Learning Library Segments
Priscilla RobinsonPrimary Use of Medium: Paper Casting
Interviewer: Donna Wetegrove
Interview Location This interview takes place with Priscilla Robinson in her studio as she works to complete some commissioned pieces prior to heading off to Santa Fe, New Mexico for a change of pace.
Interview Date: 9.3.99
Writer: Monique Duncum
What Type Of Artist Do You See Yourself As?
"I am a fine artist because I came from doing paintings on canvas and drawings." However, Priscilla calls some of her art wall sculptures, but does not consider herself a sculptor. She does see herself as a painter. Beyond that, she remarks, "I can't classify myself."
How Did You Get Here?
Priscilla has always been an art student even though she was brought up to believe you could not make a living at it. "I was never supposed to take it seriously" even though she grew up with a family of artisans. She says she was never any good at ballet or piano so she started art lessons at a very early age in Maryland. It was a time when children's art classes were not particularly widespread, she now realizes how fortunate she was to have that available to her.
When she got out of college, Priscilla worked as a graphic designer and illustrator for the State of Texas Education Department for the security of a salary. "I always had the idea that if I had to have a job, it would have to be art-related." "I realize now, it didn't have to be." A "day job" would have served her better because she found that she had no energy or creativity left over after a full day as a graphic designer and illustrator for her own work. "I could have stayed in advertising and gotten to wear fancy clothes..."; however, Priscilla leaned into her desire to be an artist and "just made art and made art."
She says she made up her ten year journey with nature so she could always be creative and follow where it took her. She would set up a tent and drawing supplies in the canyons of the Rio Grande for a week at a time. During midday, she would draw at the campsite, and at dusk draw sunsets in the canyons. That is where she got the idea to draw a series of the Rio Grande following it to it's source into south central Colorado. Priscilla says she would get restless if she only stayed in Austin so with a goal of putting six or seven drawings in each series, it seemed a perfect solution. "I never wanted to stay stuck in "safe … and my mother still doesn't get it. She doesn't understand what I consider exciting, fun and challenging." Priscilla likes to work hard!
"I made a conscious decision to make fine art, knowing I could always go back to advertising; knowing that choice was not about going for financial returns. That was clear. It was a choice to do what I wanted to do with fine art." Priscilla also points out that she always chooses to not dwell on the negative side of her choices because there were tough spots along the way.
When in Taos, New Mexico, Priscilla discovered that she felt like she belonged there … she just liked it. "I didn't know a soul when I moved there. I believe it was meant to be." Her studio space was small and not conducive to papermaking since paper takes a lot of room. She also felt she liked her drawings best while there. However, the love of paper she fostered in Austin was still inside her. So, the thought process for building herself a new studio began. And she did it! After that, not a pastel drawing has been done since. Her career with paper took hold. Priscilla comments, she gets enough of the mountains and views from her studio that she no longer needs to do the pastels of them.
It was Priscilla's restlessness in Austin that led her to Taos, New Mexico. Now with a full studio in Taos and the beauty of the mountains, she is able to find a new enjoyment of Austin. She comments how it's stores and restaurants, and sense of being in the "middle of life" brings her a balance by choice. "Austin is always recreating itself… allowing itself to change and to move forward through planning. I like that!"
"Austin has lots of options for day jobs, unlike Taos. Artists tend to fall into commodities in Taos and tend to sell because they are cornered into making a living because there are not as many options for day jobs." Priscilla goes on to say, however, that "Austin's expenses to be creative are higher due to the cost of living. A support system with galleries can help to offset this." "There is no perfect place. Follow your heart and dare to fail to make your dreams come true. Usually when you are not happy, that is the time that you end up launching a change – it is not a comfortable time."
Attending National Conferences has exposed Priscilla to a mixture of fine artists, printmakers, folk artists, and conservators. One such conference is in Chicago through a group called "Friends of Dard Hunter". Here she sees up to 80-90% of the attendees to be academics related.
Priscilla has been working with paper for 18 years now. She was originally taught about paper by a book binder and conservator, which, she points out, is a much more rigid process than she practices now. "It is the right choice for me." She currently splits her time between her Austin and Taos studios.
Where Does Your Inspiration Come From?
Nature provided early inspirations for Priscilla.
Early in her career, Priscilla had a studio in East Austin where about 20 other artists also worked. Her work consisted mostly of very tight canvases of fabrics floating in space adding feathers for a surreal effect. She then would paint the threads of the burlap for shadow effects – all by hand, all very time consuming.
In the early 80's, Priscilla learned how to make paper. She enjoyed no longer having to paint the texture … the paper was it! And so the love affair started.
Priscilla knows her "restless bug" always takes her to the mountains. Her true inspiration will always be nature. Papermaking literally "allows me to touch nature".
