Papermaking with Seaweed

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, the International Association of Hand Papermakers and Paper Artists.

Having travelled several thousand miles across the arctic from Whitehorse to this most northern coast of Scotland, I find myself at last in the small village of Dunnet where, 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.

I am camped among rough hills of grass overlooking the ever receding and expanding sea, in search of seaweed for hand papermaking.

The environment piques my senses. It is so different from the dry vast wilderness of the Yukon.

Seals stretch 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.

Each morning I make a collection of sea treasures: rocks, ropes, shells, netting floats, seaweed of many colours and types, limpet shells, feathers and grasses.

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 stone walls 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.

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 tead, making grass rope, weaving fishing nets, pulling sheets of linen paper. The linen paper pulp beaten in Joanne’s holander beater, built and dseigned by her husband, 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 Scanadavian papermakers’ sposes, chanting and beating in rhythm with Korean conctual artist, Young-Ba Bang-Cho.

British artist Prue Dobinson’s harvest of Scottish bluebell stems is 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 Kaars’ property.

They are reminiscent of boat portholes or, in my mind, are sun shapes in salutation to the summer solstice of the north. The late setting sun stays glowing, many shades of purple and orange reflecting in the sea well past midnight.

In preparation for this gathering, Kaar has prepared bundles of willow in her “wee” pond out back, submerged with lobster and crab pots.

A driftwood handle dound on Dunnett 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 ropes 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 completion of the basket takes place between 5 and 10 pm on the eve of my final night in Caithness

It still sits somewhere in the rockery of the Kaars’ windswept back step.

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