Artrepreneur: A Fascination with Flax

As I write this, 78-year-old Helmut Becker toils tirelessly, beating his hand-grown flax and hemp fibres for Yukon artists.

He’s doing it in Ontario, so I can’t see him. But it sure makes writing this article like indoor work with no heavy lifting.

Becker is coming to the Yukon June 4 to 14 because of Helen O’Connor. You might recognize O’Connor as the artist whose watercolour sketch of a skier graced the cover of the NorthwesTel directory for the Yukon and northern British Columbia between 2006 and 2007.

But O’Connor’s more-experimental sculptural work in paper has been exhibited at the Yukon Artists @ Work Gallery and the Wildwood Festival at Mount Lorne, and new work can be found at the Copper Moon Gallery out at the McCrae Industrial Area.

O’Connor enjoys doing papermaking with students in the Artist in the School program. She has also used it in her Yukon Arts Ed-Venture classes.

At Christ the King Elementary School, the Grade 6 class was studying Japan. O’Connor made kozo with them, a Japanese paper. She cooked mulberry bark with soda ash to break down the fibres. The class beat it by hand with wooden mallets. “The kids loved it.”

O’Connor loves the physical process of papermaking. She gathers Yukon plants like willow, fireweed, lichen and grasses to add to the pulp. She makes up a big fire to cook up the fibres and uses the pulp to make sheets of paper that she casts onto baskets.

Papermaking is a mainstay of O’Connor’s art practice. She loves painting and drawing and hopes in the future to combine these more with papermaking.

O’Connor studied printmaking with Becker at the University of Western Ontario in the 80s. That’s where she learned to hand-beat mulberry bark to make Japanese paper.

The students ground pigments with linseed oil to make their own printing inks. These experiences inspired the young artist and, over 20 years later, she wanted to “reconnect” and do more work with him.

Besides, fellow Yukon artists Lyn Fabio, Shiela Alexandrovitch and bookmaker Mary Hudgin all shared her interest in papermaking.

O’Connor called Becker up in March 2008 and found him keen to bring his workshops to the Yukon.

O’Connor found some money through the Cultural Industry Training Fund. Through the Yukon Art Society, she fleshed that out with an application to the Yukon Arts Fund. She worked with Marlene Collins, at Arts Underground, to organize the project.

Arts Underground will host two Thursday evening Artist Talks during Becker’s visit to the territory. The first will introduce listeners to paper artists from around the world.

Becker will show slides and short documentaries featuring the papermaking process in China, Korea, Japan, Nepal, Tibet and India.

The second will focus on those flax fibres. That talk will cover the history of flax and how to use it to make sculpture and installations of paper. A short documentary film on Becker’s art practice will also be shown on that evening.

Becker’s own artwork covers a range from transparent films of paper with leaves imbedded in them, and books, to three-dimensional “tree skins” and altered flax plants in the field.

Fibre flax and industrial hemp fascinate Becker. He loves to use them for hand papermaking and sculptural projects. The history and technology of these fibres also intrigues him.

He’ll be sharing this love in three different workshops at the Tuktu studio just past the Carcross cut-off during his stay. The first of two, three-day weekend workshops at the Tuktu Studio requires no previous experience in papermaking.

Becker will take students through a variety of traditional papermaking techniques. They will also make a partial body cast for pulp casting, and try painting with coloured paper pulps.

During the second weekend, workshop students will hand-process hemp and flax for hand papermaking. They will create a sketchbook with natural-fibre flax or hemp papers as well as two- and three-dimensional flax paper-art works.

Finally, Monday to Thursday, artists can apply to take part in a collaborative, site-specific project-styled workshop with Becker out at Tuktu studios.

Arts Underground will handle registration for all of these events and workshops.

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