Other sources of inspiration come from being in the process. "Commissions always bring new ideas". A German artist, for instance, put out a call to international paper artists to submit a specific size piece of handmade paper and every piece has to have two strings at each corner. Each artist is supposed to mail their piece to another handmade paper artist anywhere in the world, and have them attach their handmade piece to the previous one. The process would continue to total six artists. The last person mails it back to Frankfurt to the originating artist who will put all the submissions together. The finished piece will be shown at the IAPMA Conference to be held in Sienna in the summer of 2000 where 35 countries will be represented.
This additive technique gave Priscilla ideas for her own use with the cotton thread and cotton & abaca paper.
Priscilla also loves mixing old world technique with new technology materials. For instance, her supplier, many times, will share a source for new ways to mount her handmade paper. "One thing always leads to another." So Priscilla constantly seeks out collections and exhibitions and then travels to see them to keep her love for paper alive and ever evolving.
Why Do You Like The Medium?
"Color and texture are the two most important things to me … the rest sort of falls in place." "I like that I can touch it and be spontaneous and in control at the same time." Priscilla states that the elements of spontaneity while working on a piece "can pop you into the best things. I try to have confidence and keep on going to give it the character that is not available in something mass produced." Priscilla embraces the phrase "dare to fail…" She uses that thought to get to the other side of her arts' potential - she also knows at times she may fail.
Does The Material Dictate The Design Or Does Your Design Idea Dictate How The Material Is Used?
"It is both."
For example, for a translucent contrast with the texture of paper, she will use molded plastic for a two-sided piece that hangs from cable. A free-hanging piece like this against a light source provides a completely different experience.
When Priscilla finds herself working on deadlines, she depends on the predictability of fibers she knows for their shrinkage rate to support her designs. Her favorite combination is cotton and abaca fibers.
What Brings Your Medium To Life?
"Learning to use the natural properties of the fibers to your advantage " Different fibers will shrink at different rates. For instance, cotton & linen shrink a lot but abaca does not shrink much at all.
What Tools Are Required In Your Process?
Holland beaters can be utilized to beat the pulp for a variety of textures. The longer the beat (up to nine hours) the smoother the texture. Holland beaters are very expensive so she considered it a dream come true when hers was delivered. They can be found at most institutions with a paper department.
Other materials utilized in Priscilla's process include: plants like cotton, abaca, linen and flowers, acrylic paint, a blender and/or a beater, a screen and "use your imagination." Priscilla adds that blue jeans make great pulp also … they are cotton!
In Europe, with the dominance of floor heaters, most artists "cooch" their paper in large sheets on the floor. Priscilla lays her wet pulp over felt or lexan (even though it takes longer to dry over this non-porous material) with reliefs applied. "The forms can be as broad as your imagination." The result produces differences between the two dried sides (usually one smooth and one textured) which adds to the overall aesthetics of the paper.
Please Summarize Your Entire Process.
Priscilla will doodle and do sketches before suspending and pulling the fibers. Since she works so much on commissions, the sketches support a goal, an idea and a deadline.
The next step is to take plant fiber; suspend it in water to get the fibers to swell up; pull it out in a mold and start removing the water. This is where a chemical bonding occurs as it dries to make it strong (similar to the process of concrete)."
Priscilla uses her Holland beater to process the fiber pulp. It spins the fiber in circles and gets ground by a wheel. The length of time in the beater determines the texture of the paper - anywhere from 45 minutes to 9 hours. After 9 hours, the mixture is super thin and strong; however, it does not take the paint as well. This beating time is important to the final product and serves as a point of rating and reference at paper shows and among artists. "Beating the pulp can alter the translucency and absorbency … making paper is very much like cooking." Since Priscilla loves color as a part of her finished piece, she has a tendency not to beat her pulp as long.
Acrylic paint is watered down a lot so that the pigments settle out. Heavier particles will settle into the paper crevices while others rise to the top. Priscilla mixes her colors in a regular blender then funnels the paint into recycled Ozarka bottles to fill five or six at a time. These different mixes are applied to her dried paper shapes where she literally soaks the pieces. She sometimes uses a simple nose suction to squeeze up and spray color across the pieces for special effects.
As the paint dries, the edges dry first and you get a stronger color line. Metallics sit on top of the paper while color goes all through the paper. In the end, the paper gets becomes real flexible and strong because it is 50% paper, 50% acrylic. Therefore, Priscilla points out, there is no need for a sealer on the finished product.
With the paper-making and painting processes complete, the piece is now ready to be prepared or mounted for its intended location. Priscilla utilizes a variety of mountings for just the right effect. These include backing the paper with gator board or wood hanging structures to create a shadow effect against a wall or fiberglass to support a very curved piece. Molded plexiglass and lexan provide excellent ways to suspend her paper pieces in central spaces by cable. Priscilla is always looking to include new technology with her old world paper-making technique.
Do You Recommend What You Do As A Career Choice? … Why?
"As a career choice? … No. You become an artist only because you can't help it." Priscilla goes on to say: "but if you can't help it and you proceed on, you can have an absolutely fascinating and intriguing life. It's very hard. You have to do it because you can't help yourself."
