Kyoko Ibe Brings the Art of Papermaking to Princeton

March 27, 2023

An Exhibition, Papermaking Workshop, and Theatrical Performance Showcase Just How Much Paper Has to Say

Visual artist Kyoko Ibe and writer, performer, activist, and lawyer, Reginald Dwayne Betts, placed paper at center stage earlier this year with the Lewis Center for the Arts' March production of Betts' Felon: And American Washi Tale at McCarter's Berlind Theatre from March 2-4, 2023. Paper became the leitmotif for a constellation of events and community outreach that surrounded the performance, including the Washitales exhibition of Ibe's work and a papermaking workshop sponsored by A&A.

Jane Cox, director of the Lewis Center’s Program in Theater, who designed the lighting for Felon said “We are particularly excited that this project has allowed our faculty, students, and staff to enter into relationships with many other campus units and departments, as well as work side by side with justice-impacted communities and other off-campus communities.” 

Why paper? In his solo performance, Betts recounts the experience of his nine-year incarceration as a washi tale, or a paper saga.  Paper, he points out, brackets a prison sentence in its legal capacity.  In the form of reading material, it ameliorates the yawning of time. Even stoves are made of paper in prison, for boiling water to make coffee and ramen noodles. And as a letter, or “kite,” as it’s known in prison, paper is a lifeline. From paper made of inmates' clothing and legal correspondence, Ibe conjured a stunning representation of these kites for the set of Bett's play.  

Ibe's career spans more than five decades creating art with paper as her medium, including set design for other collaborations with Felon director and dramaturg Elise Thoron, as well as an extraordinary body of artwork, some of which she brought to Princeton.

Hurley Gallery Displays Kyoko Ibe's Work in Washitales Exhibition 

View of gallery with Ibe's works on walls and Regium piece suspended from ceiling

Washitales exhibition at Hurley Gallery. (Photo/Jon Sweeney)

Ibe’s Washitales exhibition at the Lewis Center’s Hurley gallery was on view from January 30 through March 5.  “This exhibition — which interweaves history, art history, theater, and the fine arts — is an example of the exciting interdisciplinary collaborations that are possible at Princeton,” said Professor Rachael DeLue, chair of the Department of Art and Archaeology.

“Kyoko Ibe’s work draws on a centuries-long tradition of papermaking while transforming the practice in extraordinary ways through constant experimentation with the medium and its limits. In the case of her designs for Felon: An American Washi Tale, paper becomes an eloquent part of an urgent conversation about incarceration, justice, and human dignity. Likewise, the work on view in the exhibition illuminates just how much paper has to say.” – Professor Rachael DeLue

At the exhibition's center, the fluid, imposing Requiem 2011 installation swept from ceiling to floor, made of indigo paper originally used for Buddhist scripture that Ibe twisted and coiled as a marathon form of prayer to commemorate the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Kyoko Ibe poses under Requiem

Kyoko Ibe at Hurley Gallery (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

This work especially impacted Practice of Art concentrator Emma Mohrmann, who also participated in the papermaking workshop. "The piece of hers that moved me the most was the paper weaving she made out of sutra paper," she said. "I loved how she described the meditative, slow process of twisting it into a net being like praying for all of the victims. I was really inspired by her trust in the process, how she would match the material and content of her work, and how much her work conveyed, even in its simplicity."  Large paper works hung on the walls and stood as screens and sculptures, each imbued with the glowing mineral quality and structured, layered textures that set her work apart.

Rows of people sit in Hurley Gallery at Washitales conversation

Visual Arts Lecturer Daniel Heyman and Kyoko Ibe in conversation in Hurley Gallery. (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Ibe began creating works with handmade paper when the material was used exclusively for traditional Japanese arts and crafts. Developing her technique in the decades since completing a Master’s degree at the Kyoto Institute of Technology in 1967, Ibe has been invited to more than twenty countries for exhibitions, workshops, lectures, and teaching. Ibe's signature approach to paper combines a respect for tradition with technological experimentation and includes large-scale installations, award-winning stage sets, and costumes. She was selected to be a Cultural Ambassador in 2009 by the Agency of Cultural Affairs of Japan. A professor at the Kyoto Institute of Technology, she also directs the Japan Paper Academy.

