On Garden Art

Homes & Cottages, April 1997

gardenWe spend a lot of time and money on interior decorating. We spend a lot of time and money on our gardens. We’re picky: we want that piece of sculpture over the fireplace; we want an oval tulip bed in the south corner of the garden.

Most of us, though, don’t meld the two. We think of home decoration as one element and garden design as something else. Unlike the Italians or Japanese, Canadians typically don’t put anything but plants in their gardens. In Vancouver, artists are designing garden sculpture to encourage home-owners to use art to augment and showcase the natural beauty found outside.

Vancouver artist Susanna Blunt is an avid gardener and an enthusiastic proponent of the idea. “I think that  a garden is the most wonderful place for art, yet you don’t see much of it. When you do, you see reproductions of old items, and those pieces are reminiscent of other cultures and other types of architecture. That’s why I decided to create modern, individualistic sculpture for Canadian gardens.”

Blunt’s custom pieces are made of steel, bronze, stone, glass and marble and can be simple sculptures or ornate designs. She also has a line of Swizzle Stakes, which are six-pound, 80” steel poles that have been bent or welded into creative and decorative statues. They can be grouped to create one sculpture, or used separately to support sweet peas, climbing vines or roses. They can be left to rust and age naturally, or painted to match or contrast with garden furniture or plants.

“Garden art makes any garden doubly inviting,” says Blunt. “It becomes a visual point of interest, and complements or contrasts plants so that one shows off the other to the best possible advantage. Art can turn a garden into visual theatre, even in winter, when it collects snow and ice and adds colour or interesting notes to an otherwise-bleak winter garden.”

Bradford Carrie has the same objective when creating garden sculpture, but the difference with his work lies in his materials. Carrie scours farms, rail lines, beaches, docks and abandoned houses, and uses found objects to create eclectic sculptures that can be used in conjunction with plants or as visual accents in a garden.

“My concern is with balance, colour and texture, and with showcasing the personality of objects, says Carrie. “Found objects have been used by someone in another time and this gives them character. That character becomes part of the visual value of the sculpture, and lends itself to the look of the garden.”

For Carrie, doorknobs from a turn-of-the-century house, pounded into an old oak door found in an abandoned railway tunnel, become a ‘door sculpture’, which is the ideal accent for an ivy-covered wall. The lid of a gas tank and the base of an engine are welded together and placed on a pedestal to support vines and flowers. One six-foot sculpture consists of dock fittings, a machine strap, a fishing boat hook, copper tubing and an old farm rank, all perfectly balanced with complementary, contrasting tones that age together.

Vancouver landscape architect Judith Reeve, also known from the CBC’s Canadian Gardner, refers to the use of art in gardens as “agritecture” and has long used plants, wood and odds and ends to build structures for plants to grow on. In Canada, however, Reeve finds that the concept has not quite caught on.

“Interest in garden sculpture is greater in Europe and the US. Here, the conventional, formal garden is still popular, but garden art is extremely useful. It can be used to connect garden segments, as a focus for light and water, or to dress up a blank wall. Rockwork can be turned into a pond or tiny fountain. It’s also nice to hide items that people can come across as they walk through your garden. Gardeners can make their spaces much more interesting by adding items and experimenting a little.”

Reeve adds, “There has been this tremendous snobbery about garden décor, which has made people afraid to experiment. But I say that if you find an item you like, put it in your garden. Hang it on a tree. Let water drip onto it. Make  seat out of it. Put a light in it. If it doesn’t look right, you can always change it. Art can add a little mystery and a sense of discovery to a garden and I think people should be a little more whimsical. Why not decorate your garden as you would your house?”


High Flyers in History: Women in Aviation

Arts Alive, March 1998

aviation5Quick, name a famous female pilot. You said ‘Amelia Earhart’. Name another. Specifically, name a Canadian. Drawing a blank?

