was never attracted to plastic. So, um, I would… I would do things like I would collect sticks and I would tie them all together and that was before I started making paper but then once I discovered paper making it was a total revelation that I could find a plant that was good at doing this. It was… it almost wants to do it and one of the American women who went to Korea, Dorothy Field who is an amazing artist and writer. She wrote something about how plants that are good for paper making have this kind of destiny, like, they really want to be paper but they can’t do it on their own, they need people and, and I really resonate with this idea that people are not bad for the environment, people are, are of the environment. And, so, so that kind of cycle of me facilitating this plants dream to become a sheet of paper makes a lot more sense than me… than… than… it makes more sense than the idea of clear cutting hardwood lumber and pumping it full of chemicals in these paper mills that are spewing terrible noxious fumes and pollution. It makes much more sense for me to go and harvest a small patch of milkweed or dogbane or cattails and process it by hand in small batches and then make paper and make artwork from it because then it’s, it’s something that I’ve been completely part of that cycle of. So, even if I’m still afraid of bugs, I still very much feel connected to nature through making paper.
AIMEE: No two sheets of paper are alike, but it depends on who’s looking. So, to a trained eye, they can see the differences and to someone who doesn’t know anything about paper making, they look identical. And, that actually may be the goal of the paper maker in that for some traditional paper makers that is the ultimate goal is to make very uniform paper. For me, I think that’s amazing. I am not a production paper maker. I don’t think of myself as someone who’s trying to every day churn out 500 sheets of paper and then sell a certain amount and have a specific line. I think of my work almost more like, people who make wine, you can’t really control exactly each year what harvest you’re gonna get and that’s why you mark it by the year. So, I think, well, this year the milkweed grew this much or it… I harvested it at this time so it’s going to be any shade from green to gray to, you know, almost getting black but…
I think that the best way to keep traditional arts alive is to practice them. And, to practice them, you have to learn about them and the, the normal first thing is to go to the source as far, as, as far back as you can go or as close to the origin as you can go. And, and study as hard as you can which is what I felt that I did. And, then from there you grow it and for me this is just it’s really just instinct. It wasn’t something that I planned. It’s just that once I started making Korean paper there’s so much joy and you see a sheet of paper and there’s so much possibility in it that at first, it’s hard to use it. And, that’s fine because there is actually a tradition of ageing paper. So, I have paper that I made over 10 years ago in Korea and it’s just still sitting there but it’s aging, and it actually becomes better with time. And, so I know it’s waiting for something better and then there’s other paper that I made over 10 years ago that I used immediately. And, I turned it into rope, and I bound books and, and I think that by just engaging with the tradition it becomes the present form. So, I, I think we get so caught up on tradition being old or frozen or if they did it a 100 years ago with silk thread then you’re not allowed to do it now with nylon thread and I think it’s up to the person working to decide what their boundaries are. So, for me, I’m not that interested in using plastic in my work. So, I will stick with the kind of material that I have. For me, I also want to see all the things I can do with paper, so I stretch it to it’s limits, like, could it, could I make it even thinner? Could I make it even thicker? Could I, could I smash it up even more? Can I rip it up? Can I sew it back together? Can I put it in a sewing machine? Can I sew it by hand? I’m just interested in the limits of the material and I think just by doing that you’re pushing the field forward because then I can say to the next person who thinks that this is a very delicate sheet of paper, actually this is much stronger than you think and if you really needed to we could have you wear it as a rain cape. And, I’ve seen that. I’ve seen a rain cape in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History in New York from Korea. It’s… I don’t think it’s dated but, um, this was just something that people knew to do. You would just find things around you and make it work for your purposes and I think by continuing to do that work you just create… you kind of… you grow tradition, you evolve it and because I think that any kind of tradition that just stays very much the same, very static, that actually means it’s more at risk of dying then if it changes. So, my role is to preserve and document what the history and the tradition has been and to be able to perform it as well as possible. And, then just go crazy. So, my job is… I’m an artist at heart… I mean, I teach, and I write, and I do all these different kinds of things but my… my essential core is to be creative and to be curious. And so, from… from what I’ve… everything that I’ve learned and everything that I continue to learn I just try to, to do new things and make new art and I think that is the best way… that’s the best way that I can serve Korean paper.
AIMEE: I think my legacy is to shine a light on Korean paper as… in a way that people outside of Korea can understand and appreciate. Um, I hope that what I leave behind is not just more Korean paper studios but a body of people in which that knowledge is imbedded. I had an old professor once say to me after I had done all of my research in Korea, the first, uh, the first time around on my Fulbright grant. This professor said to me, your body is a library. He said, all of these things are in your body now. And, so my legacy would be, how do I get what’s inside my body? Right? I can’t give my body… I can’t borrow parts of my body but how do I transmit that? And, so that’s what I’ve been doing, I’ve been… that’s why I’ve been teaching so much is because I’m trying to find those students and maybe I’m trying too hard. I think about, even when I was a student and I met my teachers, not all of them were ready to teach and sometimes I have to… I waited a few months to… for my Korean paper making teacher he had said, a year before I even got there, he said, yes, just that’s fine. We emailed and there were letters and, and then when I got to Korea, I met his wife at the store that they run and she said, no you can not come visit. And, I thought, that was just dead and then I went around and was rejected by all kinds of other paper makers and then somehow several months later my aunt said, oh, my niece has just gotten a job at this traditional Korean arts, uh, organization and they’re… they happen to be having some kind of paper making demonstration at this museum so let’s go. And, I went, and I said, this is the guy that I’ve been trying to study with. And, so she just basically strong armed her way through the crowd and went to him and said, my niece wants to learn how to do this, you need to let her do this right now because they had a whole demonstration vat and we talked and I said, to him, I’ve met all these people, I’ve been rejected by all these people. Where would you recommend that I go in Korea to learn this very specific style of making paper? And, he said, there’s only one place, our place. So, why don’t you come visit? And, then I visited, and he said, you can come whenever you want and just decide how long you want to stay. And, then when I was actually there… so, this is six months after my initial grant started, we’re there in the snow with a wood… wood fire, you know, going and cooking fiber and he said, didn’t you write and email to me a long time ago? I said, yeah, I did. And, he said, well, why didn’t you just email me back? And, I said, well, I went to your wife and she said, no. And he said, my wife says no to everybody, that’s her job. So, he said, you should have just written me, and he said, well, actually maybe it was better that you did it this way because then I knew that you were really serious. So, I… maybe I’m working too hard as a teacher to find those students. I, I really think that when a person is ready to learn, the teacher appears and that’s what happened for me in Korea. And, I hope that my legacy is that I get to be that teacher for other generations.
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- Aimee Lee Interview, Camera 2, Part 4 of 4
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Interviewee: Lee, Aimee
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