On February 23rd, Visual Arts Lecturer Daniel Heyman spoke with Ibe about the exhibition as well as her new book with Thoron documenting their long history of collaboration titled The Way of Washi Tales. As she spoke about her background, inspiration, and techniques, Ibe’s genuine reverence for her medium was palpable. When asked what advice she has for art students in search of their medium, Ibe said, “Once you've tried everything – just don’t follow the people. Sit by yourself. Feel by yourself,” and let the medium find you.

Daniel Heyman and Kyoko Ibe seated before Ibe's work

Visual Arts Lecturer Daniel Heyman and Visual Artist Kyoko Ibe in conversation about Washitales at Hurley Gallery. (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Washi Paper-Making Workshop Invites Students to Learn the Ancient Japanese Artform

Student Titi Sodimu submerges mold into vat of water and pulp as Hiro Odaira assists

A&A Practice of Art student Titi Sodimu submerges mold into vat of water and pulp as papermaker Hiro Odaira assists. (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

In a special workshop, Princeton’s Visual Arts students were invited to experience papermaking firsthand, hosted by Heyman with Ibe and New York-based papermaking artist Hiro Odaira. First, Odaira and Heyman performed the traditional technique step-by-step, a method which originated in China in the 2nd or 3rd centuries and was elaborated into the washi method in 7th-century Japan.  A few hundred Japanese families, living cultural treasures, continue to make paper according to this traditional method today.   Odaira brought the raw materials whose pulp makes up the components of paper, including various shrubs as well as okra to serve as the neri, or suspending agent.

Heyman spoke to the metaphor infused in the washi. “When you make a sheet of paper from a mulberry tree that you knew as a living growing thing, it is hard not to understand that the fiber itself is carrying an awful lot of information with it that it can only serve up metaphorically,” he said. “But this makes it no less real.”

“I was and continue to be taken with the beauty and simplicity of papermaking, the magic of how a tub of wet pulp becomes a sheet of paper, and how, when using the correct materials, the paper can glow.” – Visual Arts Lecturer Daniel Heyman

Daniel Heyman sifts mold letting water flow out into vat below as Kyoko Ibe looks on.

Visual Arts Lecturer Daniel Heyman gently tilts the mold to let the pulp settle and excess water return to the vat below as Kyoko Ibe looks on. (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

He also underscored paper’s power to transport us.  “The paper is made with water, and so it carries the water's energy, its liquidity, its freshness and coldness within it,” he continued.  “Does a good ripe tomato eaten in sauce in March carry within it the sun of August or the waning sun of September?”

Students took the opportunity to step into this tradition, each making a sheet of their own washi paper. They took turns dipping a wooden mold into a vat of pulp floating in cold water and sifting the water away several times until a thin film of pulp remained. The drenched film was then slapped against a vertical wooden board, where it would stay until the corners began to peel away, signaling its completion.

Emma Mohrman lifts mold cover to see her formed sheet of paper.

Student Emma Mohrman ’24 peeks at her freshly-formed sheet of paper. (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

"I loved the process of papermaking. I appreciate how much patience it takes and all of the effort that goes into the preparation of the fiber (harvesting, peeling, beating, soaking, mixing it with the okra, etc) before it even gets to be sifted into paper. I also loved how Kyoko and Daniel talked about the power of the pulp and the water. There was something really cool about almost letting the materials take over in the process. I also loved how everyone embraced the imperfections in the paper making process and the final sheet outcomes; I found the semi-bubbled-up sheets that developed accidental folds really beautiful," – A&A Practice of Art concentrator Emma Mohrmann '24.  