Well, Canada has a rich tradition of female aviators. A traveling exhibit from the National Museum of Aviation in Ottawa, High Flyers, illustrates the role women have played in Canada’s aviation history. The hope is that sharing this important history may spur young women to follow in these pioneers’ steps, and to look at aviation as a field that can provide many opportunities.

The exhibit celebrates this group of strong-willed pioneers and pays tribute to Canadian women in aviation from before World War II through to today.

There are numerous interesting characters introduced, and stories told. For example, in 1919, Madge Graham, who was married to Canada’s first bush pilot, Stuart Graham, served as navigator on a five-day voyage in which Madge, Graham and a mechanic flew a water-logged wooden flying boat, at tree level, from Dartmouth Nova Scotia to Grand’Mere Quebec (750 kilometres). The escapade elicited this from the American Rear Admiral Byrd, who specialized in feats of exploration: “Flying seaplanes over land is suicide, and taking a woman along is criminal!”


Back then, female aviators were a novelty—the press called them ‘Flying Flappers’, ‘Angels’ and ‘Sweethearts of the Air’. Normally, pilots wore heavy gear as protection from fumes, noise and the elements. But when photographers were around, famous female aviators such as Amelia Earhart and Jacqueline Cochran wore blouses, scarves, make-up and tailored slacks. Their worry was that figure-veiling suits would repel non-flying women, and it was believed that if women looked fresh and glamorous after a flight, it would show other women that flying was safe and restful.

By the 1930s, women pilots were attracting more attention. In 1936, the Vancouver-based Flying Seven became Canada’ first women’s flying club. (It was this group that conducted the 1939 ‘bomphlet raid’ on Vancouver, dropping 100,000 pamphlets pleading for “dimes or dollars to buy our boys more planes”.)

 aviation3 aviation4

World War II should have been a boon for female aviators. Instead, the Canadian military deemed the job of pilot as inappropriate for women. One pilot, Helen Harrison, applied to the RCAF with an instructor’s license and a seaplane rating, multi-engine and -instrument endorsements, experience of flying civil and military craft in three countries, and 2,600 flying hours. She was turned away in favour of men with little more than 150 hours to their credit.

So women aviators worked to ‘back the attack’. Some taught flying and navigation—until the RCAF trained mail teachers. Five Canadian women headed to Britain and joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian organization that ferried aircraft to squadrons, factories and storage units around Britain. Women were involved in aircraft assembly lines, and Elsie MacGill was the aeronautical engineer who supervised the Canadian production of 2,000 Hawker Hurricanes. Finally, in 1941, the RCAF began to admit women, mainly as aerial photographers. And the CWAF (the RCAF’s women’s division), carried the motto: “They serve that men may fly.”

Post-war, things didn’t get any better. Marion Orr, who was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in 1981, had to go all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office for approval to open her own school and airfield. Stewardesses were in demand, but interviews involved leg and teeth inspections, and marriage meant instant dismissal. Trans-Canada Airlines, Pacific Western Airlines and Canadian Pacific Airlines told Helen Harrison that she was too weak to handle the controls. Dawn Dawson made it as far as the interview—only because the receptionist had spelled her name ‘Don’.

aviation2Gradually, things improved—after a lawsuit or two. Lorna DeBlicquy, a flying instructor, bush pilot and flight-test examiner who started flying at age 15 and had 6,000 hours to her credit, sued Air Canada after two of her male students were hired and she was denied an interview, on the basis that she was too short and would require a specially-designed uniform. In 1977, DeBlicquy became Canada’s first civil aviation inspector and, in 1995, was awarded the Order of Canada.

Finally, in 1973, Trans-Air hired Rosella Bjornson as the first and only female in a field of 2,800 pilots. Then other commercial airlines began hiring women. Today, although some still face prejudice and even hostility, increasing numbers of female pilots are working in military and civil aviation, and still more are air-traffic controllers and engineers.

aviation7 aviation6

So it’s been a bumpy ride. But every female aviator believed the struggle was worthwhile. As Amelia Earhart said: “If enough of us keep trying, we’ll get someplace.”