From another perspective, Priscilla also points out, "There is a whole aspect of the paper industry where a market-type person could take the short fiber from the cotton bale and process it for the handmade paper artist." This could be done using one of the Holland beaters. "No one is doing that with cotton in Texas, which has one of the largest cotton-producing areas known - the Texas Panhandle."
What Tips Might You Have For Someone New To The Medium? … How Best To Develop Their Interest?
"Teach yourself to draw first - do it all the time. Fiddle with it always to build confidence and the difference will grow larger between those who don't practice it."
Priscilla goes on to add to our high school audience, "Mess around on your own while living at home. Perhaps seeking out an arts school would be helpful. The University of Iowa, University of Alabama, Arizona State, and the University of Wisconsin all have good programs. As do Columbia College for the Arts & Sciences and Southwest School of Art and Craft in San Antonio also offer excellent programs to get started."
Priscilla sees herself as "waivering all over the place for the first ten years" … and is glad she did for it all to culminate to her success now. She tried everything and admits her lack of focus, from a marketing standpoint, is not good. During that time however, she did have some galleries representing her work but, from her perspective, "I considered it a miracle to make rent!" So she continued to play with her style until pastel drawings and then the paper took over.
Please Point Out Any "Green" Aspects Of Your Process And Your Medium.
"If the paper dries and I don't like it (before painted), I save it and throw it in the next time I make paper… it is totally recyclable."
Some paper artists grow their own plants and spend a lot of their time cultivating them. Many Swiss artists gather weeds alongside the road for their incredible paper. Often, the plants have to be cooked first to get out the acidity (vs. newsprint, notebook paper, etc. where it is not as important).
Priscilla does save her own blue flax flowers, her hollyhocks, and her irises in Taos because they make great paper. However, that process is very labor intensive. Priscilla notes that if you are not into processing your own fiber, you can start with "half stuff" available through handmade paper suppliers.
In support of "green", Priscilla also recycles both her plastic Ozarka water bottles and tin cans to use in her process. And finally, though other artists may exchange their "scraps" to further recycling, she prefers to incorporate her leftovers back into her own new works.
Please Talk About Making Multiples Of A Creative Effort As A Part Of Your Business.
One aspect to consider is that Priscilla never went into the market place of being an artist with a commercial product like many other artists that she knew. That is a distinct difference in her path. And with that choice, she chooses not to dwell on the negative aspects of her path. It is a path that has been, and still is right for her.
In terms of money issues, somehow the rent has always happened because she had faith that it would be there. "Momentum and contacts do help when you are doing something different." Priscilla seeks out locations across the country where her work is perfect … "successful installations market themselves."
"Making paper is like making cookies… it is as easy to make a dozen as it is to make just one." Priscilla says that making more than what is needed for any given project allows flexibility in the evolution of the piece… and provides leftovers to be used in other creative ways later.
For those who make the same perfect sheet (same thickness) of paper over and over, Priscilla holds great respect for their craft; it is a true skill. Having tried it once herself, she knows that this style of working does not suit her. "It takes a different kind of discipline."
Where Do You See Your Creativity Evolving?
In between commissions is where Priscilla is more experimental and applies new ideas that she gets from her travels. Some ideas on the horizon include utilizing sheets of gelatin with watercolor and ink pressed into the paper. Another concept might be to experiment with more industrial materials and foams to create new forms that can be cast and then used to mold the paper. These experiments, if successful, will then become trends in her work as she experiments more and more.
An example of one of Priscilla's past experiments included casting trees in her neighborhood. Soon her neighbors were pointing out great trees for her to cast… "it then became about helping people see their surroundings because they started looking in support of her outcome.
Priscilla has even been known to "cooch" her paper on stonework, old or new, to capture it's textured detailing. She is quick to point out that you will not damage the stonework because, with the paper, "it is nature to nature!"
Priscilla encourages starting young so your applications can grow, change, and take on it's own persona and uniqueness. She finds that there are a lot of technical people in her classes wanting to put creativity into their hard-working lives. "The pulp/paper feels good to touch and is restful. Paper making and being creative offers balance to the technical side of their life."
"Usually every group of students come up with some crazy, new, zaney idea, that never occurred to me and never occurred to the group of students I had before that."
To learn more about the international paper organization, IAPMA, visit the IAPMA website.
Editor's book recommendation: The Art & Craft of Paper, by Faith Shannon, ISBN 0-8118-0788-6
You can see finished pieces of international handmade paper artists, including Priscilla, in a wonderful newly published book: Paper … An Inspirational Portfolio, by Gabrielle Falkiner, ISBN 0-8230-0304-3
Both books speak to the process of paper-making which is what we have been talking about here!!
Visit Priscilla at her website at www.priscillarobinson.com
2811 Hancock Drive
Austin, Texas 78731
512.452.3516 / 505.758.2608 (NM)
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