Cave Paper

By Bridget O'Malley and Amanda Degener
MATRIX #16 / Winter 1996

Production Hand-made Paper Mill

We are often asked why we chose the name 'Cave Paper'. If you saw the space you'd understand. Our basement workspace quite literally is a 'cave'. Arriving by freight elevator, one is note quite sure what land this is which has just been entered. The walls are hewn rocks, approaching boulders, and the space extends further than the light. Rooms are separated by arched doorways, with a maze of pipes and wires overhead, the floor is an unsteady mix of concrete, brick, and in some areas a wooden raised floor, giving way to the earth below. The final ingredient to the caveness of it all is the absence of windows.

Often we have gone outside after a long day of work to find the weather has completely changed, or the day has suddenly become night; a disorienting reality of life in a cave. The long and often treacherous Minnesota winter presents a challenge in the wet and partially heated workspace. The Cave has a charm and a character all its own.

Cave Paper is a production hand-made paper mill dedicated to making decorated and unusual sheets of high quality for use by artists, bookbinders, calligraphers and anyone with a desire for fine sheets. Cave Paper is more than a location; our approach to making paper is as cave-like as the surroundings. There is a certain rough elegance to the papers which is difficult to explain in words. It begins and ends with the raw materials. These include flax, cotton rag, and denim, along with natural dyes and pigments (black walnut, indigo and red iron oxide) to colour the sheets. Used individually and in combination with each other, they evoke in the viewer a sensuousness and connectedness with the earth. Perhaps they even remind us of our own mortality. For whatever reason they engage the senses, and thus our whole being. The beauty of these sheets exists independent of the maker. Our job is simply to listen, realise and put the parts together. The resulting sheets have a refinement and maturity, yet remain unpolished.

Cave Paper officially began in June of 1994 when Bridget O'Malley moved back to Minneapolis and joined forces with Amanda Degener. Unofficially, Cave Paper began much earlier; for more than twelve years Amanda Degener has been building and acquiring equipment, vats, moulds and deckles, press, dryers etc. With Elaine Koretsky's donation of a 25 lb. beater to the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA) and the subsequent purchase of that beater by Amanda Degener, the stage was set for production papermaking to become a reality. With the assistance of her husband, Robert Hughes, Degener spent nearly a year reconditioning the beater and moving it to the current basement location in the Inkunabula Arts Building, in Minneapolis' warehouse district. The building also houses Campbell Logan Bindery, a limited edition and commercial bindery.

Amanda Degener became interested in papermaking while studying ceramics and large scale sculpture. At Yale Graduate School she became increasingly interested in the craft of handpapermaking and started using paper on her large scale sculptures. She continued to study wherever opportunities arose and slowly began to accumulate the tools necessary to set up a shop. She built her own press and used a student loan to buy a used beater, designed and built by Douglas Morse Howell. In July 1985, Degener moved her studio to Minneapolis to become the first artist-in-residence at MCBA. It took another month for water to be installed in the space, thus readied for papermaking.

O'Malley and Degener first met in late 1985 at MCBA. Bridget O'Malley, a woodblock printer, had seen hand-made paper used in sculpture, yet had no real idea how it was made. She went to MCBA out of curiosity, was intrigued, and offered to do volunteer work in exchange for learning and assisting with classes. During the next two years, O'Malley continued to work with Degener at MCBA and also helped to install some of Degener's large scale paper works in exhibitions. In 1988, O'Malley decided to go to graduate school at the University of Iowa. Here she majored in printmaking with a strong focus on woodcuts, book arts and papermaking. For the next six and a half years Degener and O'Malley independently continued to learn more about papermaking. They remained in contact with each other throughout the years and rejoined in 1994 to begin Cave Paper. It is what they learned during those years apart which proved to be the basis of Cave Paper.

In 1985 Amanda Degener and her longtime friend Michael Durgin began publishing Hand Papermaking magazine, a journal devoted to contemporary and traditional ideas in the art and craft of hand-made paper. Degener worked with Durgin for seven years, publishing the magazine and maintaining an active paper studio, teaching as well as producing. She has collaborated with numerous printers, bookbinders and graphic designers, most notably with Claire van Vliet of the Janus Press in Vermont, producing two editioned broadsides. During this period, Degener was able to experiment and adapt to the needs of individual clients. The skill of thinking on one's feet and trying many different approaches contrasted with O'Malley's experience in Iowa.