Art, Inside Out

Blitz Magazine, September 2001

Ah, the Summer of 2001…

Everybody was protesting something; I just wish someone had had a clearly-articulated point. We watched riot squads in action. At the G8 Summit in Genoa, Canada’s Prime Minister Chretien sat down for a confab with Bob Geldof and Bono; outside a young man died on the pavement, shot in the head. Who knows what he wanted…’something to do with stamping out evil capitalism, perhaps wanting it to be less evil.

In Vancouver, when people have something to protest, they do it at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), which has become the de facto social meeting point. It’s architecturally grand, centrally-located, and surrounded by the Towers of Power (the Law Courts). Perfect. And now, it is decorated. With outdoor art. Specifically things like a vehicle sculpture by Kim Adams and some ‘stranded boats’ by Ken Lum. They’re fine…inoffensive. Just, well, why.

art3 art1

On Location, according to the press release, “is a commissioning project created as an artistic legacy that will enrich and animate the public spaces around the VAG. Designed to celebrate the rich social and political diversity that forms urban life in Vancouver, it will address subjects such as street life and cultural histories that are often ignored in public art projects.”

The VAG isn’t only popular for protesting. It’s a hot spot for busking and selling jewellery (if junior capitalists can get permits), and for celebratory events (if the Vancouver Police don’t mind). This “complex and active street culture” contributed to the rationale behind On Location: “…the gallery has been largely focused on the exhibitions inside, resulting in a sharp distinction between the interior activities and the exterior world,” continues the release. “Recent planning at the gallery has prioritized projects that reinforce a strong and visible link between art and its social context, that provide a greater public transparency for the institution and create increased opportunities to integrate visual arts into the public spaces that surround it. We want the gallery’s building and exterior site to communicate ‘art’.”


Hmmm. We are skeptical. Because art is a matter of taste. It’s impossible for a group of board members and curators, regardless of how much public consultation has been conducted, to tell the public that what they are putting in its open spaces—in its collective face—is ‘art’. And, given the architectural disasters which Vancouver City Hall has allowed to be constructed on the Georgia Street waterfront and the shores of False Creek—not to mention the absurdly mundane public sculpture everyone is constantly made to look away from—we are loathe to have any more visuals foisted upon us. As far as ‘art’ is concerned, it’s often a good thing that it is inside—if people want to look at it, they know where it is.


Man And The Machine, Man In The Machine


For 150 years, humans have been fascinated by the Cyborg—the cybernetic body (part human, part machine). It has been with us since the advent of the machine. But with this fascination came an intense anxiety around masculinity and mechanical equipment.

In a 1919 essay on the subject of the Uncanny, Sigmund Freud meditated on a form of neurosis that is manifest in a confusion of living and dead, real and imaginary, and between things and symbols. For Freud, the uncanny was a familiar object or event that, estranged through repression, returns to us in the form of the dreaded or bizarre.

In the 19th century, machines were built to mimic human behaviour; biological functions were described in terms of the machine. In the early 20th century, machines were simultaneously eroticized and feared. At this time, there was also a shift in the traditional exchange between art and popular culture, and a blurring of the boundaries between the two.


The era around the Second World War saw developments in the science of cybernetics and war machines. From the 1960s to the present, the Cyborg has been developed for multiple uses (particularly by Japan and the US), including military technology, body implants and nanotechnology. These developments have been contingent on a growing economy and the burgeoning relationships with corporate cultures that have changed the way production and commercialization relate.

