Tuesday, July 10, 2007

fiber arts goddess

I love how they enter the screen door, careless as a summer day and faces alight with wonder. The boys walk directly to the table, barely noting me other than to say a quick “hi.”

“What’s in there?” asks the first.

“Want to see? If you put your hand in that bin of cloudy water and stir, I think you’ll recognize what you see.” He looks at me, this complete stranger of a boy, to make sure I’m not joking. He trusts me, and plunges his hand to the bottom of the water, drawing up a handful of pulp.

“Is it paper? Paper in water?”

“Hmmm, very observant!” Other members of his group file in— a dozen ten and eleven year olds. “Anyone here know what paper is made from?”


“Yep. What else?”

“Other paper?”

“Yes. Tell me your name,” I say to the boy with his hand in the pulpy bin. Michael, he says. “Michael, can you tell me if you can recognize any of what’s in the paper pulp here?”

“I see some words, some drawings, some colored paper scraps in little pieces. You just put them in water?”

“Yep—this paper has been soaking overnight, and then I ran a bunch of the pulp through a blender, but you don’t have to. The water floats the fibers around, but when we remove the water again, the paper fibers will bond to each other again, and we’ll have some really interesting paper.”

“So we’re going to make paper?” I nod. “Cool!” I introduce myself, pick up a paper deckle, and we get started.

My job ended suddenly, the story of the past three summers, and a lunch date with my friend Diana found her suggesting, again, that I find a way to teach at ArtHarbor, a local daycamp for children. My kids can do the camp now—it is no longer a stretch for Brendan. He’s easily overwhelmed, some deep sensory challenge still rears its head now and then, but besides being as sometimes-impossible as most seven year old boys, he is fine and happy. I phoned the camp director. There were no positions open, she apologized. “But tell me what you do,” she added, and we began to talk, and without much further discussion we arrange a small barter, four days of teaching for ten days of camp for two children. I do fiber arts, and I love to teach in a “special event” context, so four days is about as much as I can manage over two weeks.

This camp is set in a green enclave, a retreat where dancers to perform later in the summer, within a stone’s throw from the ocean. A group of informal cottages houses the camp—forty campers, 5 adult artists and a dozen counselors. I know perhaps a fifth of the faces I see. I laughed at the term “artist-in-residence,” but sure enough I have my own large two-room cottage, in what is termed “the dining hall” but is more like a cross between a huge kitchen and a teacher’s lounge, surrounded by sunlit windows and green meadow, shade trees and granite out-croppings. It feels like a gingerbread house and I ought to be stepping outside with a pan of cookies—my work apron adds to the effect.

The deckle is an empty frame of wood and a fine meshed screen, held together by the person dipping the mold into the pulp. Grasp firmly on both sides, dropping one long edge into the vat, sliding it under the floating flakes of paper, slowly lifting with both hands. Water pours out beneath. The wood frame is removed and the paper holds the shape of a rectangle. The young man agrees to flip it over onto the felt pad, himself, where we sponge out more water, press out more water, then peel off the screen slowly. The guys say, “cool!” and line up to be next, to watch the next two paper-dippers. I pick up the felt with the handmade paper and flip it one more time onto a clear plastic tarp, where it will dry eventually and we will peel it off so campers can take a sheet home. A dozen boys finish, when their counselor brightly asks, “is there enough for me to do one too?” I nod and he has one of his boys talk him through the process again.

Out the door of my cottage they fly to the next event, leaving trails of water with bits of paper adhering to the floor, piles of wet towels, parts of my deckles covered with pulp and parts floating in the mix of paper and water. Their vibrant faces full of freckles and wonder make up for the work to tidy up. I peel the absorbent felt sheets from the paper drying on the tarp, so I can wring and iron the moisture out, for the next group, arriving in five minutes.

The day ends after four groups of children make paper, including the four-year-olds who seem far too young and in some form of post-truamatic stress disorder after their lunch hour. When they go, I arrange my tools, and shake the paper lint from the dishtowels and tablecloths, mop the floor and restore order to the kitchen. I pack up my zillion crates to take to the car. I begin to wonder when my nap hour comes, just as it’s time to greet the parents, hear about my children’s day, and consider dinner options.

“Fiber Art was voted the most popular encampment today!” Madeleine tells me. Brendan’s group will do papermaking later this week, so he is a little pouty about it, but his group worked with felt and he had such a good time that he doesn’t care too much. Tomorrow is “crazy hair day” at camp and he’s considering what he could do. I try to figure out how people teach every day like this, and I decide not to think about it too much. Four days over two weeks is a good amount of time, and I’d be hardpressed to do any more. Four days in the beautiful summer cottage with the sun streaming through the windows.

And six days, six days of relative quiet, at home working a little and enjoying the quiet.

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