After earning an MFA in Painting and Drawing from the University of Iowa, Nicole Donnelly moved to Philadelphia and (many years later) bumped into me at a reading. I’m calling it destiny. Besides her wonderful paintings and drawings, Nicole is one amazing papermaker. She hosts papermaking workshops regularly, and I decided to attended one. It was practically therapeutic. There’s something calm, but also chaotic, about swirling cotton pulp with your fingers in a black tub — the way it mixes and collects — and then forming it into something tangible. It’s work and it’s beauty. Once you’ve created your paper, it’s yours to embellish (with bits of string, or fragments of foliage, or other bric-a-brac). Really, it’s that great. I was not only able to participate in her workshop, but talk to her about her craft, her collaboration with poet Frank Sherlock, and what it’s like to be an artist in Philadelphia. Read on! – Steve
Burns: How did you discover papermaking?
Donnelly: I was studying painting and drawing at the University of Iowa. I was doing these large wall drawings and they were very ephemeral — just charcoal directly on the wall. Eventually people started saying, ‘Aren’t you sad that this drawing is only going to last for one week, then you’ll have to wash the wall and repaint it?’ I was like, ‘Oh, yes and no.’ I’m interested in the ephemeral nature of what I’m doing. My one professor said to me, ‘Well, you know, if you want to think about paper that could be any size and not just machine-made sizes or commercially available sizes you should talk to Tim Barrett, he’s the papermaker here; his studio is amazing and he can make paper that’s any size.’ I thought, ‘That’s kind of interesting.’ So, the following semester I signed up for his papermaking class and fell in love. Totally fell in love. From there, the rest of my work was paper.
Burns: What made you fall in love with paper?
Donnelly: It was the process of it and the fact that you can’t really control everything about it. It’s a piece of paper that is going to be the most like paper you can make; the idea behind crafting this piece of paper is to not control it. You can’t really control the process. The materials themselves have so much personality. During the workshop we were talking about feeling like the paper was ‘really precious’. You know, you made a sheet and you’re like ‘Oh my God, it has to be something really special that goes on this!’ The amazing thing, as an artist, when you make your own paper you know the material so intimately you don’t feel that ‘preciousness’ towards necessarily working on it or adding to it because the paper’s already told you what it can do and what it will do; it’s just your job to kind of tune into that and become more connected with the medium rather than with ideas. That was something that blew my mind wide-open.
Burns: So there’s a certain level of gratification in creating your own paper and using it immediately. You’re using the medium as a medium.
Donnelly: Right, right. I think I work with handmade paper in one of two ways. One way is to create paper that’s going to be a support for something else. You make a sheet of paper, you let it dry, and from there you write on it, draw on it, print on it, or do something else with it. The other way I use paper is to create works that are finished in and of themselves within that sheet of paper. So, kind of like what we were doing by embedding objects and inclusions; sort of making these pieces that are full into themselves. I’m really interested in that process and its sculptural possibilities.
Burns: Could you tell me a little bit about this particular studio, what you’d like to accomplish in this space, and where you see yourself within the Philadelphia community?
Donnelly: Ultimately, I would love to see Philadelphia have some kind community that’s accessible to papermaking. I think Philadelphia has so many cooperative spaces already and there are institutions (University of the Arts, in particular) that have facilities for making paper, but nobody has access to them but their students. To make paper you need two or three basic things — the most important being the hollander beater. Otherwise, you’re buying your pulp from somewhere else or you have to hand process it. The next I’m offering is on how to process mulberry or the Philadelphia kozo. You can hand-process all of your fibers, but it’s pretty labor intensive. There’s a reason why people go for the machine. I want this to be something the other Philadelphia communities can access — even those from the non-artistic community; people who want to take classes. I would love for there to be crossovers and collaborations between printmaking and poetry and letter press. I would love to have artists who work in a different medium and have a lot of ideas for what they could possibly do with paper and eventually build a better facility for that. I can make all kinds of pulp here: cotton, abaca, or flax. From those, I can create a variety of paper. The next step is getting a paper press so you can do production paper work. The stronger the press you get on your paper — today we were using a rolling pin — the maximum pressure you’re exerting is about 100 pounds, which is not much. It’s also being exerted unevenly. If you press too hard while the paper’s very wet, you can spill the paper out. If you have a 20 ton hydraulic press, however, that’s very even and you’re making a stronger piece of paper.
