LONDON – Growing numbers of artists and designers in Britain are exploring the potential of handmade Japanese paper as a new material with which to work, according to artist Elaine Cooper, one of the very few foreign experts in the field.
Cooper, 55, spent 10 years in Mino, Gifu Prefecture. She learned how to make washi by hand and is now extolling the virtues of this versatile art form to a wider public.
She says as British designers increasingly look east for inspiration they are moving away from traditional mediums and aiming for something different, like washi.
The process of making washi begins with peeling the outer bark of the mulberry plant and soaking it in water for days. Then the plant is boiled before other impurities are removed.
The fibers are loosened using wood sticks and mallets, mixed into a vat of water containing mucilage and filtered with wooden-framed bamboo screens before the finished paper is pressed and dried under the sun. The technique goes back 1,300 years.
Cooper, who now lives in Bristol, England, first became aware of the process in 1991, when she was asked to assist at a Japan festival in London.
The fine arts graduate already had a background in papermaking and used vegetable fibers and cotton to make paper for her etchings.
Cooper was fascinated by the thinness and translucency of washi, which she initially laid one on top of the other to create designs. Her enthusiasm struck the Japanese artisans, who then asked her to come and study in Mino and work alongside traditional papermakers of Honmino-shi. She remained there for 10 years.
“They were so kind to invite me but must have had doubts that I would go,” Cooper said. “I was a Westerner working with Japanese masters making traditional washi in Japan. I was a bit of an oddity, I guess, but felt so privileged.
“Mino City asked me to teach English and art at schools in the morning and then from 11:30 a.m. until midnight I would work in the paper studios. It was an unusual lifestyle.
“Akira Goto, my sensei (teacher), is incredibly skillful and very patient. He is like a father to me. I couldn’t speak Japanese at first and he couldn’t speak English, but we managed to communicate. As my language skills developed, so did my papermaking skills. I loved every minute of it.”
On her return, Cooper decided to make it her goal to promote washi to the British public and since then has been creating colorful pieces of washi at her Bristol studios.
She regularly gives talks, demonstrations and workshops.
The artist also sells her own handmade plain washi, which is mixed with small amounts of cotton to make it more durable for printing. In addition, Cooper also supplies artists with raw mulberry plant fibers and imported washi.
She has also been promoting washi to other artists and designers in an attempt to broaden its appeal.
Washi was registered on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2014, with the types known as Honminoshi from Gifu, Hosokawashi from Saitama Prefecture, and Sekishubanshi from Shimane Prefecture inscribed.
Cooper has been dispatching samples of washi around the country to show artists how versatile the material is. Feedback is sent to her Japanese colleagues.
“Washi is very strong, doesn’t degrade and is incredibly beautiful, textured and versatile. I want to educate people about its wonderful properties.
“There is a growing demand for it. You can use it for dying, drawing, printing and stitching, and for lighting, screens, clothing, sculptures and installations. The raw mulberry fibers can be woven and spun to make objects like baskets as well,” she said.
“In Japan, even though they use Western-style, machine-made paper, there’s a love still in their hearts for washi. Hopefully, these traditions will be passed on. Washi has had an immeasurable influence upon Japan.”
Washi has been used for centuries by Japan’s woodblock artists and also for official documents.
Artist Mary Collet said, “Using Elaine’s handmade washi paper as Chine-colle (a printmaking technique) gives the prints a subtle texture, which makes the print more interesting. Despite its fineness, the washi paper is strong and easy to use.”