Sunday, April 27, 2008

The scent of Lemon Eucalypt

Even more than northern Queensland, southeast Queensland reminds me, superficially, of New Zealand. The bland sprawling city of Brisbane looks like a hilly version of Auckland. From a car window the rolling pastures and wooded valleys of the Sunshine Coast look a lot like Northland or the Waikato. But this a deceptive interpretation, and one that disappointed the desire for novelty that brought me here. I wanted to see something new: strange plants and animals, yet for the first couple weeks I found it very hard to see anything that seemed very different from home (and wondered if I would have to head straight to the strange red earth of the Outback in order to really know I had left New Zealand).

Of course, my first couple of weeks here were hectic: a flurry of organising banks and telephones, as well as letterpress and papermaking. But staying at the Hill's farm has slowed me right down, allowing me to pay attention with all my senses. It also helps that Helga can spot a camouflaged owl at thirty metres and identifies every bird and plant by name, and often by origin and use.

I've fallen into a routine of an early morning solitary walk on the gravel road that runs along the valley floor then up and over the hills. Heading down the driveway, still half asleep, the air is suffused with the heady, delicious, seductive scent of lemon eucalypt, not a familiar smell, but one which I have fallen completely in love with. I pull a leaf to carry in my hanky pocket so I can keep it with me all day long. Along the road I pass through clouds of unfamiliar smells as different plants release their scents in the warm morning sunlight that gradually overtakes the crisp chill of the night.

Just after dawn the air is full of a dozen different species of bird song: from the manic cackle of the kookaburra and the quack/croak of the raven to the melodious whipbird, butcher bird and pigeons' trills. Alternating my attention between trying to separate and identify each different call and enjoying the unlikely harmony they create, my eyes unfocus, losing their attachment to interpreting what I see as familiar.

When I lift my lids again I see the landscape freshly. A kangaroo bounds across the road in front of me, its distinctive powerful hindlegs and tail disappearing into the undergrowth. I spot wallabies in the paddocks as I pass and they stand still, watching me as I watch them, their only movement is swivelling ears until suddenly they jump away with a thud, thud, thud over the tall grass.

I look out for snakes as I walk, wanting to see one, but wanting very much for my first Australian snake experience (and indeed all of them) to be benign. The snakes outside are all too well disguised for me to spot, but one afternoon Helga wakes me from a nana nap to bring my camera into the computer room. A baby carpet snake is curled up behind the printer, under the window. It is no wider than my thumb, and I know that carpet snakes are the desirable ones to have around the house as they catch rats and aren't venomous.
Thanks to Helga's directions I am becoming aware that the house and garden are teeming with exotic wildlife, including two little green frogs that sleep in the corners of the shower by day and come and go courting at night. Last night I met one at the basin when I went to brush my teeth. He posed obligingly for a minute and then, disconcerted by the camera flash, continued on his way: climbing the shower curtain before tucking himself into his corner of the ceiling.
To begin learning the language of this land, so I can hear its stories, requires dropping the blinkers of my attachment to the familiar, and opening up with all my senses. Ultimately there is much more than size and a few vowel sounds to the difference between our neighbouring countries.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Making grass into paper (II)

Hamil paper, almost dry

Making paper by hand is surely one of the most inefficient activities I have ever tried. Two huge sacks of grass, or a whole car boot-full of shrubbery, eventually some dozen or so hours of hard physical labour later (not to mention gas cooking, machine processing, chemical additives and ridiculous quantities of water), emerge as a dozen pretty pieces of A4. Madness, it is madness!
But such pleasurable madness, and I slept so very well* afterwards! Helga, Di, Glenda and I spent two full-on days of multi-tasking paper-making at Wallace House** in Noosa. I hardly know how to tell the story, as so many things were happening simultaneously the entire time we were there.

Outside to the left of the roller door there was a big copper boiling up two batches of fresh plant material in separate net bags: the Chinese Burr bark that Helga and I had prepared, and fresh ginger stems and leaves that Di had collected from a ginger root seller at the market (this area is famous for its ginger production).

To the right of the roller door was an ingenious homemade device combining an insinkerator with a hospital trolly, which when appropriate hoses were attached for input and output chewed through the moderately coarse plant matter like ginger and lemon grass, but got hairballs from the Burr bark.

Insinkerator trolly

Inside in one corner was Alph*** the Hollander beater which variously chewed its way through Hamil Grass, lemon grass, ginger, recycled paper, and of course the Chinese Burr. The Alph is horribly noisy, especially when grinding up recycled paper, and particularly in the echoing environment of the unlined tin shed in which we were working. But I can certainly appreciate its talent for fluffing up fibres. The Burr bark went into the beater as tight stringy clumps and emerged much later as a loose fibrous soggy fluff perfect for making paper.

