Papermaking With Seaweed In Caithness

11 Aug 2011 in Highland, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

HELEN O’CONNOR from the Yukon reflects on the international papermakers gathering in Caithness

THE salty mist in the air feels good on my skin as I walk daily along the windy sandy shore to the papermaking studio of Caithness artist, Joanne B Kaar.

I am one of several hand-papermaking artists from all over the world who have come responding to Joanne’s invitation to share, create and explore as part of the 25th Anniversary celebrations of IAPMA (International Association of Hand Papermakers and Paper Artists).

Brewing up some paper preparation

Brewing up some paper preparation

Having travelled several thousand miles across the arctic from Whitehorse, Canada’s far north in the Yukon Territory, where I live, to this most northern coast of Scotland, I find myself at last in the small village of Dunnet. On a clear day one can spot the impressive cliffs of the Orkney Islands or perhaps a row of Puffins clambering up a rocky shore.

The remoteness and quietness of the place is welcome as I am in a contemplative mood and I feel open to see and feel the Scottish north presenting itself around me.

It is here that I am camped among rough hills of grass overlooking the ever receding and expanding sea. I am in search of seaweed for hand-papermaking. The environment peaks my senses. It is so different from the dry vast wilderness of the Yukon.

Seals on rocks stretch out and roll about, waving fins and flippers, slipping off rocks. Sea grass grows like a bad haircut from dunes of hobbit-like hills, blown hither and thither by the never ceasing wind that rattles my tent each night until I grow so used to it I find myself lulled to sleep by the sound of flapping. The sea and seaweed, salty air and salty fishy smells squish underfoot as I walk.

A creation of found objects from the beach

A creation of found objects from the beach

Each morning I make a collection of sea treasures, rocks, ropes, shells, netting floats, seaweed of many colours and types, limpid shells, feathers and grasses. Gulls and terns swoop about, the tide moves ever so reliably in or out… I climb the rocky bank from the beach past the salmon fishing nets, fields of round woolly sheep and lambs engaged in monotonous grass eating and lolling about. Horses come to greet me, much to my delight, for a pet and a scratch behind the ear.

Up and up the hills I climb past Mary Anne’s historic Crofter’s cottage with its tidy pile of peat and white freshly painted stonewalls so bright against the green of the fields. I arrive at last at Kaar’s studio only 20 minutes since I emerged from my little tent set up by the sea in the tidiest quietest camper/tent site I’ve ever been in.

I creak open the large gate, making sure not to let her loose chicken escape; the other two are broody sitting on nothing but straw in their little A-frame coop. I could easily go on talking at length about chickens having raised them myself for many years, my last three named Dorothy, Chesty and Blonder.

Papermakers at work

Papermakers at work

In the Kaar cottage tea is brewing and the kettle is being boiled every 20 minutes. The cook stove is fired up with a peat fire, Joanne and her husband Joe collect and stack the peat each year in traditional Crofter style. Hand paper artists are busy, between cups of tea, making grass rope, weaving fishing nets, pulling sheets of linen paper. The linen paper pulp beaten in Joanne’s Hollander beater, built and designed by her husband, Joe Kaar, is made from Scottish linen mill scraps. Some artists are cooking up pots of seaweed and soda ash over an outdoor peat fire; some are meticulously stripping and dividing horsetail grass in preparation for boiling and pounding into papyrus-like sheets of paper.

Several hours later the seaweed is rinsed and hand beaten by zealous Scandanavian papermaker’s spouses whilst chanting and beating in rhythm with Korean conceptual artist, Young-Ja Bang-Cho. British artist Prue Dobinson’s harvest of Scottish Bluebell stems are being hand beaten and processed in a kitchen blender. All the while Joanne is filling the giant plasterer’s vat with copious buckets of pulp from her hollander.

Sheets of wet seaweed/linen paper are being cast by myself over found rusty car part shapes handily nicked from Joe Kaar’s car part collection under the bushy back section of the Kaar’s property. They are reminiscent of boat portholes, or in my mind are sun shapes in salutation to the summer solstice sun of the north. The late setting sun stays glowing many shades of purple and orange, reflecting in the sea well past midnight.

A paper creation on the beach

A paper creation on the beach

Kaar, in preparation for this gathering, has bundles of willow in her “wee” pond out back, submerged with lobster and crab pots. A driftwood handle found on Dunnett Head beach inspires the production of my “Caithness Seaweed Basket”. Melon shaped, large kelp twisted into a round rim, local willow for ribs, hand twisted sea grass, inspired by Kaar’s reproductions of Angus McPhee’s grass weaving, and net rope are used for binding the sides. Seaweed is woven in and around with long straight flexible willow and seaweed covered found beach rope is used to fill in the gaps.

The basket had been forming in my imagination all week inspired by an accumulation of collected found bits from the sea. However, the actual production, and yes, completion of the basket takes place between 5 and 10pm on the eve of my final night in Caithness and still sits somewhere in the rockery of the Kaar’s wind swept back step.

Helen O’Connor is a hand papermaker and visual artist who lives in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. She was joined in Caithness, Scotland,  June 2011 by fellow papermaking artists and their parteners!: Woo Bock Lee (Korean living in Sweden), Young-Ja Bang-Cho (Korean living in Germany), Brenda Parsons (England), Elise Kloppers (Netherlands), Prue Dobinson (England), Jenny Weissel (Australia), Hannelieke van de Beek (Netherlands), Katri Schweitzer (Netherlands), Birte Helene Gairy (Denmark), Ute Breitenberger (Germany), Jan Marinos (Tasmania), Elke Buschman (Germany), Joanne B Kaar (Scotland).

Northings thanks Helen O’Connor and Joanne B Karr.

© Helen O’Connor, 2011