Friday, January 28, 2022

A teaching home

This is my new group of Oberlin students and they are fantastic. I did get to select from the biggest pool of applicants, so I was able to try and configure the best group: all different years, majors, backgrounds, but mostly people willing to work together. Day one was ALL scraping Florida mulberry and stripping Michigan milkweed.
I was alarmed to find that a fridge had appeared next to the classroom, taking up the outlet that I always used for cooking, so after pots failing to come to a boil, I ran out at lunch to buy a new burner and then separated the two and had a pot in the hallway and another in the classroom. It meant that I had to stay 2.5 hours after the students left to watch the pots (miraculously, security did not even bat an eye at a pot boiling on the floor in the hallway that has a giant leak in the ceiling). The next day, they did a bunch of rinsing.
Unlike past classes where I show too much mercy with beating times, I made them beat for almost an hour. In the interim, I realized I needed to slip out to grab my lunch so that I could sit with the pots on Day Two, since leaving for lunch and turning off the heat was not going to be helpful.
I gave them all earplugs and our two taller students beat in the loudest room. Naturally, they were exhausted and happy to leave for lunch.
I was impressed by how well they took to papermaking that afternoon. There was no rushing or pushing to make a lot, instead a lot of curiosity about how it worked, why certain things were happening: a wrinkle, a clump, a failure to release.
This is the first group I've had where almost every single student has come to me to ask about what is going wrong, what is preventing them from having a pristine sheet.
I don't know if it's because they feel a need to be perfect, or if it's because they want to learn technique well, or if because they believe that I can help them.
Whatever the motivation, it's incredibly gratifying to have a group unafraid to approach me and to ask questions. Not only about technique but a lot of other big questions.
They also have a lot of ending up in tandem, which is always fun.
This is the first year I got a couple extra chip brushes, not as good as these wonderful 6-inch wall brushes, so that everyone can board simultaneously. Mostly I'm learning that my initial idea to have all different tools so that there are lots of options was not the best, as students simply want to have equal tool access or to all be working at the same baseline. But tool nuances feel so important to me; that's how teachers impose their own agenda.
The next day I was SHOCKED by how attentive they were to sorting and curating and cleaning paper and pellons. I mean, no other class has been this willing to do this much work. Then again, I suspect they were extremely tired by all the beating and physical work so they were happy to sit and focus on one dry thing right in front of them.
They were so careful in removing dry paper even though I tried to demonstrate that the sheets are not as delicate as they might imagine.
We had almost 70 sheets and probably over 100 pellons. They cleaned everything. And no whining! In fact, I had made this optional but they all just sat down and did it.
We had one intrepid student make some bark lace, which is always a delight.
Because I could tell they were doing this to avoid beating, I had them pick fiber until lunch instead. I have never had the entire class go completely silent for so long. What gorgeous focus. One student asked at the end of the day today if this was my quietest class. Maybe!
Look at how precisely she is working, can you see what she's up to?
Removing that one speck of bark.
This always happens to beginners but I was glad to see some of them not give up and work through the challenges. I also overpressed a bit, weighing the chances for more potato chip paper (pulls away too quickly from the surface while drying to shrink and cockle unevenly) versus more ease in boarding.
I had to have this photo staged because they were about to climb out of this little spot on top of the table. I really wish I could configure this classroom more ergonomically well but it's a hard space to configure.
The second batch of dry paper, instead of paper mulberry grown in Thailand, was the same species grown in Florida. Lovely stuff. Both batches were great and the first was surprisingly so much better than I feared, even after all the cooking issues.
This is a great window to dry onto but it's just hard to get to. I'm glad that more students than in the past are completely unafraid to climb tables.