Removing pulp from the beater is a long and labourious scooping out with sives into a bucket. I quite enjoyed this part of it, not least because the beater's motor was blessedly silent, and of course with my well-documented proclivity for long and labourious fiddly jobs. The Burr pulp came out a very dark brown so Helga added some judicious slops of household bleach. Before our very eyes the brown pulp gradually faded to an attractive honey blonde and eventually a clotted cream before we rinsed out the bleach.

Two buckets of Chinese Burr bark pulp, the one on the right with bleach added (it got even lighter after the photo).

Making the pulp into sheets of paper took place on a table in the centre of the room, where the pulp was added to a large trough of water. By the second day we had two troughs being worked simultaneously, one on each end of the not terribly big table. The ratio of pulp to water required to make a standard sheet of paper is almost undetectable to the untrained eye, though with practice I did get better at seeing what was happening in the trough.

As the new girls, Glenda and I had the honour of doing the first batches and we started with the Hamil grass which had come through its long processing still a bright beautiful shade of green. It was a light and fluffy pulp, relatively easy (I realise in retrospect) to pull into relatively consistent sheets of paper.

Glenda draining the mold and deckle with Hamil pulp

Pulling paper goes like this: first you shimmy your spread hand along the bottom of the trough to get the fibres evenly dispersed without sloshing the contents over the sides of the trough. Then your mold and deckle (two wooden frames fitted together, the mold with a screen and rails to hold the screen taut) is dipped vertically into the trough and used to scoop up some pulpy water, lifting absolutely on the horizontal and shaking very gently side to side and back and forth to distribute the fibres evenly as the water drains through the screen. Then you let the mold drain, for as long as you can stand it (or as long as the person waiting their turn at the trough can stand it), before couching (rolling) the paper off the screen and onto the piece of blanket or sheet that is sitting on top of the post (the stack of wet, just pulled paper that you are adding to).

Glenda couching a fresh sheet of Hamil paper onto the post

In the other roller doorway were two home made presses, but only one (car) jack, so we couldn't use both presses at the same time, which entailed a bit of juggling posts every time we added more. The jack exerted enough pressure on the posts (sandwiched between pieces of wood) to squeeze out all the excess water. When sufficiently pressed, the paper was then peeled off its backing sheet or blanket and spread flat on a bit of fibro board to dry. Unfortunately those bits that dried too fast buckled and puckered, but luckily most of the Hamil paper came through smooth. The bright grassy green faded with drying to a greenish yellow (see top photo of post****) which is still quite attractive.

Later we pulled paper from recycled paper, ginger, the lemon grass pulp which made a highly textured brown paper and the bleached Burr bark pulp which made a lovely soft fluffy paper, some of which we added dried (fake) saffron blossoms to, speckling the creamy white with a rich yolky orange.
We finished off the day with a collaborative effort pouring the various different pulps onto a giant mold and deckle in a sort of abstract pattern of green, brown, cream and white which Helga declared to be a representation of the ruined Mary River if the Traveston Dam goes ahead causing rampant weed and algae growth to clog up the waterway. It seemed an appropriate interpretation, and we left the single large sheet of pulp painting to dry on the mold. I'll get to see the finished product when I go back to Wallace House for the Bookmakers Group on Monday.
Glenda and I had no trouble dividing our finished papers between us: she loves the idiosyncratic character of the lemon grass and thinks the Hamil is boring. I love the smooth even surface and cheery colour of the Hamil and can't think what I would do with the coarse lemon grass. My little stack of Hamil sheets is still damp and slightly puckered so Helga, Victor and I spent some time today assembling a beautiful antique book press that Helga has restored (from flood damage). As always, the old equipment requires both respect and creativity to get back into use, and as always I have a huge amount of fun sharing the job with like-minded folk- Helga and Victor fitting the bill perfectly. The first job of the book press in 30 or more years is to flatten my Hamil paper.
Hamil Grass Pulp

*Other chronic insomniacs will appreciate the attractiveness of any activity that induces a rare good sleep.
**Wallace House is a big old homestead used by numerous art and craft groups: while I was there I saw potters, painters, life drawing, water colours, embroiderers and quilters- and every day of the week the centre is booked for these and many other diverse activities.
*** Named Alph-a-beater by Victor the inveterate punster. It's actually what's called a Critter, made by Mark Lander a New Zealander widely credited for transforming papermaking into an affordable and transportably activity thanks to his clever invention.
**** I became momentarily excited imagining some relationship between a blog post and a papermakers post. Victor's puns must be affecting me despite all my eye-rolling groans.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Making grass into paper (I)