Artists have always shared this fascination, and the neurosis. We can see this in the invention of the 19th-century automata, in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Marcel Duchamp’s bachelor machines or Fernand Leger’s La mecanicien. In the past works of Mary Shelley, Aldous Huxley, HG wells; in modern-day titles too numerous to mention. Today, the Cyborg image is everywhere—in movies and comic books, on TV and toy store shelves. The Cyborg is an industry unto itself. It has its own power.

man1The Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, focuses on the uncanny relationships between humans and machines over time and through cultures. It offers insight into a subject that has captured the imaginations of artists, writers, movie-makers, scientists and cultural theorists since the mid-1800s. Key historical works include a 19th-century automaton, 19th-century scientific photography, and early 20th-century artworks by Duchamp and Leger, as well as Pablo Picasso, Jacob Epstein and Francis Picabia, plus a selection of outstanding photographs by Eadweard Maybridge, Lewis Hine and others.

Blitz Magazine, January 2002

Detective for a Day


‘Ever want to be a homicide detective? A Columbo, Poirot or Marple? Just for a Day?

What about Holmes for a day? As great as the others were/are, no one can compare to Sherlock.

A man has been murdered, in a house that had been securely locked. You inspect the exterior. One wall bears a rose-filled trellis. You see an undamaged trellis filled with roses. Sherlock Holmes, however, inspects the individual roses. He finds five crushed blooms, at 14” intervals. He deduces that one suspect, a slight adolescent boy, has climbed the trellis to break into the house.

A horse has vanished. It is jet black, with a white diamond on its forehead. There hasn’t been time for the thief to leave the vicinity. The horse must be nearby, but where? Only Sherlock thinks to take a wet cloth and rub the heads of all dark horses in the stable. He figures, correctly, that the white diamond on the ‘missing’ horse has been covered with charcoal.

Such was the analytical skill of Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective of all time. An eccentric, talented genius addicted to science, precision and detail. He is probably the most famous detective of all time, and has been portrayed by dozens of actors, most brilliantly by the late Jeremy Brett. Holmes’ memory is still kept alive by international sleuth/fan clubs, whose members meet regularly, all over the world, including on London’s Baker Street, to discuss his life and work.

You can really annoy these people, of course, by pointing out that Sherlock Holmes was not real. He was the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a Scottish physician whose interests lay more with politics and military manoeuvres than with detective fiction but who, nevertheless, became one of the most famous authors of the English language.

holmes2Now, you can make like Sherlock and meet Arthur—sort of. After you solve your own Victorian murder mystery—sort of.

Check your local museum listings for Sherlock Holmes & the Croydon Clock Tower Mystery. This is a museum exhibit that communicates with you while you participate, rather than observe. You’ll walk through eight rooms, each the set of a different location. You’ll read hand-written police notes, listen to sound tracks of police interviews, hear hansom cabs passing, street vendors calling, fog horns wailing. You’ll smell telltale odours, and poke around parlours and bedrooms, finding bits of evidence (including many red herrings). You must use your powers of observation and deduction, though, while you learn the scientific method of problem-solving. After an hour of sleuthing, you’ll end up in the study of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who answers your questions and helps you solve the murder.


To give you a leg up, here’s a tip from old Arthur—er, Sherlock: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”


Blitz Magazine, May 2001

West of Eden: Canadian Folk Art

art1When we think of folk art, we often think of materials produced long, long ago. The term conjures images of Quaker women busy at quilting bees, or aged farmers seeking relief from the stresses of the Great Depression by carving cows from pieces of scrap wood.

Well, it turns out that the great age of Canadian folk art was from 1960 to 1990.

Folk art has always been with us. Cave dwellers decorated their walls with pictures of their experiences. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Vikings decorated weather vanes, whirligigs, windmills and banners. Then came decorative clothing, storage trunks and furnishings—all evocative, idealized and miniaturized representations of the images that fill our lives.

Folk art is inspired by the heart and created by ordinary, untrained people to express their artistic impulses using common, often recycled, materials to create works of enduring beauty. It fulfills a personal need to create something unique, beautiful and, perhaps, useful.

art3 art8

Experts say that outdoor folk art is associated with the human quest to reproduce the Garden of Eden, the perfect habitat for humans, animals and plants, our own places of serenity and fertility. It is produced expressly to stand in, and withstand, the elements. It always carries a blend of cultural traditions and regional characteristics, as well as the eccentricities, passions, fantasies and humour of its creators.


