Friday, January 8, 2010

paper life

Paper is magical. I've always felt that way. Part of its magic is its simplicity: paper, along with something to write or draw with, can be the most powerful thing in a person's creative life.

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Paper was always important, and it still is. We didn't have a lot of paper when we were growing up. That is to say, paper is something I always wanted to have more of, but later it dawned that we didn't have a lot of discretionary income, especially for that type of thing. But my parents saw to it we had an abundance of all things wonderful every Christmas.

This limitation was the reason my sister and I depended upon my father to discreetly squirrel home small stacks of logo stationery from Blue Chip Stamp Company where he worked, to serve as our art paper. It was always great to get a fresh batch. Sometimes we'd cut off the top part where the letterhead was, but more often we just worked around it. It was nice quality paper, very white, with a great surface and feel to it. It never occurred to me that he might be bending the rules, bringing home company stationery, but judging from how special it always seemed I think he must have been careful not to overdo it.

As an adult, I am now always careful to have plenty of paper on hand. As a hedge against an uncertain future, I buy pack after pack of it in various weights at Staples and stash it in my home office. In doing this, I will surely never run out. Of particular importance are the bond papers of the correct weight for spec sreenplays and for novel manuscript submissions to publishers. The elaborate novel I've been working on for many years will, I trust, be completed. It will give me great pleasure to finally print it in all its behemoth entirety for publication submission.

Except for the copy I sent to the Writer's Guild for registration, I still haven't gotten around to printing and submitting the final draft of my screenplay. It's a children's fantasy story. When I do, on that fateful day I will most assuredly have all the correct paper and fasteners and mailing boxes.

It's also critical to have plenty of art paper on hand. Left over from my first (very brief, too-young) marriage to a Canadian landscape watercolor artist in the early Seventies, I still have several large, lovely sheets of Arches handmade watercolor paper from France. The Arches company is something of a miracle in how long they've been in business: Le choix des artistes depuis 1492. I love the watermark on their paper, the various weights, the lovely feel. A few of these sheets I had to discard because they picked up mildew in storage. But most of them, like the company itself, survived intact the journey across time. In this dire economic era, modern businesses of all types are at risk... but how many factories do you know of were once besieged by the Cossacks?

When it comes to actually creating artwork, as opposed to merely storing art paper, the large scale of full-size watercolor paper is a bit too much for me. My aesthetic world was, and still is, the world of the 8 1/2" x 11" sheet of typing paper or company stationery. I've managed to push myself up to the slightly more accommodating 11" x 14" size of the many pads of 100-pound smooth finish Strathmore Bristol pads I currently have in my workshop. This turns out to be perfect for pages of the paper dolls I can now create more authentically with the professional pens, inks, and paints I now have. The few sample sheets I've done are promising.

Classrooms in the Fifties and Sixties, here in California, always seemed to have plenty of paper. Things were obviously very different, then. School is where I got most of what I needed for the various art and writing projects I'd amuse myself with during the long school days, all the way from kindergarten until, if my memory serves me right, intermediate school. Paper of various types was freely available, waiting in generous stacks at the back of the room in wooden cupboards. We always had unfettered access to this. A favorite way I had of enjoying school-supplied paper was to grab a generous handful and staple it into a booklet. I can't remember ever simply taking some of this school paper home with me, but I know I used more than my share during the day for drawings, notes, and stories.

My late mother often shared her love of drawing and painting with my sister and me, and we began to draw almost as soon as we could hold a pencil or a crayon. Both of my parents definitely had artistic ability, and my sister and I both can draw easily, a skill we have both always enjoyed and appreciated. Given my parents' skills in this area I believe our ability to be hereditary, a check mark in the Nature category, but I feel credit must also be given to the Nurture side of the equation. It's a shame we didn't have a better assortment of good art supplies with which to explore and enjoy our artistic leanings. But what we did have, we valued.

One incomplete but strong memory of my mother is from when I was very young: I am standing in the kitchen, looking up at her while she stands working on something at the sink. Later I would learn she was using a pan watercolor set, but all I see is that she is using a brush, busily doing something on paper I can't quite see because I'm so small, and every time she places the brush under the faucet's stream of water, the water changes color. This seems like a miracle to me.

We wouldn't have our own watercolor sets until later, but my sister and I always had crayons, with their paper covers and wonderful scent. One of my prized possessions for years was my set of Crayola 64 crayons, the big set in the tiered cardboard box with orange and navy printing. This would be my sole medium for many years, the means by which I would learn color names, try new color combinations (Sea Green and Silver! Aquamarine and Midnight Blue!), and try in vain to recreate the brilliance and professionalism of published paper doll art. At that time, paper dolls were the epitome of artistic achievement to me. My father took our family to San Francisco art museums such as the De Young and the Palace of the Legion of Honor on weekends, and we were exposed to a lot of great art very early in our lives, but my artistic interest as a child kept returning to paper dolls.

