For many years Susan Olsen has explored a rare technique of papermaking where plant structures are processed into colored pulps to create a piece of paper that is a painting. She has explored various themes: trees, landscapes, primitive images, abstract shapes, and animal portraits. Her work focuses on images that convey an innate understanding that primitive peoples have of their oneness with the cosmos. Olsen exhibits her work and teaches students at her studio near Abiquiu.
By means of a process that exemplifies sustainability, I create art pieces with the intent of leading to a transformation of human consciousness to a state of grace. My images of trees are the quintessential expression of my art process—they are trees made from trees. I learned that in various primitive cultures, a vehicle of human connection with the spirit world is the tree. Trees offer me their inner bark for my artistic expression. This precious fiber is the structure that carries the products of light energy and earth and water elements throughout the tree’s being. The force behind every piece of art I make is the desire to celebrate the gift of life and to nourish people’s lives by creating expressions of image, texture, and color that bring joy and understanding to those who behold them. I want to present compositions that may facilitate healing—a change from a state of imbalance to one of well-being, be it on a physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual level.
“The Paper is a Painting” is a rare medium of paper art that I have been practicing for over thirty-five years. Colored pulps are applied to a screen and shaped into image. When the sheet is dry, it is peeled off the screen—a finished art piece. I perpetuate the ancient tradition by doing this from scratch—classic papermaking source plants are processed to produce the colored pulps from which the art piece is formed. I think of my work as “painting and beyond.” As I make the paper, I create the image. Voilà...the paper is a painting.
A variety of plant structures are good fiber sources. In this photograph I’m harvesting cattail stalks by the Cañone Creek. Let’s examine the processing of the classic fiber source—paper mulberry inner bark. The outer bark is scraped off of a stem of new growth. Then the inner bark is peeled off and cooked in alkali to consume the plant glue, leaving supple strips of cellulose fibers. These fibers are bleached and dyed. They are then macerated into fiber bundles that are appropriate to mix into pulp. This is done by pounding with a mallet or beating them in a blender. The pulp is mixed with water and a suspension agent derived from the root of the edible hibiscus. At this point my palette is now ready—it consists of bowls of colored fiber liquids.
The pulp is applied to a mold constructed of nylon window-screen material and stretched over a wooden frame. There are two methods of application. I use the first method to create landscapes, portraits, and other works where I wish to express fine detail. First, a layer of pulp is applied to the screen that will be the background of this piece. Then different colored pulps are applied to this layer using bowls, cups, a turkey baster, and/or an eyedropper and then shaped into forms with a bamboo knife. In the case of landscapes, the grasses, tree trunks, and branches are un-pounded strips of inner bark that are laid into the pulp background. The mold of wet pulp is allowed to dry—it is moved around in relation to the sun to insure that it dries evenly—and the resulting paper is peeled off the screen as a finished art piece. The second method is performed with the intention of the “good side”—the side that reads—facing the screen. Pulp layers are applied to the screen and shaped. This process is a “dance” of pouring and shaping, pouring and shaping. The layers next to the screen will be on the surface of the finished piece. I don’t see the result until the paper is peeled from the mold. This element of surprise makes this approach like a birth process.