Today I knew they dreaded beating for the third day in a row, but promised that they would never have to beat fiber for another day in their lives if they so pleased. The front batch is milkweed, the back batch is scraped waste from Florida paper mulberry.
We had plenty of fiber left over from the previous day, even after pulling over 80 sheets, so I had them set up four fibers on four tables, two vats each.
They were so happy to be "creative" today, meaning that instead of pulling plain sheets that they didn't label with their own names, they were able to embed all kinds of things, do water soluble transfers, and play with different types of fibers in one sheet.
They immediately got to that kind of work and all I wanted to do was hug them for unleashing those explorations. One day I overhead talking about TV series, but today I heard them sharing what books they were reading with each other and was so delighted to find, upon asking, that they still read real live books with paper pages.
We had lots more paper, working until we ran out of pellons, and nearly ran out of surfaces to dry onto.
I didn't even have to tell them to clean and dry this table to open it for sheets. I talked to one student about how she ended up at Oberlin and it went into a whole journey that ended in wanting to study later with Robin Wall Kimmerer. Another student added that they had also read and loved Braiding Sweetgrass and it made my heart sing.
There are more sheets to the left and in the back room and whew! We survived Week One. A student came to me at the end of the day to say how much fun it was and would we get to do more next week? Prepping for this class with less than a week from my return from Virginia in endless snow and shoveling was brutal; often while going from home to studio and back, making orders, and doing admin, I'd wonder why I do this to myself. Somehow I feel like I am working through my karma by teaching, which is endlessly revealing and pushes me to excavate my worst and best selves. I am insanely sleep deprived and and wrung out yet grateful to be back to this place I have known and loved for over 25 years.

If you want to see how tired I am, register to watch my talk with Steph Rue for the SDA online conference tomorrow!

But better yet, watch Robin Wall Kimmerer reveal the stories of the land. Thanks to Velma for sharing the wonderful video with me.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Final days in Virginia

