Sunday, December 11, 2016

Earth | Paper | Sky 2016 - John Risseeuw, 2016 Anita Lynn Forgach Keynote Lecture

John Risseeuw, 2016 Anita Lynn Forgach Keynote Lecture, by Paul Romaine

President Jennifer Baker introduced John Risseeuw of Cabbagehead Press with a short, thoughtful speech about the importance of teaching to sustaining hand papermaking. Displaying the Hand Papermaking Family Tree, a family tree printed in the journal Hand Papermaking, based on a survey of 80 contemporary paper makers, Baker noted how "teachers build our community" and asked everyone to "honor the teacher of your teacher and your teacher's teacher, and their teacher," and so she thanked Andrea Peterson for bringing her to the craft. The map/tree is online at

Baker acknowledged John Risseeuw as one such teacher, who had learned and shared the craft at Arizona State University from which he recently retired. A founding president of the College Book Art Association, he also had a long and proud history in using printmaking, papermaking, and letterpress for social activism.

John Risseeuw thanked Baker for her remarks and the Friends for honoring him in having him deliver the 2016 Anita Lynn Forgach Keynote Lecture. He began his talk by noting the many interesting topics in papermaking which he would love to see researched and published by hand papermaking researchers:
  • Cotton fiber: we don’t know enough about how the manufacturing process affects cotton fiber in papermaking. For example, does mercerization change the fiber for beating? What are the effects on paper fiber of other industrial processes, such as those making fabrics wrinkle-free or flame-retardant? Is there a species of cotton that beats better or is processing more important or are other factors involved?
  • Silk paper. Silk isn't cellulose, it's a protein, but how, from a chemical or molecular perspective, does silk make such great paper?
  • Basket fibers. There should be more research on using indigenous basket fibers in papermaking--it's an under-studied area.
  • Quarto and laid paper moulds. Were there ever vertical laid moulds? Printers and librarians know that printers have long preferred to have laid lines horizontal to the text, but in quarto format books, the laid lines are vertical. Did a printer ever commission a vertical laid mould? It was always said to be never done, but have there been exceptions?

  • Paper presses. What were the technical differences between different types of presses and how did the pressure levels of 40 pounds vs 40 tons affect the resulting paper and at what threshold levels did those changes occur? Yes, higher pressures made papers resemble calendared sheets, but with what different pressure levels? From a technical perspective, what were those differences, and what are the threshold pressure levels? What are the advantages of a very powerful press? This seemed to be an incredibly important issue, for all papermakers. Perhaps it would do something to reduce press envy.

John Risseeuw then spoke about his own background in papermaking and printing. He came from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he studied chemistry for two years before finally switching to art and discovering printmaking. To this day, he loves paper and ink.

Risseeuw started printing in 1971 with "edible ink" and in 1972 printed edible "Eat Nixon" gingerbread men (sales on-campus were quite poor). But 1972 was an important year for him in other ways—it was the year he made an arrangement with Professor Walter Hamady at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, exchanging work in order to learn papermaking. Oddly enough, while he learned from Hamady, Risseeuw remarked that he never actually took a class with him.

After Wisconsin, he taught five years at the University of South Dakota with Lloyd Menard, and then in 1980 went to Arizona State University where he established a book arts studio and classes. Later, he took over a papermill started in 1976 by Jules Heller (then Dean of ASU’s College of Fine Arts),, who had produced one of the first books on paper as an art medium. In 1986 ASU hired printing colleague Dan Mayer (now director of the Press). He described how the press's collection of type has grown by donation to more than 20 tons. Heather Green is his successor at Arizona.

Risseeuw then took us though his work, showing his increasing knowledge and sophistication in weaving together print- and paper-making techniques in ways which use materials that were no longer background or substrate, but foregrounded as part of the art work.

