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.
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."