I didn't bring any paper over to Australia (even so, my idea of the bare minimum luggage is embarrassing to haul into my hosts' homes) so I find myself in the strange position of having access to a printing press, but with nothing to print on. Fortunately, I am here on the Sunshine Coast as the guest of the Papermakers of Queensland (Inc) so my lack of paper is being actively addressed.
Right now I am staying with Helga and Victor Hill on their farm in the Mary Valley. On my first afternoon Helga and I went out along the road to harvest Hamil grass, a pasture grass which, when ungrazed, towers over us (not so impressive as we are both shorties) with wide tough blades.

Helga's eagle eye for spotting plant pests with papermaking potential found us some Chinese Burr on the other side of the road, so we collected an armload of that too. I was only slightly nervous about reaching into the tangled Australian undergrowth, but followed Helga's example of stamping my feet to scare off any snakes and kept a sharp eye out for scarey spiders. Fortunately the biggest animal we saw was one of these cute caterpillars that seems to thrive in the Hamil grass.

Once safely home with our two sacks of grass and Burr we set about preparing it to be cooked down as the first step towards becoming paper. The grass is quick and easy to process, as it just needs to be chopped small enough to fit in the giant cookpot. That's me cutting grass in the foreground while Helga starts the much more laborious task of stripping the bark off the Chinese Burr. Only the bark is fibrous enough for papermaking, and our big armful of Burr sticks was eventully reduced to a maddenly small tangle of bark strips. In contrast, one sack of grass easily filled a pot to capacity, so we put that onto cook immediately. Grass soup is stinky, and made even less appetising by the neccessary addition of caustic soda, required to help break down the plant matter and release the fibres. It was a noxious witches' brew, that we boiled outside the shed where Victor paints his anti-dam 'Don't Murray the Mary [River]' signage. The Hill's farm is just one of many in this fertile food basket of a valley that will be affected by the proposed dam at Traveston Crossing, and they are very active in their opposition. At the moment we are avidly following the journey of cross-country kayaker Steve Posselt as he paddles and drags his kayak from Brisbane to the Mary River to draw attention to the scandaloulsy flawed dam proposal.

Meanwhile our pot of grass bubbled and boiled over in a poisonous shade of deep, dark green, stinking and steaming, with Helga adding more water and caustic soda as seemed appropriate to her experienced senses. I stirred and payed close attention to every step, as there is no ready formula to follow, just an intuitive understanding of the process that I will only learn by practice. We cooked until after dark, and then left the mix to sit over night, hoping it might prove to be ready when tested in the morning.

Next day, however, Helga rubbed the broken down grass between her gloved fingers (caustic soda, remember?) and said it needed more cooking. So we topped up the water and set the flame alight again, letting it cook until the mixture felt like a slippery gel and the fibres mashed easily, but not too much. Then, and only then, did we stop the cooking and sive out the mass of green slime into an old net curtain, leaving the caustic water in the pot to cook our second batch of grass in.

The next step is rinsing out the caustic soda from the grass, a water-intensive process which in this case utilised the farm's creek water piped to an outside sink. However, the first half dozen buckets of rinse water were so alkaline that they couldn't be tipped down the drain and instead had to be hauled over to a fence line where we applied it as weed killer. Eventually however, the soil ph tester which Helga inherited from her gardening mother, indicated progress towards neutrality (and Victor had fixed up the drain pipe to go somewhere appropriate) so the work became a bit less back breaking.

I lost count of how many times we filled the bucket with clean water, opened out the net and swirled our hands through the fibres before lifting the heavy net out, emptying the bucket and starting again. The hours fly by when papermaking with Helga- I'm constantly surprised that two or three have already passed and it's already time for another cup of tea!