Bridget O'Malley had begun working with Timothy Barrett at the University of Iowa Center for the Book Paper Facilities (UICB) as a work-study student. Over the next few years she took on more and more responsibility for the daily operation of the production mill. The shop operates year round producing Japanese repair tissue during the winter months and western sheets the remainder of the year. The main focus is to produce archivally sound sheets for use by conservators and bookbinders in repairing or binding books. O'Malley was gaining experience producing a standard line of papers, trying to match colour, thickness and formation quality from one sheet to the next. In 1994 she completed a five year full-time apprenticeship in production hand-made paper, the only programme of its kind in the country. During her last year, she began to design some decorative sheets using walnut dye to stain the papers. Some of these first experiments, developed while in Iowa, have been continued at Cave Paper, as well as at the UICB. At the completion of her apprenticeship, O'Malley was well acquainted with all aspects of running a production hand-made paper mill, and began searching for someplace to use these skills.

In Minneapolis, Amanda Degener was just completing work on the large beater, and a part-time position as Artist in Residence was advertised at MCBA. After much thought and discussion, O'Malley and Degener decided to begin Cave Paper. O'Malley also accepted a two year residency at MCBA. The rest, as they say, is history, or more accurately history waiting to be written.

The combination of Degener and O'Malley is a good one for a production shop. Degener has the skill and experience of working with individual clients with far ranging needs, and a fully equipped paper studio. O'Malley has years of experience producing consistent sheets in quantity, working with walnut dye and indigo, and also dealing with the monotony which can accompany repetitive work. When combined, our individual sensibilities and approaches to problem solving take full advantage of our experiences and differences. Cave Paper is a true partnership, a sharing of responsibilities and ideas; working with each other as equals and relying on each other's strengths and varied backgrounds. During the first year of Cave Paper, each has learned a great deal from the other, and it is this willingness to learn and ability to communicate which is our greatest asset.

In addition to physically getting ready for production, the past two years has been spent trying to define what Cave Paper is, our focus, direction, aesthetic, and goals, ultimately defined by what our papers look like. We are interested in producing hand-made paper of high quality, hopefully different from what is available elsewhere. Currently, our sample book contains nine different papers, four of which are shown here.

Our most popular sheets are the walnut and indigo dyed flax papers. For these sheets, the colouring is done as a surface dye after the initial sheet is made. With the exception of the red walnut dyed paper, which has red iron oxide pigment added to the pulp before the sheets are made, the natural colour of the sheets is a light tan. The walnut dye is made by boiling several pounds of black walnut hulls in water. A dark colour leeches from the hulls. The liquid is then stained from the dregs, an this liquid is brushed or rolled onto the papers and they are hung to dry. Often several coatings are necessary to produce a dense rich brown. A layer of melted gelatin is brushed on after the proper colour is attained. The gelatin size prevents the walnut stain from rubbing off or re-dissolving when it contacts moisture, such as from holding it with warm hands or gluing with water-based adhesive.

In the O'Malley Crackle the gelatin size serves as a resist, in a process very similar to batik. Gelatin is put on the paper before dyeing. The sheets are then crumpled and twisted to break the gelatin and allow dye to penetrate into these veins. The sheets are gently rinsed, leaving the sized areas undyed, and the creased areas coloured. The sheets are then dampened and put under pressure to dry flat.

The layered indigo sheets are dipped into the indigo repeatedly, each time with different parts of the sheet being submerged. Some areaas are built up with four or five coats of colour while some areas receive only one. These sheets vary from one to the next, yet retain the same spirit throughout. Our most recent colour is an indigo dyed base sheet overdyed with the walnut stain, producing a rich sumptuous black which often appears purple-black, blue-black or brown-black depending on the light. Its beauty comes from the fact that it is not a single colour, but an optical blending of several colours. These sheets are also coated with gelatin size to prevent the dye from rubbing off. All of these sheets have an integrity and beauty which comes from the raw materials themselves.

We are pleased with the sheets developed to date, and hope to add to our standard line of paper over time. We make sheets that are 18 x 24 ins, and can accommodate custom orders up to 22 x 30 ins. We also produce cards, blank journals, boxes and other products which tap into a different market than that for sheets of paper. We welcome queries and comments from anyone. In order for us to adapt to the needs of the customer, we must constantly engage in dialogue, and at the same time keep a focused eye on what brought us here and where we hope to go. Our long term goals include involving more people in Cave Paper, possibly internships, apprenticeships and paid positions. For now it is just the two of us.

It is impossible to say for sure what the future holds for hand-made paper in general, and Cave Paper specifically. We are at an interesting juncture in the world of papermaking. There is a growing interest in alternative fibres, recycling , and unique papers. With the availability of hundreds of different papers, hand-made and high-quality machine made, the consumer has become more sophisticated and discerning. The recent price increases in machine-made paper ultimately draw renewed attention to hand-made paper as a viable alternative. The relationship between consumer and papermaker is symbiotic. We depend upon the customer to let us know what kinds of paper he needs, and he relies on us to use our experience and skill to exceed his expectations.

© 1996 Matrix