While the beater goes about its business, O'Malley, in her mid-30s, with bright red hair and a pleasant face, leads Sarah Anderson, an intern, through the steps. Clad in vinyl aprons and boots, they stomp around in a small room specially built for the task of pulling sheets by hand. Anderson stands at a wooden vat filled with water and pulp. She plunges an 18-by-24-inch mold--a wooden frame screened with brass wire--into the muck, picking up fiber to form a sheet. The motion is a bit tricky: The mold gives off a quick sucking sound, and water goes flying from the vat. "That's okay," O'Malley says by way of encouragement. "It's a pretty good sheet, even though you got that suction. You just have to be sure not to plunge the mold so far in."
O'Malley's fascination with paper goes back to 1985, when, as she was finishing her undergraduate degree in art at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, she wandered over to the Center for Book Arts and crossed paths with Degener. Handmade paper, she recalls, "was a new and trendy thing back then. Everyone was using dryer lint and stuff like that to make paper, and I thought I could probably do much better." She set about studying with her new acquaintance, then headed down to the University of Iowa to work with Tim Barrett, one of the nation's most accomplished fine-paper makers. While pursuing a master's degree in printmaking, she became the first apprentice at the university's Oakdale paper center, and, following the European tradition of mastering a craft, refined her production and dyeing skills for five more years under Barrett's tutelage. When the apprenticeship ended, O'Malley returned to the Twin Cities and teamed up with Degener in founding Cave Paper, in 1994.
A short 20 years ago, it was rare to find artists practicing the ancient craft of making paper by hand; these days, there are dozens in the Twin Cities alone and a slew of guilds and training stations across the country. Very few papermakers, Cave Paper's crew included, can earn a living solely from their craft. Then again, down through history they've always had a hard time, not only in turning their skills into viable livelihoods that called for long, physically demanding hours, but in their surroundings. Like Cave Paper's digs, fine-paper mills were often rough, dirty, and dark places, subject to fires and--because they were built on low ground with access to streams or springs--periodic flooding.
Case in point: the first artisan paper mill in Minnesota, built in 1859. Though full details are hard to come by, the mill was located a stone's throw from Cave Paper's facilities, on Hennepin Island among the saw and flour mills that had sprung along the Mississippi River. An account in the December 1860 edition of Minnesota Farmer and Gardener extolled the paper of the St. Anthony Mill, noting, in the language of the day, "They promised to give us good article, and they have redeemed their promise, as our readers will readily discover by comparing this number of our paper with the past." (The sheets must have been well made: almost 150 years later, the pages of the issue, printed on St. Anthony Mill paper and archived at the Minnesota History Center, are still crisp and white.) But manual milling operations along the river began to die out as the century waned, replaced by industrial-scale mills more reliant on machines than human labor. The quality of the paper from these enterprises shows between the covers of books turned out in the early 1880s; the pages are dry, brittle, and brown, a consequence of the high acid and artificial chemical content in the thin paper.
Fine-paper makers of today point out that their goods are enjoying a renaissance in part because they are free of toxic chemicals that harm the environment and cause mass-produced, though certainly cheaper, papers to deteriorate quickly. Cave Paper's sheets, for instance, promise to last a lifetime and beyond. Perhaps more crucial, O'Malley says as she flattens some fresh wet sheets with a manual hydraulic press, the revival springs from papermakers' shared respect for the hands-on diligence, the plain old hard work that goes into each sheet crafted at a manual mill. "I love being at the vat each day, pulling sheet after sheet, trying to get the perfect one, if that's even possible. The fact that you can come up with a product is a bonus. It's the actual doing that counts."