Once Helga was satisfied that the grass was completely ph neutral, the tester confirming the squeaking clean feeling between the fingers, we left Victor to keep an eye on the second grass brew and went off on another harvesting expedition, this time to fill up our pot of Chinese Burr bark. This was to be found on top of a hill, most easily accessed via a neighbour's farm. A heavy shower started just as we arrived, creating the perfect excuse for another cup of tea, and a chance to meet the New Zealand neighbours and have a chat about home, admire their coffee bushes and accept a big bag of passionfruit from their vines. The rain stopped as suddenly as it began so Helga and I wriggled through a barbed wire fence and tackled the edge of a big area of Chinese Burr. It's one of those exotic plants which was fashionable for gardens once (I have no idea why, since it's ugly and smells bad) and then escapes into the wild and jostles out native plants from their niches. We filled the back of the car with it, and arrived home to find the second batch of Hamil grass ready for rinsing. That took until dark, so the bark stripping had to be tackled the next morning, before I scrubbed up (with only partial success as the bark stains skin) and left to catch a bus and two trains to Brisbane for a Passover weekend of over-eating in delightful company. be continued...

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Birth of the Wooroi Press

After a few busy days in Brisbane I travelled north to the Sunshine Coast, first stop Tewantin. Here I’ve been helping the Wooroi* Press get started. A group of book artists on the Coast had responded a few weeks ago to my search for papermaking opportunities by offering to trade papermaking expertise for my assistance getting their letterpress up and running.

I arrived at the Stagg’s art-filled home on the edge of Wooroi Forest after dark on Sunday night following an arduous journey from Brisbane on public transport (Noosa seems determined to keep its posh resort status by making it as difficult as possible to get here). The next morning I went straight into the print shed and after a quick glance at the unbelievably tidy and well-organised print set up I dived straight into showing a small but enthusiastic group of letterpress novices how to compose. That part was easy with a cabinet of lead type including plenty of useful sizes of Gill (my most favourite font, and yet not available at Te Kowhai), a few leads and reglets and plenty of wooden furniture, quoins and composing sticks.

Reglets in cabinet with planer and mallet

Di Tait had arrived with a beautiful little book which she wanted to print a title page for so we used her two word title as the demonstration. Once that was locked up in the chase we turned our attention to the presses: a Chandler Price New Style, a funny little Chinese table press and an even smaller Remington proofing press. The Remington’s bed was only big enough for a small galley and the Chandler Price has such a huge platen that the two word title would have been swamped, so we inked up the table press.

The table press had been cleaned up from the dreadful state in which it had come into Maryke Stagg’s possession, but it still needed plenty of work, so taking a half decent print took most of the afternoon (and it really was only half decent). Meanwhile Helga began composing another block of text to try on the Chandler Price.

Maryke at the barbeque cleaning station, working on the fashion plates with kerosene (Wooroi Forest in background)

The Chandler Price has a huge platen, easily big enough to print an A3 sheet or greater, and of course a correspondingly large chase. Unfortunately, the next day when we started inking up, the rollers turned out to be too small: sitting lower than their trucks and obviously worn out in the middle where two of the three remained stubbornly red despite running repeatedly over the ink disk. Sure enough when we heaved the heavy chase into place, the rollers didn’t touch the type, not even the one roller which appeared fully inked. They are either the wrong rollers for the press or have shrunk dramatically since they were last used! With that disappointment, the workshop split into two hives of activity: one group started on the Remington, pulling prints from the collection of fashion plates of the 1920s, and John and I got stuck into fixing up the table press.

After hours of happy fiddling with the platen, the frisket bar, the lays and the roller arms (oh how I do love to problem solve on printing presses, especially in the company of a bloke with excellent tool skills) the funny little Chinese table press was reborn to take effortless, near perfect prints. After a couple of satisfactory proofs in which we discovered Helga’s paper printed much better damp than dry, she swung into full editioning mode and started churning out dozens of cards with her Martin Luther King Jr quote. It was delightful to watch another person fall in love with letterpress and its inherent gift for multiples.

Meanwhile Di had been busy on the proofing press and finding out all the ways in which it still needed to be worked on. John applied his magic touch with tools and oil can and soon that corner of the print shop was producing satisfactory results as well. Our two days of learning, repairing and persisting through numerous frustrations was suddenly exhilaratingly successful and the Wooroi Press was born (and documented with some group photos).

Wooroi Press Gang, 15 April 2008, Meliors, Di, John, Desley, Maryke and Helga with Chinese table press

We hung samples of our first prints on the notice board and the flurry of activity continued: Maryke and Di rearranging some of the equipment for better work flow, Helga printing more and more of her cards, John setting and proofing ‘Wooroi Press’, Desley experimenting with embossing, and me sitting back and enjoying the sight of letterpress passion spreading like a virus.

The scariest thing about leaving Whangarei was the risk of loosing my access to letterpress for months or longer. Instead, I was immersed in letterpress within days of arriving in Australia. I have found another print home in the Wooroi Press, and though I may travel far and wide over the next few months, I know I will return here to print again. The lure of Gill type, the huge CP platen (once the rollers are working) and most of all the good company of the Wooroi Press gang will be impossible to resist for long.

