Papermaking Research on Artist John Babcock
As an emerging papermaker, I find inspiration the most in papermakers who are utilizing paper in a unique way. When looking at artists work online I was in particularly drawn to John Babcock’s work. John Babcock is a California based artist who focuses mainly on paper as his medium. Babcock has shown in over thirty museums in Europe, the US, and Japan.
Babcock uses large scale and small scale works to evoke emotional responses and focuses mainly on color. I was so intrigued by his work I sent him some questions about his technical process and his conceptual process. I’ve included some images from his website but all of the in process shots were photos he sent me in the interview. Anything in quotes are direct responses that I have included from the interview.
The above image is a work that caught my eye. I was particularly drawn to the cut out negative space within the paper because of it’s repeated pattern and mostly because of the cast shadows behind it.
This is what John Babcock had to say about it when I inquired how it was made.;
“Kozo pulp, beaten by hand, two masters, blue and green. made thin by massaging pulp into a water bath see photo below.”
finished kozo sheets ready to be adhered to mylar.
Below: spirit wave image cut on vinyl cutter.
Many of Johns concepts are really interesting to me. He focuses on a wide variety of ideas throughout his work- but still manages to keep his entire body of work cohesive visually. Some concepts he touches on are expressing ideas of love, commemorations, animals, spirituality, and many more.
I was interested in his process of executing ideas. I wanted to know if he went into his studio with a specific concept in mind or if he let the highly technical process of papermaking guide his inspiration.
This was his response;
“I am a builder. I work with the pulp as a sculptor manipulating the fiber into place. Since I have many techniques of working over a span of 40 years, it is difficult to generalize “this is how I work”.
Color Rules. Color is my first decision. Size is next. Sometimes I will sketch out patterns. For commissioned work I might even make up a maquette with collaged papers. Sometimes my concept isn’t clear at all. If it isn’t, I might start making pulp, pigment the pulp and start mixing the colors. In that process of getting involved with the material, usually ideas start to emerge and the ides of form evolve. If I want to make a work based on feeling, I will visualize the feeling with colors in mind.”
I then asked how his process has developed throughout his career;
“The process has developed because I have a lot more tools and techniques available. We didn’t know much about structure of paper fiber when I started. In the nineteen seventies my cotton came from linters mixed in a washing machine or very lightly beaten in a hollander. The pulp when spread out on a large plastic surface invited manipulation. In the archive click on “statement” in Faults and Fissures http://www.babcockart.com/faults-fissures/
When abaca was introduced to paper artists in the very early eighties I discovered a translucent shiny fiber that transmitted light differently. I was fascinated that by working cotton and abaca side by side I could make the abaca match or contrast with the cotton thus developing hidden images and color fields that changed as the viewer changed position or as the light changed during the day. http://www.babcockart.com/collage/”
John works with a lot of free casting. One of his bodies of work I am inspired by is his Ladder series.
“ The ladder has a special significance for me. It is a path to higher ground or a higher plain. I have climbed ladders all my life both physically and metaphysically, as perhaps you have. In this series I have enjoyed exploring the chemistry of color and the color of aspiration.” – John Babcock
“I mix 15 gallons of a master color pulp. I will make from 2-4 master batches. from 30 - 60 gallons. I intermix these pulps to make a gradation in 10-20 buckets five gallon buckets partially full. I call this building the color and it will take a few days to get the blending correct to my eye. I will then repeat the process for abaca.
Free Cast: I concentrate the pulp like cottage cheese and place it on a waxed plastic surface and manipulate the pulp about a ¼” thick to the desired shape. I can make sharp edges if I want. I work blind. Face side is down. 1991 late ladder series photo below.”
“April 2000 Soquel Studio
The cotton fiber is in place, abaca pulp will be placed in and over the top of the cotton to hold it all together, working blind.
So “free cast pulp” is casting without a mold.”
