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Helen Frederick


In June 1993, Helen Frederick directed a week-long workshop at the Horton Center at Mountain Lake that engaged 32 community participants in making handmade Japanese-style vegetable-fiber papers. These extraordinarily strong long-fiber papers are usually derived from the inner bark of the mitsumata bush, gampi tree, and kozo (or mulberry) tree. However, we used a prepared abaca plant fiber from the Philippines, considered one of the strongest of the natural fibers, and neri, as a natural formation aid and viscous binder and a good deflocculant that slows drainage through the paper mold screens.



by Ray Kass


In June 1993, Helen Frederick directed a week-long workshop at the Horton Center at Mountain Lake that engaged 32 community participants in making handmade Japanese-style vegetable-fiber papers. These extraordinarily strong long-fiber papers are usually derived from the inner bark of the mitsumata bush, gampi tree, and kozo (or mulberry) tree. However, we used a prepared abaca plant fiber from the Philippines, considered one of the strongest of the natural fibers, and neri, as a natural formation aid and viscous binder and a good deflocculant that slows drainage through the paper mold screens.1


In preparation for the workshop events, large papermaking molds were made in advance and covered with stretched synthetic silk in the manner of silkscreen frames; participants used these as forms to receive the carefully prepared solution of abaca fiber, water, neri, and cotton fiber. The pulp-filled molds were allowed to dry on tables placed outside in the sun. In similar but smaller molds, participants used the same solution to make smaller-scale works that used colored cotton pulp. The colored pulp allowed them to “paint” with colors that were actually embedded in the paper.


One extraordinary collaborative piece, titled Mountain Lake Army Blanket, was made by the small group of assistants in the workshop who ended every day by swimming across nearby Mountain Lake and gathering various bits of detritus, including an insect or two, from the lake bottom and subsequently embedding these finds in the paper pulp.

1 Neri is made by pounding the roots of the tororo-aoi plant, a variety of the hibiscus tree. In the papermaking process, neri works to bind the fibers together, and, since it is not sticky, the individual layers of paper can be pulled apart during the drying process. A deflocculant is a material, usually an alkaline, added to a suspension to ionize all the particles in the suspension by introducing like electrical charges, thereby causing the particles to repel one another and remain in suspension



by Jane M. Farmer


Sure hands wield a vintage press. Others perform the ritual alchemy to transform fiber into paper. Elders record their stories while young people discover that they have stories to tell. A book, pages painstakingly stitched, is bound in leather and stamped with gold foil. Another is bound in a plain zip-lock bag. Incongruities? Unexpected convergences? Tradition and innovation, international dialogue and local community building, teaching and learning and making—all come together at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, in a remarkable synergy.


Pyramid Atlantic, founded by Helen Frederick in 1980, is an advocate for a creativity-centered community. At the time of its founding, workshops were springing up all over the United States to perfect different media in order to establish their worthiness in the hierarchy of the art world. Frederick had a different agenda from the start. As an adolescent, she often visited the Marcel Duchamp collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Immediately Frederick responded to the space for articulation and understanding provided by Duchamp’s transformation of materials. Eventually she realized that the idea was as important as the object itself, that the object’s not falling into our expected definition of beauty and art was what enabled the stimulation of our thinking and enabled us to accept our own answers about art.


Frederick’s attendance at a musical performance by the innovative artist/musician John Cage was another revelation for a young student—a seminal experience she could fully appreciate only later. She then traveled to Ahmedabad, India, seeking more personal than artistic understanding. She was introduced to a papermaking community fostering communal/cooperative working. It was there that she experienced acceptance of the abilities and contributions of all, even including the street children. Frederick’s arrival followed a visit by the American artist Robert Rauschenberg, an inveterate collaborator within disciplines, media, and materials and a longtime friend of Cage. The Ahmedabad community was sensitized by his intermixing of traditional materials, local culture, and observational statements, and welcomed Frederick as another American who wanted to learn and interact with handmade paper. Thus the experience was pivotal in her work and development as a collaborator.


The collaborative workshop Frederick founded was named “Pyramid Prints and Paperworks” for the large graphic mural that was a defining landmark on Pyramid’s block in the warehouse district, not far from the Maryland Institute College of Art and Design. Pyramid quickly became known as an experimental center for innovation, technical support, and the combination of printmaking and papermaking.


In Pyramid’s work with members, artists-in-residence, and students, the most important goal has been to provide a place of neutrality, safety, support, and technical expertise. This environment frees the artists from many restrictions: the expectations of professors, teachers, galleries, museums, and critics. Frederick had witnessed this freedom in the work of Duchamp, the musical collaboration of Cage, the experimentations of German-Swiss artist Dieter Roth, and the collaboration of Rauschenberg’s printmaking and papermaking. 

Helen Frederick has continued to explore the nature of collaboration and creativity and to provide this open-ended yet supportive environment for artists of all ages, experience, and reputation.

The material in this essay is excerpted from the catalog Collaboration as a Medium, 25 Years of Pyramid Atlantic (Silver Spring, MD: Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, 2005)


by Kathy Pinkerton

From the mid-1980s to 1990s I worked exclusively in handmade paper. I learned to make large-scale handmade paper by taking workshops at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina and with Helen Frederick at Pyramid Atlantic in Maryland; this was in the mid-to-late ’80s. In preparation for Helen’s workshop at Mountain Lake, we made several giant molds in my Blacksburg studio using two by fours and fine mosquito netting that was similar to a silk screen but not as fine so as to allow the water in which the paper pulp mixture was suspended to drain through. Helen used long-fibered kozo at Mountain Lake, which is very labor-intensive to prepare because it must be beaten by hand. The abaca fiber which I prefer to use, and which most workshop participants used as well, can be machine pulped and purchased pre-beaten to your specifications.


My work was done on a large vacuum table, and my pieces were “drawn” with pigmented pulps into a base of floating pulp fiber. The images were not applied to a surface in the manner of painting or drawing; rather, the images were the surface. The process is somewhat similar to weaving; but unlike the warp and weft threads on a loom, my fibers floated in water as I created a design. I used pigmented cotton and abaca for my large-scale pieces. The table, which was 4 feet by 8 feet, enabled me to work on a large scale.


The focus of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Methanogenesis workshop with Ray Kass was on the biodegradation of organic material in anaerobic systems, usually in swampy areas. One day participants in the Methanogenesis workshop came to my Blacksburg studio to work on the large vacuum table. Since papermaking on a vacuum table also has an anaerobic quality to it (i.e., air is drawn through the slurry of pulp, creating a partial vacuum), this seemed like a perfect complementary component to the Methanogenesis workshop. Actually, from the moment papermaking pulp is suspended in water, even without a vacuum process, a swampy environment begins to evolve, and one must work quickly before the slurry ferments. Our group made a multitude of small, blue sheets. The pulp was a combination of cotton and abaca that was pigmented a rich ultramarine blue. We dried each sheet on a smooth plastic surface. This gave the paper a shiny, almost plastic feel since paper in its wet stage will take on the texture of anything it is placed on.


Participants then made abstract drawings with water-soluble crayons on rectangles of Masonite that were sized to match the sheets of blue paper. These drawings, intended to be meditational images representing methanogens (anaerobic microbes) essential to the methanogenesis process, were then transferred, or imprinted, onto the “blue leaves” using the vacuum table. Several participants worked together making a number of large meditational drawings in which each individual started from a different corner of the Masonite surface and then drew toward the center. These large, group drawings developed an extraordinary intuitive harmony as the participants worked in unison.

I produced handmade paper works on a large scale and exhibited them for nearly fifteen years.

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