The counter on the Chandler Price New Style press

*Wooroi means place of kangaroos- and today I saw several of these most beautiful and graceful creatures on the golf course across the road.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Vandercook At Last

I spent my last afternoon in New Zealand at Green Bay Press in West Auckland, playing with a beautiful Vandercook press.

About six weeks ago I met Beth Serjeant completely by chance when my family wandered into a workshop Beth was teaching at the Ponsonby Art Station. Beth and I discovered we shared a passion for letterpress and had one of those urgent, intense conversations that MUST be continued in a more appropriate time and place. I rang her up a few days later and asked if I could come and meet her Vandercook press before I left the country and she graciously agreed.

Beth welcomed me into her garage turned print shop which is dominated by the big flatbed press from the 1950s but looking very modern to my eyes, accustomed as they are to century-plus old platens. I've been desperately keen for ages to have a go with a Vandercook- they are the favourite of many of the letterpress printers whose work I admire on the internet, especially in the United States where they seem much more common than in the Antipodes. The attraction for me is the big flat bed which can print any size paper, up to huge posters.

Beth let me pull a few prints of some type she had already set up in the press, so now I have some idea of the basics. The rollers turn on an electric motor, but each paper is pulled through manually with a satisfying full-body motion of the handle. I do like the physicality of printing. Beth says that when she first acquired the Vandercook it was like an arranged marriage and she thought it might make a good bench for her workshop. Fortunately a visit from Claire van Vliet who fiddled about with the press and got it up and running turned the arranged marriage into a love affair.

The text I printed was a Karakia mo te harakeke (Maori prayer for harvesting flax) printed onto flax paper. This seemed like a blessing on my journey, as in the next few days I will begin learning to make handmade paper with Australian native plants. Other blessings from Beth included the gift of an excellent printer's apron and sharing chocolates sent by Claire, with the surprise fortunes: 'Live your dreams' (me) and 'Be nice to a stranger' (Beth). I feel like I have found two life-long (or long-lost) friends in Beth and the Vandercook.
After we finished printing and cleaned the press we had a show and tell of some of our own work and some of Claire's that Beth has in her collection. I had seen a page of Beth's book Visionary earlier in the exhibition at the Auckland City Library- now I got to leaf through the whole big work, reading the poems by various New Zealand poets illustrated with Beth's colourful lithographs. It was a luxurious afternoon of book arts indulgence, pleasantly serenaded by Beth's son, Andrew, playing guitar in a nearby room.

I was exhausted and overwhelmed from my intense preparations for the huge journey beginning the following morning, so we spent our last half hour together quietly drinking tea and listening to a tape of Claire being interviewed by Sharon Crosbie when she visited NZ for a symposium in 1993 (the fateful trip that awoke Beth's Vandercook). Two descriptions from Claire leapt out for me, articulating my own feelings about artist's books in a way that I haven't been able to before: "the book as a stage setting for the content" and "the book as a physical facilitator of the meaning of the text".

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Counting Down

In less than 48 hours I am flying out of New Zealand on a one-way ticket. I am almost ready. I have sold my printing press, my car and my few pathetic sticks of furniture. My books and winter clothes are in storage. I have farewelled Whangarei and now I am farewelling Hamilton.

With just a few tasks left to do I am starting to normalise from a level of stress so extreme that I had no interest in comfort eating- an almost unheard of experience. The tenuous hold I had on sanity finally unravelled when my carefully packed and weighed suitcase broke in not one but two stress points. My finely tuned schedule had not timed in luggage shopping, and I had to over-ride my inner control freak to make the purchase without intensive prior research.

But with the support of some of the people who love me most in the world and who accept me at my most crazy, my pretty purple new ultralight bags are ready to jet off to Queensland for a winterless winter of paper-making, printing, forests, fun and of course, books!

Among the various projects I have in mind to keep my travels creative is to document bookshelves- those inherently attractive items in any homely home. As a taster, here are just a few of the beautiful books decorating Jo and Cam's colourful Hamilton home, including one of my own Mobius strip books (top).

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Daylight Savings Has Been Extended

Daylight savings has been extended this year,
news celebrated with barbeques and evening swims
until the end of March.

But my lark's spirit
cannot contain her sorrow
as she struggles with
dark wakings that stumble into
yawning, sluggish mornings.

Oh, I miss waking at dawn
My spirit rising with the sun.