I got up earlier and earlier to peek at the sky before the sun crossed the horizon and wished that my bed faced east, not west.
Before studio visits on Thursday morning, I soaked the winter milkweed and then cooked at dawn.
One big lesson this time was the value of patience, not rushing through. The tool of patience was my screw press. At right, the heavy joomchi on an indigo-dyed hanji piece (recycled from a dress I made over five years ago). At left, less wrinkles after dampening and pressing overnight, making it easier to write/draw onto and construct into books. I'm often fearful that the ideas will escape for good if I don't get it done immediately. But being able to go into the studio daily helped assuage that panic, because I could truly do it tomorrow, and it would still be waiting for me.
This was part of Sarah's installation in the cupola of her airport studio, awash with windows and an incredible view for her to see foxes hunting in the snow. She was looking at old herbaria and making imagery of plants that we have since lost, documenting their absence.
Calista did an incredible performance where she narrated a script about orchids, climate change, Australia, capitalism's sins, etc. over a video of an installation full of overhead projectors showing composite images that she had painstakingly created through extensive research (obviously this is the Q&A).
Kandy showed us her keenly perceptive illustrations of lichens, birds, nests, and other aspects of the landscape she found here and out in the world. She let us try her metalpoint tools as well and had another botanical illustrator visitor from the Smithsonian. We heard about how botany has been dropped from many programs, and that botanical illustrators are forced to work digitally—causing the traditional tools they used to use to disappear, while young people interested in the field prefer drawing from a photo on their phone rather than the actual plant.
After studio visits, I drove Sarah and Yi Hsuan to the fancy side of the property to visit the gallery. The pruning team was outside with four, maybe five, ladders and a cherry picker.
Elinor (head volunteer and spouse of the current director) had worked for years on going through the linens on the property and creating an exhibit. Yi Hsuan couldn't show us her studio because she had lost her first week to quarantine; plus a lot of her work this time will be for research.
What we saw was 1% of the collection (and these pictures are 1% or less of the show). There is a note from RFK in front of the "Bunny" basket, the stationery lined in black as he was mourning his brother.
The backside of the embroidery work was as stunning as the front. But the sheer display of's hard not to feel conflicted about all of this.
In between the show tour and studio visits, we gathered for tea and snacks in the newly-renovated Schoolhouse building. I went back downstairs to visit the basket chairs.
Saskia, the residency chef who has not been able to do much cooking for a while due to pandemic, made a delightful batch of sweets and cider.
I only made it outside once or twice at dawn but would often brush my teeth in front of the window so as not to miss a minute of the show, which changed daily. On our first overcast morning, I recognized a familiar feeling of grey Ohio daylight, and how it is not motivating. No wonder I prefer staying in bed in winter. I had thought I was okay with the cloud cover for 8 months of the year but the contrast here makes me wonder if I am simply lying to myself.
After the studio tours, we were all exhausted. I felt like I lost most of the day and then after that I lost more because I had visitors and we started to socialize in the evenings. Being prone to feeling inadequate, I got carried away making hummus and a massive new batch of popovers (I forgot to add the fresh rosemary from our farm share until the last few).
It wasn't hard to force them upon everyone, which I have to do because my body is not built for bread/butter/baked treats. Yet I have had a LOT here.
On the way to the compost, I took a slightly different route and enjoyed the tree framed by the doorway.
While walking, I continued to regret bringing only tiny paintbrushes because I wanted a wider brush. Then I realized in the woods that EVERYTHING I need is here. I'm not a tool maker but chose a few different plants on the way. After passing my third stand of walnut trees since arrival, I reached the pine trees behind a big house and immediately there was the hush that pine needle carpets create. I looked up, wishing I could use a sprig, then looked down and saw great windfall, still intact. This is not a fancy brush but worked fine for my impatient self.
Mattie and Rosa visited from Baltimore and helped trim a new batch of hemp stalks, after bringing lots of Korean food to share! That day became a total wash because their arrival time kept getting delayed, throwing off my studio time. I lost my head for the rhythm of the days and was conflicted about it, but felt tears spring to my eyes once Rosa finally jumped out of the car; we were meeting after a year of virtual communication. That evening, I ran up to the big house for a farewell dinner with Calista, who was smart enough to leave EARLY as we all knew the storm was coming.
The next day, Yi Hsuan came over because she had mentioned she'd be willing to help beat fiber and wanted to learn about papermaking. She was very diligent with the milkweed batch.
I had thought that I'd resent sharing final vat time, but it was actually nice to have someone to help and ask questions. She removed the deckle in a way I've never seen anyone attempt, which was fun to witness. I was sad we couldn't see her work but her main thing here is spending time in the library to get flower images to create 3D molds to make flowers out of agar.
This batch turned out much softer than the fall harvested milkweed. I had forgotten about that characteristic.
The final drawing, on the final batch of paper.
The final book, which I sewed up today. I was antsy to clean up but tried to calm myself by doing a last sketch of the walnut tree with a new pine needle brush, then the egg drawing. Once I did this that I finally zoned out for a tiny while. Final residency days are hard because you want to keep working but you are no longer in that space, since you've crossed into a transition. And you want to linger with your new cohort, even for a brief residency like this. I tried to acknowledge how sad I was, then forced myself to stop imagining what last bits I could get done. Once I cleared and loaded things into my car and started to move furniture and sweep, I felt much better. Like I was honoring the time to close my time in the studio while preparing it respectfully for the next artist.
That pressed indigo hanji went into this book
and this one as well.
I fed Yi Hsuan lunch and on the way inside, the snow started falling. She was able to cycle back home before it got bad, but the dreaded storm had finally arrived.
A few hours later, I doubted that any artists would come to my house for dinner as I had invited them in the morning. Kandy knew to stay home, and Yi Hsuan tried to go outside but couldn't see, so went back in. Sarah was incredibly intrepid, and though she heard the wind howling from her studio, she was well equipped with all kinds of layers and arrived bearing salad ingredients. But even she was wise enough to leave early when we heard freezing rain pelting the windows.
This morning, I marveled at her grit both coming and going. Everything was covered in ice and I had to be careful not to slip while cleaning the car (more like throwing my body against it and flinging ice in great sheets), moving it closer to the studio, and on final errands like compost and gifts. I caught Sarah a few hours before she left and she reached out to grab my hand at the threshold because the ice was just as bad there as at my front door. We acknowledged our weird energy and how sad and bereft we felt, plus how odd it felt to leave when no one was here (holiday/staff out of town). Then I drove home and promptly fell on the ice going from my car to the house. It was straightforward, falling forward and down on my hands and knees, but I tweaked my back immediately. Loading the car tomorrow may involve sliding around on my ass, but that's only the first problem. How will the roads home be? I got visual confirmation that my driveway is covered in several feet of heavy compacted snow, completely unpassable. I'll park at a friend's house and get a ride to shovel for hours just to get my car past the sidewalk.

But I'll always have this experience! Links:

A great screw press, good for travel if you have a car

Sarah Jones

Calista Lyon

Kandis Phillips

Yi Hsuan Sung

Oak Spring Garden Foundation Residency Alumni

Rosa Chang