Interview with Laurence Barker
by John Gerard
Laurence Barker, born in 1930, established the first college-level papermaking workshop in the United States as part of the Printmaking Department at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Michigan. During the brief period of the workshop's existence (1963 - 1970), Barker inspired numerous students - a list of whom reads like a "Who's Who in American Papermaking" - to explore new visions and forms of expression with paper. He moved to Barcelona, Spain, and finished building a paper mill / studio in 1971. He has made paper for all, and has collaborated with some, of the following artists: Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Joan Miro, Mark Tobey,David Hockney, and Ken Noland. His work is in numerous public and private collections.
In the fall of 1987 John Gerard interviewed him on his influential work at Cranbrook.
JG Your interest in handmade paper began, it seems, almost coincidentally, with a sheet made by Douglass Howell shown to you by one of your students. Did your students encourage you to establish a workshop for papermaking at Cranbrook Academy of Art or was this your idea? Why establish a workshop in the first place?
LB It's true. That single sheet of Howell's paper intrigued me, piquing my curiosity as no other paper had ever done. I can't say there was a sudden epiphany in that I knew instantly I wanted to make paper, but it did trigger a sequence of events that led to precisely that.
Probably the single most important thing I learned from my experience with Douglass Howell was the mechanical simplicity of the basic process, the feasibility of making paper at home, as it were; beautiful paper unattainable on any market at any price. Such was the state of affairs not so many years ago when the world was young.
I thought by making our own paper, quite apart from the harmless conceit of executing a lonely end-run around the paper industry, we could reconsider the aesthetic of our work from a wider angle. After all, irrespective of the printmaking medium, what we hang on the wall is paper, ink on paper. This is obvious enough, but not, I feel, fully appreciated. How else can paper act? What happens when paper begins to assert itself?
While handmade paper can't redeem weak drawing, to be sure, neither does it follow that art is best served by the repetitious use of one or two commercial brands of paper where the possibility of dialogue or a kind of aesthetic reciprocity between image and support is reduced a priori to a minimum.
My ideas about the role of paper in art would evolve and expand over the years, but this was the initial impulse that animated me during the fall of 1962 when I was gathering up the necessary equipment. After my seminar with Howell, the establishment of papermaking facilities was but a short and, by now, natural step for me to take.
Did my students encourage me? I don't recall, but with such a sterling project afoot how could they not have done?
JG Was the administration, especially Academy President Zoltan Sepeshy, receptive to the workshop?
LB Yes, indeed. Zoltan and the administration were helpful and supportive at every point along the way.
JG Was there further support from other members of the faculty? From the general student body?
LB 'Yes' and 'yes', or do I mean 'no' and 'no'? Polite interest so easily shades off into polite indifference, but then this is the natural order of things. How important and exciting, for example, can a new kiln in the Ceramics Department be for an architect? Or new, over-sized looms for a metalsmith? The point is, I enjoyed support where it counted. I never heard a discouraging word - not for many years, at any rate - and we were left to our own devices. 'Twere bliss.
JG Were there concerns as to relevance, financial backing, or space allotment?
LB Not over relevance, certainly, and, as the most expensive item, the beater, was donated by the Dard Hunter Paper Museum at the Institute of Paper Chemistry in Appleton, Wisconsin, the whole installation presented no financial difficulties that I was aware of. Regarding space, I think a trade-off was made with the Sculpture Department wherein we ended up in their basement and they gained a room somewhere. A year or two later, the paper equipment would join the move of the Printmaking Department to its present quarters.
In other words, the operation was painlessly absorbed into the Printmaking Department. Infinitely more problematic would have been the proposal to make papermaking a service department available to all interested students. You would have needed a crystal ball twenty-five years ago, however, to realize the reasonableness of the idea. It would have been highly polemical then but surely, budgetary considerations aside, less so today.
JG George G. Booth (1), Cranbrook's founder, established the Cranbrook Press in Detroit in 1900 and used special handmade papers for his hand printed books. Did you consider this connection by tradition when the workshop was built?
LB Not really. In fact, it seems I learned about that part of the story after we were already under way. His papers were made in Adams, Massachusetts, by L. L. Brown and Co. To make a book entails many disciplines and the early Cranbrook Press books were above all exquisitely crafted. I don't remember a single title, but in my mind they were all medieval romances - such was the pervasive influence of William Morris' Kelmscott Press; definitely period pieces in every sense of the word and consequently just too remote to exert any active influence in our work that I could observe.
On the other hand, the attraction I felt for typography might well date back to my Academy student days in the mid-fifties, to the library with its rare books and to Cranbrook Press itself, which had, by then, long since evolved into an institutional press and was housed on Academy premises.
Be all that as it may, I outfitted the department with modest typographic facilities and, with handpresses and papermaking at the ready, we called ourselves Lyra Press. Mighty build-up. Please don't ask what we did by way of books and broadsides - not that much - but it somehow all fit in with my early notions of how, by upping the aesthetic wattage of paper, as I intimated earlier, one could transform, to some degree, all graphic images and that, surely, included typography with its abundant use of white space.
JG You certainly had the spiritual backing of Henry S. Booth, son of the founder and long-time chairman of the board at the Academy [1944-1960]. Did he allow you use of the original molds of the Cranbrook Press?
LB He did indeed kindly give us the molds to use but the problem was that the watermark "Cranbrook" figured prominently in every sheet. In short, they were just too institutional to be of much use.
I felt more beholden to Henry Booth for arranging the transfer of Cranbrook Press' original handpress from Kingswood School for Girls, Cranbrook (2), where it just sat, to the Printmaking Department, where we used it and another Washington Press for some of our relief printing and the typographic activity.
