Paper Máché

Turning Old Jeans into New Sheets

35aThat tattered pair of blue jeans in your closet could find new life in an ancient art form. They’re a perfect material to reincarnate—into paper.

“The art of paper making dates back to China around 250 B.C. and coincides with the invention of the calligraphy brush as a writing instrument,” says artist Derek Cracco, M.F.A. “Today, fine-art paper making can encompass everything from producing sheets of high quality printmaking paper to pulp painting—where the artist dyes paper pulp and creates a unique piece of art from paper only—to three-dimensional sculpture made from paper pulp.”

Cracco, who teaches printmaking at UAB, explains the process of paper making as deconstruction and reconstruction. “I use everything—old jeans, bed linens, towels—any fiber that is made from cotton or linen,” he says. “The clothes are cut into one-inch pieces, then boiled for four hours and rinsed thoroughly. This cleans the fiber and begins the process of breaking it down into pulp. These fibers are then put into a Hollander beater.

“The beater,” Cracco explains, “is used to macerate the fibers and break them up into pulp. After the pulp has been processed, it is put into large vats, and water is added until the pulp density is thinned to achieve the proper sheet thickness. The artist then pulls a fine brass screen through the pulp to form the sheet of paper. The sheet is then ‘cooched,’ or laid onto a felt blanket and put under pressure to force the water out. The entire process from start to finish takes about six to eight hours.”

Almost any fabric made from plant fibers can be used, but the only animal fiber that works is silk. Cracco says he isn’t interested in fine-art paper as a recycled product; rather, he’s intrigued by its aesthetic properties and how, as an artist, he can exploit those properties. “I’ve taught two paper-arts workshops in Arizona and I think they were a great success. The students were amazed their university had paper making facilities, and they are still making paper today.”

Cracco says paper making involves significant challenges, especially in the beginning. “The artist must learn to work within boundaries. The technical craft of pulling a consistent sheet of paper time and time again—say, creating 50 to 100 sheets of paper that are all the same thickness and that have no surface flaws—is difficult. But once the artist has developed the craft of pulling an individual sheet, he or she can then take advantage of the paper’s translucent qualities and the specific properties of other fibers to create a unique piece of art.

“Most people are amazed at the variety and depth of paper arts,” says Cracco. “It truly is a flexible medium that’s limited only by the artist’s imagination.”

—Cindy Riley