How did you get started doing what you do?
I think, as with most artists, I can hardly remember how it began. I always loved textiles, drawing, creating villages using the clay in the garden, making things; didn’t matter much what it was. I was born in San Francisco, grew up in Mountain View, and majored in Fiber Arts at CCA in California. There I met my future Dutch husband, Peter Gentenaar. When I moved to the Netherlands in 1971, I was an oddity in the art scene with my weavings. I felt very excluded and weaving is very slow work. When Peter started experimenting with paper making, I saw it as a new way to work with the fibers I loved, but more direct. In the beginning, making a piece went pretty quickly.
How would you describe your creative style?
I feel like a modern alchemist. I work in my studio, surrounded by pots of all kinds of colorful paper pulp, transforming humble plant fibers into large paintings. I spend hours directing the movement in my pieces down to the smallest bit of fiber. My choices of subject matter closely relate to the natural organic structure of fibers. For my organic and often watery subjects, it seems natural for me to use water and plant fiber: paint living subjects using once living material.
What’s your inspiration?
I’m inspired by moments in the garden surrounding our farmhouse in the Netherlands, by the nature in California, by koi ponds, by water, clouds and there’s a hint of the psychedelics from the sixties in there too. I make many photos and use them while I’m working.
What is art to you?
It is more than recreating what I observe, it is the reality of the simple things: the curves of plants, the movements in water and the forms of fish, birds and animals. In this way, I give physical form to meditation, in a technique that is always developing and that continues to lead me farther.
How do you keep motivated?
My work keeps me going; it is my motivation
How have others reacted to your work?
I’ve worked as a professional artist since 1971, living from my sales and those of my husband, Peter. When someone loves a piece enough to buy it, it does give a feeling of sharing yourself with them. So many people have been enthusiastic about my work, telling how they enjoy it and why.
What do you want others to take away from your work?
That is there’s to see but the beauty of nature is one aspect. I hope if they have a piece in their home, they see how alive the fibers are and you can keep seeing new things in a piece.
Any words of wisdom to aspiring artists who want to pursue a similar career?
Only do it if don’t mind living very frugally. You need the love of your work to keep you going; your work feeds you.
What are your thoughts on art school?
I loved California College of the Arts! The teachers were inspiring artists; you weren’t just in your own shell, you learned about how it would be to work professionally, out in the ‘art world’.
What art supplies do you use?
I start with the choice of the types of plant fiber. This can vary from abaca (banana) to cotton and from hemp to flax or sisal. The fibers are milled with a high percentage of water, in a Hollander beater until they are fine like spider webbing and it looks a bit like porridge. The Hollander beater design of my husband (the Peter Beater) is ideal for milling and pigmenting the paper fibers for use on a vacuum table (also Peter’s design). Raising or lowering the roller and changing the milling time can produce a large variation in different textures from even one type of fiber. Pigmenting the fibers works well in the beater but for smaller quantities of each color, I add pigments later and use retention aids. This is necessary for a large assortment of colors.
Each plant fiber absorbs pigment in its own manner, just as you see happen with textiles. The identical red pigment used on cotton and silk will look different on each fiber, and in addition to that, there is the extra variation caused by texture and surface structure. The mixing of the colors also deserves careful attention. I do not want to tone down or dull color by using a subtractive technique of putting various pigmented pulps in a pot and mixing them. Pulp painting uses a technique of addition, or optical mixing of colors. When you view the piece up close, you can still see the colors of the individual fibers but as you step back, they are mixed.
What’s your process like?
I work on a vacuum table, starting from the front of the piece working to the back, so it is important to have an idea of the composition of the piece. I begin with a sketch, which I draw on a piece of pelon. This thin, non-woven, synthetic cloth forms the temporary surface of the painting. I can easily peal it off when the painting is finished because the organic paper fibers do not adhere to it. The pelon sketch is laid on the mats on the vacuum table, which serves as a horizontal easel. I don’t work on a piece of paper, I build the paper as I work!
I apply the pulp using turkey basters (pipettes) to pull up the watery pulp and squirt it out onto the pelon. The fibers are barely visible in the film of water on the surface. With a knife, I push the fibers into the shape I want. On top of these surface highlights, the details of the piece, I continue to apply layer upon layer of fiber, working towards the background. Each layer must be applied very carefully, so as not to make the previous layers flow away. To give the appearance of depth, sometimes there will be twenty different semi-transparent layers in one small area. It is a time-consuming process which can take a few weeks to complete for a big piece. It must remain wet until it is finished. When the painting is completed, I strengthen the background with a thick layer of hemp and then cotton pulp. On top of this, I lay a board that has been rubbed with silicon. I cover the whole vacuum table, including the board, with a sheet of plastic. With the help of a vacuum pump, I can suck most of the water out of the piece. The pressure difference causes the pulp to adhere to the board. When the pumping is finished, I remove the plastic, turn the board over and pull the pelon carefully off of the front of the painting. For the first time, I see my own work. Drying the piece on the board forces it to dry flat. Then I carefully slice it off of the board with a de-boning knife. The result is a paper-thin painting, rich in color and in undulating texture variations.
How could the art industry become better in your opinion?
Using internet to show our work has been such an improvement from pre-internet time, I can hardly think of anything that could be a bigger improvement than that!