It’s interesting to note the consistency in the way folk art is created for its positioning. Pieces intended for front lawns have the essence of street theatre and are meant to catch the attention of passers-by, enhance the property’s appearance and differentiate a house from its neighbours. Barnyard art combines form and function, e.g. curved doorstops and scarecrows. Pieces made for backyards—the preserve of friends and family, invariably reflect more intimate personal tastes and can range from bird carvings in ponds to erotic statuary.

Outdoor folk art enjoyed an explosion in creative expression beginning in 1960. Lawn statuary, bird houses and wind socks were found, created, decorated and sold, sometimes for enormous prices. But in 1990, the frenzy ceased. Jigsaw statuary and commercial pieces started appearing in places like Costco and Home Depot. Naive art started to disappear—perhaps because no one was naive any more.

In Canada, ethnologist Marius Barbeau (1883-1969) was among the first to recognize that folk art was a worthwhile cultural pursuit. Regional, chronological and ethnic differences in folk art came to be recognized and catalogued, as Barbeau and others began comparative studies of such disparate objects as a 19th century Quebec weathervane and a humorous carving of former Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Barbeau’s efforts established This Other Eden: Canadian Folk Art Outdoors, a still-growing collection at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

 art7 art5 art6art4

Blitz Magazine, July 2000

Identifying the Hand of the Artist: Charles Edenshaw


The aboriginal artists of BC’s northwest coast didn’t start signing their work until the 1940s. Not because they had no sense of leaving a physical legacy, but because it was the ownership of a piece—not the creation of it, that mattered.

Back then, artists were high-ranked chiefs to begin with; otherwise they would not have been taught how to produce their work. Ownership of their work thus added to the prestige of the person who commissioned it. As is the case in all cultures throughout recorded history, art collections were symbols of prominence.

The lack of signatures has created challenges for northwest coast art historians. Unless they’re studying the work of Charles Edenshaw (1839-1924), who remains the pre-eminent artist of BC’s northwest coast.

Aboriginal cultures were introduced to European art forms during the course of the fur trade. The Europeans brought items of all kinds, from furnishings and utensils, to clothing and textiles (the walls of Edenshaw’s studio were papered with the London Illustrated Daily News).

Edenshaw used these forms and influences to much greater advantage than did his peers. While carving Haida mythological creatures into an argillite dish, for example, he used these new, non-traditional shapes to give his forms more character and individualism; to make them less stiff, more animated. Meanwhile, his wife, Isabella, was a talented weaver. Her work is easily identified because of her patterns, and because Charles painted the finished pieces. And the main reason that their work is easily identifiable is that, whether carving, painting or making jewellery, Edenshaw’s work carries a particularly high, distinct level of elegance and craftsmanship.

edenshaw2 edenshaw3

In Edenshaw’s day, it was extremely rare for an aboriginal artist to be able to live by his art. But Edenshaw enjoyed a worldwide reputation and did very well. While he apparently never traveled further south than Victoria, he received commissions from the world’s major museums, collectors and ethnographers. When the American cities were building their museums, totem poles were de rigueur—now, New York’s American Museum of Natural History has more northwest coast art than do the three major BC museums combined.

Other artists saw Edenshaw’s success and the great demand for his work and began copying it. So identifying certain things, like mid-19th century miniature totem poles, can be problematic. But as Bill McLennan, projects manager at the UBC Museum of Anthropology notes, “People may have tried to replicate Edenshaw’s work. You could still try to. But you’d have to be a superb craftsman. And if you were that good, you could make a nice living on your own.”

edenshaw1 edenshaw4

McLennan has put together a small exhibit to show people how art historians go about identifying the work of an artist. There are just 12 pieces, plus a collection of hats (and three gold bracelets never before seen in public). The exhibit is accompanied by detailed photography showing how the experts can state, with certainty, that a piece is the unsigned work of the master craftsman, Charles Edenshaw.


