How did you get started doing what you do?
After studying painting, sculpture and printmaking at art academies in the Hague, Milan and San Francisco, there, at California College of the Arts, I scratched and drilled deep grooves in a sheet of thick Plexiglas. I made a print with the paper rising up out of its surface and often tearing. It opened my eyes to the third dimension of paper and inspired me to make my own paper.
Back in Holland, I was invited to work at the Royal Netherlands Paper Factory. I learned to make large sized paper using a vacuum pump. This was also my introduction to the Hollander beater, a mill to make pulp out of natural fiber, such as flax and cotton. The beater opens up cellulose at a molecular level and bonds it with water. As the paper dries, the water molecules evaporate and the cellulose is molecularly bonded. I don’t use any glue for my paper-making.
How would you describe your creative style?
What’s your inspiration?
Nature, I compare my work with a leaf when it falls from a tree and dries in the autumn. My paper is thin, strong and reinforced with very thin ribs of bamboo. The character of the paper is determined in the beater. By beating unspun Belgian linen fibers for a long time, it absorbs quite a bit of water. When the paper starts drying it sets into motion an extraordinary play of forces. The paper shrinks considerably, up to 40%, and the force of this puts the non-shrinking bamboo framework under stress.
How would you say your surroundings have influenced your work?
I live in a 400-year-old Dutch farm, with the area that used to be for the cows for my studio. We have a wonderful garden around the house and studio. I spend many hours gardening and raising vegetables. I built a paper factory in my studio and made constructed pieces using layering at first. A turning point came when I dropped a matchstick in the pulp of a freshly formed sheet of paper. The sheet dried without pressing and was wild and curving in every way, except around the stick, where the paper formed an oval drum skin. I had a new way to control the liquid pulp! By putting 2-dimensional wooden frames into it, I shape it 3-dimensionally as the pulp dries and shrinks up to 40%. Even more stunning, the molecules of the fibers make the forms spiral as they dry. This spiral movement is the same way plants build their fibers as they grow. That the spiral comes back in my dried forms after beating it for hours continues to amaze me.
What do you want others to take away from your work?
The beauty of paper! I have exhibited extensively, from the USA to Japan, demonstrated my techniques, taught workshops and often made work on commission. Together with Pat, we organized the Holland Paper Biennial in the Rijswijk and Apeldoorn museums and published 8 books on international paper art and paper history. We are both on the International Board of Advisors for Hand Papermaking Magazine in the USA.
What, if anything, would you tell your younger self?
Learn from coincidence.
What are your thoughts on art school?
It is an important place to meet people and to learn.
What’s your dream project?
The project I did in Abu Dhabi, where I made two permanent installations using 60 paper sculptures. They are hung in two large squares of the Yas Mall, a huge shopping center next to Ferrari World, on Yas Island. The pieces are light. The biggest, 3-meter high pieces, weigh around 8 kg. This allows them to be hung from a single line and with the help of a swivel they turn in the air flow.
My other dream project was exhibiting at the Gothic Abby Church at Saint Riquier in Northern France in the summer of 2009. The pictures from that project have attracted so much interest on internet that I have requests for my work from all over the world.
What’s your process like?
Handmade paper is an ideal material for making large three-dimensional forms which at the same time seem light and airy. The paper making techniques I have developed over 40+ years allow me to make forms never dreamt of or seen before.
How could the art industry become better in your opinion?
Give more political power to creative people.
Visit Peter Gentenaar’s website here.