Ashley Callahan has recently completed an essay about Paper Alchemy, which will eventually be included in the exhibition catalog to be published. Until then, please enjoy her contribution to Paper Alchemy:
Thurmanite’s Transformations: Paper Alchemy
by Ashley Callahan, September 2021
Thurmanite offers the immediate comfort of familiarity—hints of letters, the contour lines of lakeshores, the soft tones of vintage comics…but Thurmanite is a new material, trademarked with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2012. That businesslike formality contrasts with its rather tongue-in-cheek name. James Thurman first dubbed it “mokume-kami,” combining the Japanese words for woodgrain and paper and referencing the traditional metalsmithing technique of mokume-gane. But after hearing it compared, perhaps once too often, to fordite—the industrial material salvaged from the paint bays of automobile manufacturers and popular with jewelers since the last quarter of the twentieth century as an agate-like record of fashionable car colors—he embraced the superficial similarities, donned his kooky inventor cap, and named it after himself. Rather than signaling possessiveness (the name is registered to the University of North Texas, where he teaches, rather than to Thurman), trademarking Thurmanite serves as a way for Thurman to track its use. Because, ultimately, that is his goal: he wants it to be used and enjoyed by many people. He offers free, approachable videos online about how to make Thurmanite, and, while he sees it as an ideal material for beginning craftspeople to use, with Paper Alchemy he placed it in the hands of experienced artists to see what new transformations it would undergo.
Thurman first began contemplating a material made of layered paper in 2001, and by 2009 had established his current process of coating individual sheets with a glue-like substance (first using the West System epoxy and now using Entropy Resin, a bio-based eco-resin), stacking them, and allowing them to cure under pressure to make solid blocks of Thurmanite. Though the materials involved are not expensive, the process is labor intensive and repetitive; but, ever-positive, Thurman describes the brushing of resin and piling of sheets over and over as … “Zen-like.” He often handles the finished blocks of Thurmanite like he would a typical piece of wood, by carving, turning, and sanding. It has layers that are oriented horizontally—more like plywood than a tree trunk, which affects how it can be manipulated. Andy Cooperman acknowledged that reductive techniques work best, but that, for him, the process was fraught with alternating delights and frustrations as enticing images appeared and disappeared with a quick stroke of a file. Ana Lopez, after trying to score and fold it (it shattered) and then soak and bend it (it remained flat), decided that “Thurmanite looks great if you keep the form simple and let the layering inherent in the structure be the ornamentation.”
Thurmanite takes on different visual and physical characteristics depending on the paper it is made from—whether the crisp bright colors of fancy construction paper or the yellowed pages of dime store novels. Thurman only uses non-glossy papers, but even with that restriction, some papers absorb the resin better and some tend to be more brittle or less colorfast. Also, since Thurmanite is made by hand, each block has idiosyncrasies, such as tiny bubbles or areas where it wants to delaminate—the kinds of details to be expected and appreciated in handmade materials. Thurman offered to customize the Thurmanite he sent the artists involved with Paper Alchemy, and this collaborative aspect particularly appealed to his outgoing nature. While some artists wanted to be surprised, others requested specific colors (Mary Hallam Pearse asked for pink, which she shaped into flower petals, while Demi Thomloudis wanted black and white for her architectural brooch) or sent Thurman their own paper (Marissa Saneholtz mailed him a 1960s romance comic and Nicole Jacquard submitted a trio of pulp fiction books). Motoko Furuhashi asked for Thurmanite made from the pages of a telephone book and created a brooch that suggests the shared public systems (like street signs) that unite communities, while Cooperman requested that his Thurmanite be made from maps and carved it into Atlas, a graceful little book form studded with pearls and gold—a cartographic gesture made precious.
The artists in Paper Alchemy brought fresh approaches to Thurmanite—relishing the novelty of the material while finding ways to make it fit with their individual styles, techniques, and ideas. Dan DiCaprio, known for his work with wood, carved his Thurmanite into a slightly curved cone and nestled it within a similar form made from ebony to create a brooch he titled Differential, suggesting a meditation on the evolution from wood to paper to Thurmanite. Jennifer Wells created a dynamic study of form and line, allowing the black and white of her Thurmanite cabochon—with its two dramatic slashes or eroded gashes—to vibrate in tandem with the moiré effect of the wrapped silver wire. Alison Pack also used a cabochon, but hers is made of candy-colored pastels and presented through a gently retro costume jewelry filter; she titled her brooch What Was and explained, “For me, the layers of worn paper evoke a sense of ‘what was’ and beckon the question, ‘what will be?’” Bob Ebendorf unleashed his playful curiosity and created a whole series of brooches, allowing the Thurmanite in each to ride that uncanny line between precious and discarded that defines much of his work.
Some artists responded intuitively to the material, sanding until a particular word stood out to them (“demand” for Sue Amendolara, “paradise” for Chris Ramsay), or seeing in the patterns and colors small waves, a splash of water, the curve of a face, or the hues of eels and seaweed and making works inspired by those first impressions. For Nancy Politsch, her piece of Thurmanite looked to her like a billboard going up, so she turned it into a diorama brooch with tiny sign installers. Wayne Werner experienced the changing patterns as psychedelic and felt that uncovering them was like playing freeform music, but for many artists the Thurmanite evoked nature and the passage of time. Harlan Butt commemorated this with the haiku on his vessel, “Past, present, future. The layers upon layers. They are all one thing.” Collectively the artists demonstrated Thurmanite’s versatility and let its distinctive patterns, organic strata, and appealing imperfections guide them.
Paper Alchemy began with a small group of artists—just enough to create work that Thurman could fit in his suitcase and carry to Turkey for the opening venue (Atelier Maya). But it grew—and continues to grow—as he invites more people to participate in its U.S. venues and as more people ask to be included. It is a passion project for Thurman, a chance to bring artists together around a material, his material, and celebrate the joy of making.
The following are links to each venue of Paper Alchemy. It debuted in Istanbul, Turkey, at Atelier Maya, June 18-30, 2021. The debut of Paper Alchemy in the United States was at Radford University’s Art Museum at Covington Center, September 6 to November 19, 2021. More venues will continue to be added as the exhibition continues to travel throughout the United States and internationally.
CURATORIAL: PAPER ALCHEMY
Paper Alchemy has a unique premise. Invited participants are provided with Thurmanite® for them to use in their own designs. Initially, participants were all metalsmiths but additional participants using a wide range of media are being added to the project. Through the unifying thread of Thurmanite®, exhibition visitors can see how each maker reacts and creates differently while all using the same material. Since Thurmanite® can be composed of a wide range of recycled papers, the content and aesthetics of each block of material vary widely, from maps to old textbooks to colorful construction papers. How Thurmanite® is carved or shaped also dramatically alters its appearance in a finished piece as well. The conjunction of these tremendously varied artworks create a unique thematic approach focused on an unusual and unique material.
Click on the compilation image below to see the image gallery of the current works included in Paper Alchemy with names and information about each piece: