Papermaking lessons at Historic Rittenhousetown strike a historic chord

Little pieces of ribbon, string and flower petals float to the surface of open vats of cloudy water in the middle of a barn. It’s humid, but the crowd in the barn is peaceful. They move quickly from vat to table, with frames in hand.

It’s a Saturday in late August and we’re making paper in the little enclave called Historic Rittenhousetown in Germantown. It’s their Open Vats paper workshop, part of their Paper Arts series that runs into September.

Germantown, a logical location

Historic Rittenhousetown is the location of the first paper mill in British North America. There’s paper history here, and the craft of decorative paper making in 2012 is being elevated by artists from Philadelphia and Lancaster alike.

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Local painter and co-founder of the Greene Street Artists Cooperative, Deborah Curtiss, is here with a very specific papermaking mission in mind.

“I’m working on a series of paintings called ‘The Planet Will Survive’ and I wanted to use as many natural materials as possible,” Curtiss explains. “I’m here to create natural papers for the paintings. I’m working on papyrus as well, and natural linen, cotton and silk.”

Curtiss has almost completed another series of paintings called “Meditations on a Post-Human Earth” where she contemplates how humans might not survive in this society, but the earth will.

No formal lesson, per se

Christine Ihlandfeldt, an emerging paper artist from Lancaster, instructs the class, which has no formal “lesson.” Instead, it offers the opportunity to use the open vats which contain fibers and bulk materials left over from the multiple papermaking workshops held throughout the summer.

“I show a few techniques, like making stencils,” says Ihlandfeldt, who also works in printmaking and book binding, “but generally they already have taken classes here, and they use the pulp that’s left from other classes.”

Ihlandfeldt’s friend Sandra Granthon, a mixed media artist also from Lancaster, enjoys using the handmade paper in her mixed media pieces.

She took a previous class with Ihlandfeldt in the Rittenhousetown barn on Japanese paper making, which she says tends to use more natural fibers and typically has less room for using “fun” materials like letters, shapes and not-so-natural additions.

Collaborative efforts

Other workshop participants include Center City residents Judy Winig and Mehran Yazdanian.

They met at the workshop with Winig being delighted to take a paper arts workshop in the neighborhood where she grew up, and Yazdanian perfecting his techniques.

He’s a Historic Rittenhousetown member who regularly goes to workshops which enable him to frame the unique handmade paper sheets and give them as gifts to friends.

“It’s a workshop for artists that like to get their hands dirty, who really like being constructive,” says Vincent DiCostanzo, Historic Rittenhousetown’s docent, who gives tours throughout the day.

Beginning and experienced papermakers take short lunch breaks in the sun, before getting back to creating sheets a bit more artistic than the ones once produced by this historic community and sold to make newspapers and Bibles all throughout the Northeast states.

Remnants of paper bulk thrown in the bright green grass outside the barn are the only outdoor hint of the hours-long construction process that are happening throughout the afternoon.

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