Blitz Magazine, March 2000

Swords, Santos & Filipino Heritage

santos3After many years in Canada, Vancouver doctor Miguel Tecson, who was born and raised in the Philippines, felt well-adjusted to North American culture. But there was something missing.

“I felt like a marginal man,” says Tecson. “I could identify with both cultures, but I was never at ease with either one. There was a yearning for the Philippines.”

This feeling led Tecson, and his wife Julia, to begin collecting Filipino artifacts—from the Philippines, as well as China, other parts of Southeast Asia and Europe. When they began to collect pieces from their heritage, there were few Filipinos in Canada; now there are thousands, and Tecson wanted to share his collection.

“The children of Filipino immigrants are Filipino, but Canadian in their orientation,” adds Tecson. :They don’t know anything about the Philippines and we wanted to make these things available to that generation.”

The Tecsons donated their collection to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, and it was organized by that institution’s anthropology students.

The collection includes silver bracelets, wood and fibre containers and several ceramic pieces, including seven giant ‘dragon’ jars. There are also two Kris swords, which are highly-ornate, gilded swords made of steel, brass, copper and ivory and with wickedly serrated edges. Two other stand-out items are ‘bululs’, images of granary gods dating from 100-800 BC.


Prior to the arrival of the Spanish traders in 1565, indigenous people worshiped before pagan idols, usually very roughly carved in human likeness. The Spanish quickly replaced those with figures representative of Catholicism, and these images were referred to as santos (Spanish for ‘saint’). Santos were wood carvings covered with a gesso-like layer, like fine plaster, which was meant to cover the grain to make the surface smooth and white before painting. The santos in this collection were made specifically for home use—at 6:00 pm every day, families would kneel at their home altars, before the santos, and call on the saints for spiritual or material aid.

Today, santos are molded from plaster or plastic. The older wooden ones are in great demand by collectors and museums, but imitations are so easily produced that the Tecson collection contains many that are worn out or damaged, which is proof of their authenticity. The Tecson collection offers a window on an ancient culture about which we know surprisingly little.

santos santos1

Blitz Magazine, July 2001

Co-Opted: Culture Makes Off With a Masterpiece


You’ve seen it. Everywhere. You’ve been seeing it everywhere since you were born.

And it’s probably safe to assume that, when Edvard Munch (1863-1944) painted The Scream, it never occurred to him that his image would become the universal, multi-purpose symbol of terror.

It also likely never occurred to him that, in the 1960s, his painting would cross the line from artwork to icon. That it would go from being a respected object of contemplation to a piece of exploitable public property—standard stock for cartoonists, art directors and advertisers. That it would illustrate editorial in magazines such as M.A.D., Ms., and Forbes. That an American bank would print it on its cheques (er, checks). That the U.S. Department of Transportation would use it to indicate hazardous materials.


Munch could not possibly have dreamt that his image would make the career of a child actor (Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone). That it would become the name of a Hollywood franchise (the Scream films). That it would appear on greeting cards, shopping bags, coasters and neck ties. Beer labels, clock faces, spoon rests. T-Shirts, balloons, key chains. Gas pain medicine and toilet paper. And whoopee cushions.

scream2Munch published two different versions of his inspiration for The Scream; that he thought of it when he viewed a mummified body in a jar at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, and that the image came to him in the midst of a blood-red sunset. Whichever one is true, given the life he led, the idea would wouldn’t have been much of a leap.

He was the son of an Oslo doctor and the grandson of a priest (yeah, we won’t go there). His father was obsessively religious—to the point of mania, and insanity ran right through the clan. The family was perpetually immersed in grinding poverty and Edvard, a sickly child, spent endless hours lying in his little bed while his father read to him. Which would have been fine if the material of choice hadn’t been the tales of Edgar Allan Poe.