In those days you could select a nice set of paper dolls from Beedee's dime store for just 29 cents. A paper doll set was a huge thrill, folios with such themes as Annette in Hawaii and Ann Blyth. I loved real dolls, too, especially fashion dolls, and later I would address this world with an adult's resources. But a paper doll was something special, probably because it was something I could create entirely myself. I drew many things, but fashion illlustrations were what I preferred for my own amusement. Whenever I drew a female face that turned out exceptionally good to my critical eye, the highest acknowledgement would be to turn it into a paper doll, and then give her sheets and sheets of outfits until my available paper was gone.

In grade school I was often called upon by fellow students to provide illustrations ("Could you draw me a horse?"). Doing the covers for our school Christmas programs was my earliest sense of being treated as special. Who else was allowed to draw and then hand-carry various school artwork projects over to the teacher's lounge? There I would be allowed to run the ditto machine, then bring back to my classroom the stack of paper, still warm, still issuing that uniquely wonderful chemical smell, each sheet bearing a perfect reproduction in analine purple ink of something I created.

Paper has long served us, and serves us still. Digital era or not, paper forms the inarguable essential that is bathroom tissue, for which there is no viable subsitute. It's another type of paper I insist on having plenty of on hand. We live in uncertain times, after all. What if the Powers that Be decide that Soviet-era horrible tissue is all we should be allowed? I buy big packs of my favorite brands when they go on sale and store them to the extent I can reasonably do so, and I don't apologize for this. There is no type of paper, in fact, that I want to ever do without.

My parents used to keep their books in bookcases built of cinder blocks and plywood.

I never travel without several books and magazines, even if it's just for a few hours.

A few years ago I self-published a book of doll hat designs, and the process of printing and assembling them was oddly satisfying.

Recently, I have rediscovered the library. Gone are the oak card catalogs with their long drawers. My tendency is to wander through the stacks, anyway.

Many magazines, as well as some newspapers, are getting smaller in format. This reflects modern concerns about costs, but is also an apologetic attitude towards paper consumption. I understand this. I get that we shouldn't chop down an ancient sequoia tree to make toilet paper or the New York Times. I know forests need to be managed, but I know paper companies know this, too. I love trees, but it is permissible to love what trees can become, as well.

One of my earliest magazine fascinations was Seventeen. This fashion and lifestyle magazine was very large. It had a real presence; you could lose yourself in a magazine like that. The first issue I ever purchased was September 1965, after marvelling over the August issue at the Concord public library. I wore it out looking at it so much, dreaming over the amazing mod fashions and false eyelashes, and implicit promises of self-assurance, boyfriends, jobs, money, freedom, and sophistication. A few years ago I found a woman selling a pristeen copy on eBay; I paid decently for it with scarcely a blink. She had several copies of that particular issue because she'd been a model in those days and had appeared in one of the ads. We enjoyed corresponding after the sale; she even mailed me a short documentary she had produced.

As anyone who has ever visited my home will quickly realize, I still have a thing about magazines. Of course, I love reading and I love and require books in my life, and can somehow finally manage to control my collecting of them, but magazines are an ongoing concern: deciding which magazines to keep, which to donate or get rid of, where to keep them, and how to manage all the clippings and tear sheets.

Despite the trend to a smaller format, what has improved in magazines is the quality of both the lithography and the photography itself. Some contemporary art, fashion, travel, and cooking magazines are so gorgeous, so rich, they can almost make me weep.

In sixth grade, my best friend and I began to publish our own classroom newspaper, the redundantly-entitled Mercury Envoy. During it's brief but heady publication era we hand-drew the stories and made ditto copies for our fellow students. I read somewhere that Stephen King used to publish his own student newspaper, but he was far more enterprising in his inspiration to sell his to fellow students.

In my senior year of high school I was astonished to be chosen to be the editor-in-chief of our student newspaper. I can't remember learning a great deal about the particulars of the journalism craft and career from my teacher, but I will always be grateful for his vote of confidence in giving me that position. Not surprisingly, that validation allowed me to envision myself as a so-called real writer, but also as someone who could be part of the world, not just a passive observer.

Our paper came out twice a month. First we would type up our stories, calculate the size everything needed to be, mark everything accordingly, then send it all to the graphics house for its transformation to columns of printed copy. In long after-school sessions, our staff did the layout by hand in that pre-computer era, taking all that issue's copy and headlines, cutting them to size as we designed each page, then running each piece through a machine that waxed the back so it would stick to the layout sheet.

Actually, it's not uncommon for paper to find itself the focus of such an elaborate process. Papermaking itself is such a process, at one time even more so, but this is only the beginning. Paper is all about what it can become. It is a tabula rasa, blank and plain and ready for anything one strives to bring to it if the intimidation of it's powerful potential can be overcome.

Paper, and more paper still. At a moment in time, before her work became digital, my sister would stand in a darkened room, rocking a sheet of photographic paper in one tray of solution and then another, watching the alchemy of the newest emerging image. It delights me to be able to print my own photographs at home, so I stock special paper for that. The acid-free tissue paper I've purchased at not insignificant cost is protecting the oldest fashion dolls in my collection, and the paper doll collection I've painstakingly reassembled from my childhood is also being treated with archival care. Every year, I plan on creating my own Christmas cards, and have special paper and envelopes for this, but I've only actually done it a few times. I still have several stationery sets, only partially used, I received as gifts when I was in my teens.