Some more of John Babcock’s free casted paper; (my favorite series)
Perceptor 1984 71” x 56”
Perceptor is a spirit piece that for me is an overlord of the gallery space it lives in. It was one of the first explorations of a changing color and fiber gradation, which creates a shifting pattern from different views.
free-cast cotton and abaca fiber pigmented in the pulp
Messenger 1984 44”x 112”
Secret messages within. The tiles are made from from varying combinations of abaca and cotton pulp creating subtle patterns that are only seen in a certain light.
free-cast cotton and abaca fiber paper
Lastly, a sculptural piece that I find very interesting – which was inspired by Arizona;
Faulted Arch 1979 16”x 16”x 32”
This is one of a series of sculptural works dealing with topography and landscape. It is about what we don’t see usually, but get to see for instance, when visiting an Arizona canyon where erosion gives us a glimpse of times past. Collection : International Paper Company. Exhibited in “Paper/Art – A Survey of the Work of Fifteen Northern California Paper Artists” at the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento CA. January, 1981
sheets of laminated earth pigmented cotton fiber paper
by Erin Thomas
Although it is fascinating to learn about professional print makers, what they produce, and how they got to where they are, I find it interesting to understand how letterpress and other forms of print making are put into practice by those who do it as a hobby. These individuals have pursued careers in other fields that maybe allow for more substantial salaries capable of supporting families, or careers that simply fulfill a different interest of theirs.
I met Joe Mildenhall at church and came to learn that as a working professional in the education sector, he enjoys print making as a hobby.
“I was introduced to letterpress in high school. It was still an active form of printing for small jobs like business cards, menus, etc. back in the late 1960's. In college I usually took one "fun" class in addition to the required course work. One semester I took a class called industrial communication or something. It provided instruction on several printing techniques including silk screen, rubber stamps, lithograph and letterpress. Later I had a student job at the university press where they were still printing books using lead typesetting and printing equipment. I didn't operate that equipment but did operate other presses so I learned the fundamentals of printing.”
Although he has worked in software development and technology management his entire career, he has found a lot of enjoyment in art and design. He says “[he has] always enjoyed the intersection of mechanical devices and art.” Print making appeals to many who sit in the crosshairs of the more rigid right side of the brain, and the creative, loose left side.
“I dabbled in photography and silk screening so several years later when I saw that letterpress greeting cards, etc. were becoming popular I decided to see what was involved in producing them myself. My initial motivation was the idea of producing our own Christmas cards rather than buying them. I think I have reasonable design and layout skills and our oldest daughter has some really good drawing skills so I thought we could join forces.”
And this was how Joe became more involved in his practice. He started with a small table top press and, through buying and selling four different presses, has settled on his current Chandler and Price Pilot 6"x10" tabletop press. He has printed several Christmas cards and some miscellaneous Thank You and birthday cards.
His style shifts back and forth between vintage and modern styles, but mainly looking for opportunities to use crisp lines that will highlight the letterpress effect.
Where some may find the tedious intricacies of print making, and letter press in particular, to be exhausting, he really enjoys the manual process of layout and printing with letterpress. The physical part of the process gives him more personal satisfaction than running something out of a modern printer. However, Joe is not exempt from the frustration that comes with setting the press and printing—his experience is that “the only part of letterpress printing that can become taxing is when things like inking, roller height and positioning aren't quite dialed in. [He doesn’t] print frequently enough to quickly and easily resolve issues so it takes some trial and error.”
Ultimately, Joe has enjoyed having letterpress as an occasional outlet. He doesn’t have very much time to spend on it, but gets a lot of satisfaction when he does. I think these experiences and this perspective is such for many who practice as a hobby. Creating, in whatever form, grants substantial satisfaction and fulfillment. It is always exciting and interesting to me when I find characters like Joe who understand the importance and beauty of creating, and do so in a way that fits into their careers, lifestyles, and schedules.
Interview conducted personally with Joe Mildenhall