Munch made it to adulthood, but his best friend was a chap called Hans Jaeger, a nihilist who lived by the code “a passion to destroy is also a creative passion”, and who advocated suicide as the ultimate way to freedom. These two knee-slappers became devoted Bohemians which, for them, meant endless binge-drinking and brawling. (No sex for Edvard—the idea of it turned him off.)

But he was able to paint and, in 1892, landed a one-man show at an art gallery. In Berlin. Where his work was found to be ‘too troubling’ for happy-go-lucky Germans, and the show was shut down after one week—much to Munch’s amusement. (He did, however, become a major influence of the 20th-century German Expressionists.)

Eventually, of course, he had a nervous breakdown. But then he rallied, quit drinking and started painting portraits. He died in 1944, in Nazi-occupied Norway. By then, the Nazis had confiscated all of this work—and then they orchestrated his funeral, giving the impression that he was a Nazi sympathizer. He wasn’t, but he would have appreciated the irony.

The Scream exists in four versions: two pastels (1893 and 1895) and two paintings (1893 and 1910) (there are also several lithographs). You can see it in the exhibit Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Popular Culture, which also includes other, less-famous, pieces: The Sick Child, Death in the Sickroom, Two People (The Lonely One), Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm, Anxiety, The Vampire and Into the Woods.

But you’ll see a print; all originals are firmly locked away because they are the subject of constant attempts at theft (most recently, the piece in Norway’s National Gallery was kidnapped and held for ransom during the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer). Munch, no doubt, would appreciate the irony of that, too.

munch1 munch2 Edvard Munch, Ashes 1925 munch3

Blitz Magazine, March 1998

Pulp Non-Fiction: On the History of Paper

paperBlitz Magazine, March 2001



Imagine life without paper—no post-it notes, toilet tissue, espresso-to-go, plane tickets.

But it’s so commonplace, we never think about how it got here. It’s just here.

It’s been here for 2,000 years—a Chinese invention. In 105 AD, Cai Lun, an imperial inspector of workshops, returned from a papermaking research trip around China. When he presented the results to the emperor, he was dubbed the Inventor of Paper. But the oldest piece of paper extant, found in Shensi Province, dates from 140 BC, and we know that the Chinese began making paper in 200 BC.

The first paper was coarse and thick and was used to wrap parcels; a special thick, pleated paper was even used for armour. By 93 BC, it was clothing. In 110 AD, people started writing on it then, in 589 AD, they started using it for, er, personal purposes.

The word ‘paper’ comes from the word papyrus. But papyrus is different from paper. The Egyptians flattened stalks of the papyrus plant and stacked them in layers. When the stalks dried, they formed a flat material, perfect for writing on.

The Chinese used bamboo, hemp, rattan, straw or mulberry bark. They soaked pieces in water, along with lye or potash, for 70 days, then beat and boiled the mixture into pulp. They added water and a fibre-lubricating solution taken from a type of birch tree found only in Sichuan Province. The fine screen was dragged through the pulp; when pulp is collected, the fibres become attracted to each other and mesh to create a strong bond. The resultant net-like sheets were peeled off and stacked. The stack was pressed to remove excess water, then the damp sheets were stuck to a heated wall to dry.

Today, paper-making is a high-speed, high-tech form of this method, and wood chips are the base ingredient. The chips are steamed and stripped of lignin (the natural glue that holds fibres together). The fibres are cleaned and mixed with water, pumps spray pulp and water onto fast-moving screens, the water drains away, and the fibres join together. Vacuum pumps drain the water; large rollers squeeze the fibre, heated rollers dry it further. Starch or clay is added for an improved surface; a calender acts like an iron to polish it. These 100 metre-long papermaking machines have more computer controls than a 747. The romance is gone.

But you can now see the ancient method, in action, at Vancouver’s Science World, which hosts China! 7000 Years of Innovation, a celebration of Chinese inventions that changed the world.