And now I'm a writer, yet not really a writer, and an artist, yet not really an artist. What I really am is Ship's Curator, at least to the extent anyone can be when they've let thousands of pieces of paper slip away for every one they've saved. Boxes of photographs, boxes of papers, volumes of journals and old school reports. Childhood artwork, and old documents from four generations ago.

I have a Kindle reading device, new for me as of this Christmas, and it's every bit as amazing and wonderful as I knew it would be. This invention does not eliminate paper books; this seems obvious to me, no more than filmmaking can be said to replace books, nor for that matter are audio books meant to replace physical ones. The love of paper overlaps with the love and miracle of literature, but they are not the same thing. Paper is both less and more than that.

So many childhood doilies cut from folded squares, then hung in windows; I admired the method of their creation and their elaborately lacy result. A pencil drawing, sent by my mother to a local newspaper for their children's art section, is published when I am 7. I cut strips of colored paper and weave them like fabric. More paper dolls in crayon.

Once I began to sew, I began to amass the hundreds of paper sewing patterns now in my collection. Most will never be used, but many have been and will be. I loved and still love the graphics on pattern envelopes, not unlike so many paper dolls, and I loved and still love fashion, and the sense of possibility represented by such a collection.

This pattern collection now fills the entire closet of my guest room and encompasses the late 19th Century to the present day. With no children, and no association with a university or school, I sometimes wonder what will become of it all after I am gone. Perhaps I should address that.

Sometimes I draft my own patterns for doll clothes and share them online with members of my hobby group, patterns that can be downloaded and printed on printers that now commonly occupy a place in our households.

My lifelong dabblings in art would finally bring me something life-shifting, seemingly by accident. It's a tale circuitous in that way so often characterizing careers in the arts, a series of causal links that in many ways are irrelevant here; the upshot is I found myself doing makeup and costumes for a low-budget, ultimately troubled film project called Clownhouse. Because of this turn of events, my thirty-something self would stand in mute awe in Francis Coppola's library at his thousands of books, where I learn he employs a librarian to carefully cull hand-cut magazine and newspaper articles that pertain to his far-ranging interests. It's the late 1980s, and he is funding a movie project for a group of us newbies, while directing his own film, Tucker.

Later that same week, as I continue a succession of 14-hour days' work on the 21-day shoot, I am astonished to find myself conversing with the famous director through the open window of his stopped van on his rural Napa Valley property while I pause in organizing some equipment. No one else is around. On his lap I can see a bound and printed screenplay, and he remarks it was just given to him by Mario Puzo. Francis is wondering aloud, for my sole benefit on that gravel road in Rutherford, if he should immerse himself in that dark and complex world for yet another year of his
life to make another Godfather film.

Grade school again: I make a tiny book about mermaids and give it to my Grandmother. I bring home report cards and hand them to my parents.

A letter comes in the mail just after high school: congratulations--you are accepted into the apparel design program. More paper in the form of a marriage certificate, and eventually another. My Cosmetology license, to be renewed every two years.

Job applications, and nervously filling them out. Call sheets for each day's work on a film or video project. Product brochures, junk mail, coupons. Special paper for my old Olivetti portable typewriter; it's designed so you can erase it.

Taking tests, with a number two pencil: be sure and fill in each bubble completely and carefully.

Making a card for Mother's Day.

In chemistry class passing a tiny handwritten note to a boy across the room, my unrequited crush who regarded me as a mere buddy: this note is no more than two square inches, covered with my minutely-printed witticisms based on Beatles lyrics, and is sent silently skittering across the floor inside a ball point pen, the paper coiled around the barrel of ink; the tiny note I received back was saved for years afterwards.

Paper shoji screens define the spare and lovely rooms of my imagined Japan, an aesthetic I long ago tried to emulate by drawing cherry blossom branches, shortly after visiting the Tea Gardens in San Francisco with my parents. In a similar effort, I would attempt to recreate on paper the dioramas that captured my imagination during our 1961 pilgrimage to Disneyland. My grandmother worked for many years as an administrative assistant for the Richmond School District Art and Music Department, and was able to get me my first real watercolor set. I recall first using this to paint flowers from Alice's garden scene, partly because of the Disneyland ride, and also because Alice's Adventures Underground and Through the Looking Glass were two of my favorite books.

A highlight in grade school would be the Scholastic Book Club brochures where we'd have the opportunity to ponder at leisure, then order books for ourselves: Codes and cyphers and magic tricks. Shadow Castle. The Phantom Tollbooth.

Everything in and about paper in my life is connected and interconnected, folding back on itself, a dense and magical and melancholy world made up of paper airplanes and Christmas paper, screenplays by others and by me and the similarities and differences between them; paper burning in my father's fireplace or passing through a borrowed shredder; the drawer filled with my comb-bound dream accounts, and fabric-bound blank journals on a glass shelf.

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