In 1987 he began a portfolio project which took seven years, a contemporary Dance of Death in which he collaborated with writers, poets, songwriters, and artists in making paper and prints. The project was something of a watershed because, as he commented, he used the project “to teach myself more about the process of making paper.” He made over 100 sheets of 16x 20” paper for each print, and used different techniques. For example, for Walter Askin’s piece on noise pollution he used under-beaten fiber to create a “visual noise” under the printed text, and he made Japanese and Western style papers for a poem by Carolyn Forché about a survivor of Hiroshima, and a mixed gray cotton rag and abaca to produce a spotty paper that suggested a graveyard atmosphere for Pete Seeger’s song, “Whistling Past a Graveyard.”

Politics and artistic social activism continued to be important to Risseeuw. De Kooning and Post-Modern Politics (1989) caused a sensation with its image of a grinning Reagan and George H.W. Bush, farting-out (it would seem) the Contra War in Nicaragua. His 1991 broadside, "The Bill of Rights," done with Dan Mayer, joined intellectual content to the paper which was made from cotton American flags and blue jeans. Risseeuw and Mayer chose to highlight the words, “Congress shall make no law,” by doing calligraphy for that text and cutting up a flag for the pulp. Similarly, Spirit Land (1991), a collaborative artist book of paper and prints done with Margaret Prentice in Oregon and Risseeuw in Arizona, used fibers, objects, and poems from their respective states. Risseeuw pointed to the way in which the tactile experience of handling a book with “content-specific” fibrous paper underscored the effectiveness of the work more than merely reprinting poems and facts. Eco Songs (2000) contained a song cycle by the Macedonian poet Dimitrije Buzarovski, on man's relationship to the environment, which was printed on papers made from plant fibers contributed from around the world.

Risseeuw described two overtly political works. Total Fucking Idiots (2002), with 13 portraits (all heavily cancelled), elicited his comment, “the hardest part was editing my list of idiots down to thirteen.” More recently his print on the 2008 banking crisis, “Legacy Post-Modern Banking” (2012), in the Hand Papermaking portfolio Fiber Exposed was made from three pulped biographies of Ronald Reagan, copies of home foreclosure documents, clothing of homeless people, copies of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Banking Act (which Reagan helped gut), and shredded US currency.

Arguably Risseeuw’s single best-known work has been his Paper Landmine Print Project, which he has been researching (since 2000) and publishing broadsides printed on papers made from clothing contributed by landmine victims, plant fibers from minefields, and currencies of countries that have made and used landmines. The series genesis was a 1996 broadside for Hand Papermaking, “Arms Trade Victims,” which compiled statistics on global arms sales and printed it upon paper made from currencies of the top ten arms exporting countries, mixed with clothing of victims of armed conflict. In noting the use of currency, Risseeuw observed that "the story about weapons is really more about money than about politics," and his paper used for this and each subsequent print created a “tangible connection between arms, money and death.”

For the landmine project, he described traveling to Cambodia, the second most heavily mined nation on earth, to research the project and meet victims, and published "Strange Fruit" (2002), which used clothing contributed by victims, bamboo from the minefields, and currency from the countries providing the land mines. Risseeuw showed slides of the victims whom he interviewed in Cambodia at a rehabilitation center. Similarly, Angola, the third most heavily mined nation, yielded "Children of War" (2007) and the Kurds of northern Iraq, "Ten Kilograms" (2004). Risseeuw's slides of those works, as well as other prints in the series from Mozambique, Nicaragua, and Bosnia (among others), left his audience moved. He completed the series with his 2011 artist book, BOOM! which summarized the art and project, although he observed sadly that the project could have continued for many more years. Risseeuw noted proudly that sales of the series were contributed to charities helping victims and removing landmines; so far he had donated over $26,000 and he looked forward to donating more.

John Risseeuw concluded his lecture by exhorting everyone, "Let's go make paper that means something!"

- Paul Romaine

Many thanks to FDH Executive Director Paul Romaine for this article!

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