JG During the period of its existence was the paper workshop the specific reason or drawing card for some students to study at the Academy? If so, whom?
LB With the possible exception of two people and qualifying like mad, I can't think of anyone who came expressly for that reason. Roland Poska, having just graduated from the department, came back for a long weekend of papermaking instruction and was then off and running. Very soon thereafter he had installed his own equipment and was also teaching the subject at the now-defunct Layton School of Art in Milwaukee.
The other person is Walter Hamady, whose avowed interest in typography and books was made abundantly clear to me in his application to the department. He indicated an equally keen interest in the paper program when he learned it would be available.
Were you to reword your question slightly to "Was the paper workshop the specific reason for any student to choose printmaking as an elective?", then I would be able to say yes. That one person was Winifred Lutz. I remember her telling me that she had prior, if tentative, experience making paper at home from banana - leaves, I presume. That was enough for me. Winifred worked completely independently and for all I know was making paper constructions across Academy Way in the Sculpture Department.
And then were you to ask, "Did anyone just walk into the shop willy-nilly and get excited about papermaking on the spot?", I'd have another affirmative for you. At least this is what Timothy Barrett would tell me years after the event. As a young Cranbrook School for Boys student, he crossed the DMZ that separates the two institutions, wandered into the department and, ahh, the rest is history. Am I becoming shameless in my head count?
In a funny, wildly out-of-sync way, handmade paper didn't become a drawing card, as you say, until after 1970 by which time I was in Spain and the paper program had been scuttled. I had finally heard a discouraging word and papermaking and I came to a parting of the ways with Cranbrook. In inverse order we were cashiered - the Academy, I should clarify, being under new management by this time. Parenthetically and on a personal note, cordial relations were fully restored some years later under yet another administration. The poet was right: there is an ebb and flow in the affairs of men. It's not low tide forever.
JG What were the specific reasons for the demise of the workshop?
LB I have never inquired and to this day I don't know. If my successor wanted the extra space for the department, he gained approximately 40 sq. ft., as the "mill" occupied what years before had been a double janitor's closet. Speaking of modest beginnings and - I cannot help but feel - short-sighted endings.
JG You began at the Academy with simple molds and presses, army blanket felts, and a 1.5 lb. beater - essential sheet making tools and equipment. Did you develop any tool or techniques for working plastically with the paper pulp medium?
LB In the making of two-toned paper and shaped paper I developed some fairly elementary techniques which included some dipping procedures that were a bit off-beat; this, however, within the context of sheet making. As regards more dimensional work there was at best but sporadic activity in the department. I do seem to recall a construction or two of John Koller's and a few seasons earlier I made my one and only pulp casting. It was intended to be a test piece involving the making of a plastic mold on the then newly-installed vacuum-forming table in the Design Department; the matrix consisted of furniture from the type cabinet and wood type that spelled, I blush to relate, "What hath Barker wrought?"; further evidence, were any needed, that the least bit of silliness from the past can come home to roost.
Although technically a success, the pulp, once dry, separating easily and cleanly from the plastic mould, it just didn't seem to be what I wanted and over the years I would develop other ways of working with pulp in relief that I would find more congenial. But that takes us beyond Cranbrook.
JG Do you consider yourself at the front of a paper movement or simply a cog in the wheel of inevitability? Or something else?
LB Something else. Make that anything else! "A cog in the wheel of inevitability"? Too gruesome. But perhaps you're right about the seeming inevitability of these craft revivals and certainly it is in tune with the general spirit of the times, this returning to basics and starting all over again; old points for new departures. A lot of artists for many years now have been investigating new uses for pulp in their art. This diverse activity is what I understand to be encompassed by the term "paper movement".
You ask whether I consider myself to be at the front of this. I don't see how any single person can be today but, more fundamentally, I have difficulty thinking in these terms because I'm too keenly aware of who is behind it, a grayer beard than mine, and what was served to me on a silver platter.
Not very unlike Timothy Barrett at Cranbrook, I waltzed into Douglass Howell's house on a summer's day twenty-five years ago just as unknowing as could be where paper was concerned and totally unprepared for what I would see; a little beater, a little press, a couple of molds, and a vat (this is a papermill?) and wherever the eye travelled, stacks of beautiful paper - thin, thick, crinkly, colored (and these were made here in the basement?). Why, the hard work had already been done!
This, then, is the nature of my personal debt to Douglass Howell and that's one thing, but because with rare sensitivity he gave first expression to a new way of seeing and thinking about paper, we are all indirectly indebted to him. He didn't ring all possible changes - let someone else chronicle the development of paper art; who did what when - but what he did do over four decades and at no little sacrifice he did exquisitely. Simply put, he let the cat out of the bag.
JG You established a workshop of your own in Barcelona in 1971. You continue to teach and to make prints and paper. What do you feel is your position or standing in the printmaking / papermaking world?
LB Not to take the philosophical high ground, but I really don't speculate along these lines as posterity will make short enough shrift of all of our aspirations, our little vanities. It's quite enough that beyond my own art or rather, perhaps, in large part through it, I have been able to contribute, alongside many other people, to the expressive syntax and language of paper.
1. George G. Booth was president of the Detroit News. He established the private Cranbrook Press in the attic of the News building in Detroit and operated it until 1902. He founded Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1927.
2. Kingswood School for Girls, along with Cranbrook School for Boys, are built on the same campus as Cranbrook Academy of Art. All were under the aegis of the Cranbrook Foundation, now reformed as Cranbrook Educational Community.
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