In an alley that runs through the heart of Minneapolis's Warehouse District, ten sweaty men have gathered outside the Fisher Paper Box Company to relax in the warmth of the afternoon. Amanda Degener, dressed in a loose-fitting ikat outfit from Asia, surveys the workers as she passes by. "Beers at lunch?" she asks. "That's great!" The men eye her with caution. After a long pause, one of them returns the greeting: "Well, too bad for you, 'cause all the positions are filled."
Smiling, Degener continues down the alley to the back door of the Inkunabula Art Building. She passes into a dark hallway leading to the basement door--a heavy iron contraption rigged with a counterweight the size of a Civil War-era cannonball that causes the door to slam shut against the daylight and fresh air of the main floor. The basement itself reeks of sour tar. The view from where Degener pauses at the foot of the staircase is imposing. A hundred dirty years of history has settled here, in the spare parts, piles of piping, rough-hewn stone walls, and shadowed corners. Yet despite the rawness of what she calls this "raunchy" cellar, on any given day Degener can be found in these nether reaches, lugging hefty containers of cooked flax on her way down, sporting pulp-spattered clothes on her way back up and out.
For the past five years, she and fellow artist Bridget O'Malley have run Cave Paper, a fine-arts paper mill, in this basement. Producing nine kinds of paper hand-crafted according to traditional methods, the two sell 3,000 sheets each year to artists, conservators, and enthusiasts locally and across the nation. Their finished papers are works of art in themselves, even the plain, white text bonds favored by letterpress (hand) printers. The texture of these papers is more tactile and soft than modern, run-of-the-mill stock you might pick up at a stationery outlet--much thicker and crisper. Some are almost leathery in feel, and they come in rich, natural tones of umber, ocher, indigo blue, and black.
The effort these two artists put into their work is remarkable in this day and age. Unlike modern mass-production paper mills, which cook raw timber in a highly acidic solution in order to draw out the cellulose fibers that will become paper pulp, Cave Paper's approach is one of small-scale production. Cotton or flax fibers are prepared in a natural bath of filtered water and run it through a device called a Hollander beater, which was developed in the 1400s. The two women take the resulting fiber pulp and "pull" sheets using a classic wire mold and deckle (frame), flatten the stacks under a hydraulic press, and hang them out to dry on specially designed racks. They then color many of the sheets using hand-mixed indigo and walnut dyes, which takes hours on top of an already time-consuming process. According to Degener's calculations, Cave Paper is doing well if they can generate 75 or 80 sheets a day. By comparison, high-tech paper mills measure their daily output in hundreds of tons; such mass production makes the wood-pulp paper cost less, of course--under $1 for an 18-by-24-inch sheet, compared to the same-sized sheet from Cave Paper, which runs between $12 and $15.
Degener, 40ish, tall, and trim, with short, dark hair, is the primary force behind Cave Paper, though the two artists complement each other in the signature skills they bring to this basement. She originally came to papermaking while a graduate ceramics student at Yale, where she began to experiment with handmade paper's application to large-scale sculpture. Degener quickly learned the basics, and bought her first piece of equipment--a traditional beater. In 1985 she co-founded the magazine Hand Papermaking and moved to Minnesota, as the first artist-in-residence at the fledgling Minnesota Center for Book Arts. She now also serves as a part-time instructor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
It was Degener's ingenuity and push to foster a lively paper-craft scene in the Cities that got Cave Paper up and running. Soon after relocating in Minneapolis, she purchased the massive Valley Beater that now serves as the mill's centerpiece. One of only six built at this size--it weighs more than 4,000 pounds and can beat up to 25 pounds of dry fiber at a time--it is ensconced on a base of iron girders cast into a cement base on the floor. It took Degener and her husband eight months to set the thing up, first constructing a series of hoists and scaffolds in order get the apparatus into a level position, then setting the concrete. "It changed my life," Degener says of the ordeal. "I had to start completely over, because of its size. Where I had been like a baker making bread at home, now I was being forced to open up a bakery!"
The beater's dimensions make it something of a wonder to watch as it works. An oval-shaped trough the size of a large bathtub holds filtered water and the fibrous material that will become paper. During one demonstration the fiber is some 15 pounds of high-quality Belgian flax tow that has been cooked in a natural, slightly alkaline solution for several hours to remove impurities and improve its longevity. (On other occasions the two might use denim rag they've chopped into squares before running it through the beater.) Set on one side of the trough, a rotating device something like an enclosed hamster wheel draws water from the trough through a filter, while a nearby hose delivers pure water--a sort of laundering system designed to make the pulp as pure as possible. On the other side of the trough, a motorized mill wheel with metal blades churns the fibers. The blades, when lowered, press the mash against a plate to form it into a pulp. Degener refines the pulp, to force out flaws and hard fiber lumps, by increasing the weight on a metal arm that extends in front of the beater and forces the Hollander wheel downward.