Burns: How did you end up working with Frank Sherlock on Very Different Animals and what was that collaboration like?
Donnelly: Oh, that was fun. I ended up working with Frank after JenMarie and Travis MacDonald of Fact Simile Press contacted me about Frank’s upcoming chapbook. Really, they just asked Frank which artist he wanted to work with; they had this idea for creating an accordion fold chapbook in the backs of these canvases and they wanted artwork for them without it being kitschy or something. They just asked him who he wanted to work with, and he said me.
Burns: How do you envision poetry working alongside art and what do you artists gain through collaboration?
Donnelly: I love poetry and visual art together. This goes back to my collaboration with Frank; he really just gave me the poem and I sat with it for a while. I’m an image maker so when I read poetry or fiction that has rich visual details I want to see them. To have an incredible visual experience, to have it be intangible up until the point it becomes manifested through me or through someone else who’s read something, envisioned it, and it comes out the other side, is incredible. There’s a process of interpretation in all artwork. Even a painting of a forest is not just a painting of a forest for everyone. Everyone will see what they want in that forest. There are details that they see, and that they appreciate, that someone else won’t see. The nature of collaboration can be very ethereal, but you sort of have to wait to receive the message.
Burns: When you were reading that work and communicating with Frank, you each had your own vision. You’re the papermaker, he’s the poet. What was that dialogue like? Did you have to find common ground or was he like, ‘These paintings are awesome, okay!’
He didn’t ever veto what I was creating [laughs]. He was probably a little more concerned with the timeline of things (when I was invited to be part of the project). We had sort of talked about it in person and originally I had been thinking that I wanted the 100 canvases to, collectively, represent one full image. Then I decided to make my life more difficult, and give Frank more gray hairs, by saying that I was going paint 100 different animals. When I’m creating an image I sort of start with a ground or a wash or something added in that creates its own chaos and that I have to respond to. I started all the pieces off with the same wash, but each of them turned out completely different. They were very suggestive of these small animals. I was like, ‘Well, these are going to be very different animals.’ I started to look at them and realize that there was a vocabulary within them; they started to evolve organically and after the first ten I knew what was going to happen with them. Some of them were partially obliterated landscapes, some of them were small creatures hiding in oceans and trees, and some of them were orbs in the night sky. There were four or five things that could happen within each of the images.
Burns: You kind of orbited around them?
Donnelly: Yeah, and that dictated what was going to happen in each one. After the first 10 I sent Frank images and he wrote back and said, ‘This is awesome.’ It was a challenge. I had to give myself a deadline for each one. Sometimes 15 minutes, sometimes a half hour. I really wasn’t supposed to spend more than that on each one, but I also wanted them to feel complete and not overworked — a certain level of resolve and room for interpretation.
Burns: Overall, why is Philadelphia a great place to be an artist? How can it improve?
Donnelly: I mean, there’s so many artists here that there’s a lot of energy around it. I feel like people are really game and they’re willing to try anything; they’re very open. It’s sort of a blessing and a curse. We could be considered super-saturated, but I think it’s wonderful. There are a lot of people who are trying to push the boundaries. We also have a lot of space. It’s relatively inexpensive for artists who need studios. There’s a lot of smart people here. You can find your way into the circles of people who’s work you like. That part takes a little time, but it’s worthwhile.
Burns: What would your advice be to an emerging artist or someone who’s in an MFA program right now? What would you tell them?
Donnelly: I’d tell them that now is a good time to keep putting themselves out there, but to be aware that you don’t need to make work at the place that you were making work. While you’re in school that is your job, but it’s not necessarily feasible to only make art. Think about how you can support yourself, make work, make your work support you, and sustain yourself during times that are a little soul-crushing. Have that become your refuge, and not the thing that feels like work. Any time it starts to feel like work — making as a factory — you need to step back and feed yourself. Feed yourself with the things that you love. Whatever that is. Make time for it. Whether that’s traveling, reading, going to see films, going to dance. Make time for that. Going to see friends, hanging out. Hanging out is so important! Hang out with people! [laughs] Keep talking with people. Spend time with the people in your community.*