Heyman began his own papermaking journey over 20 years ago. "I was studying Japanese woodblock printmaking in Japan in 2002 and I was able to participate in a two-day paper-making workshop which I found magical," he explained. Heyman studied with the Fujimore family at the Awagami Paper Factory, where Ibe also studied.  “So in a way,” said Heyman, “she is like a cousin in my own paper-making family who I simply hadn't met yet.” Heyman emphasized the collaborative nature of papermaking. “I have found in paper making, like in printmaking, a willingness for artists and artisans to collaborate and become a community,” he said.

Kyoko Ibe and students applaud as Daniel Heyman reveals his freshly formed sheet of paper in the mold

Kyoko Ibe and students applaud Daniel Heyman's result. (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Pushing the boundaries of the tradition, Ibe has developed a distinct method to create the works she is famous for.

Ibe pounds a hunk of pulp with a wooden block

Kyoko Ibe pounds fibers. (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Unlike the traditional method, which she describes as taming the paper’s fibers, Ibe aims to release the power she so admires in fiber. Referring to traditional makers, Ibe said “they shake their mold like this and tell the fiber ‘sleep, sleep, be quiet’ [for it to] be flat, to be easy for the people to use - so this way [they] just keep the power sealed in the paper.”  “But fiber itself has a strong power,” she continued. “I would like to show how to show the power of fiber.” 

“They shake their mold like this and tell the fiber ‘sleep, sleep, be quiet’ [for it to] be flat, to be easy for the people to use - so this way [they] just keep the power sealed in the paper. But fiber itself has a strong power. I would like to show how to show the power of fiber.”

– Visual Artist Kyoko Ibe

Ibe pours a thick black liquid onto mold.

Kyoko Ibe adds a layer of pulp mixed with smoked pine to the paper mold. (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Ibe led students through her special technique, using natural materials to color the paper like ground lapis lazuli or smoked pine, and employing thicker bamboo screens. In sharp contrast to the consistently thin, pale paper produced using the traditional technique, Ibe’s result is full of character, with an organically lumpy texture infused with color. “I love the way she works spontaneously,” said Heyman of her process, “how she is a partner with the fibers and the way she seems to play as she works.” Mohrmann echoed the sentiment, saying "I loved how Kyoko had so much intimacy and respect in regards to the traditional paper-making method, but also had her own modern twist. I liked how she poured the fibers into the mold and let the bamboo make gouges and lines in her sculptural pieces. It especially inspired me how she talked about the traditional way of papermaking as quieting the fibers and how she wanted them to instead be loud in her process."

Thoron described washi as humble and friendly. When she cautioned against touching the paper kites Ibe created for the set of Felon: An American Washi Tale, she said Ibe insisted "No, washi is to touch. It's for you to live in and inhabit and bring to life."

Kyoko Ibe holds a stack of old parchment over several vats of different colored liquid.

Kyoko Ibe talks about the minerals and antique paper she uses in her work. (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

"Washi is ... this beautiful, harmonious material made of natural elements and human hands, human labor, in a process that has evolved and been passed from generation to generation of families of paper makers." - Elise Thoron, Director and Dramaturg of Felon: And American Washi Tale and long-time collaborator with Kyoko Ibe.

Ibe's exhibition, paper-making workshop, and views on art have left a lasting impression on Mohrmann. "I loved her spirit and insistence on not giving up," she said. "She really inspired me as an artist and person. I have begun to make my own paper in a very makeshift way here too and am trying to figure out what materials best convey things I am passionate about."  

Mohrmann is continuing to explore paper-making in her work and tells a Washi tale of her own on the A&A website.

Kyoko Ibe's Work Adorns the Set of Reginald Dwayne Bett’s Felon: An American Washi Tale

"Ruth, paper maker, take these tattered gray sweats, make paper of our bid, a past we won't reject after prison." That line from Reginald Dwayne Bett’s poem “Felon” is at the core of his solo performance Felon: And American Washi Tale.

"Ruth, paper maker, take these tattered gray sweats, make paper of our bid, a past we won't reject after prison." - Reginald Dwayne Betts, from the poem "Felon"

Reginald Dwayne Betts touches paper kites
Reginald Dwayne Betts during rehearsal with "kites" made from "prison paper" (Photo/Jon Sweeney, Lewis Center for the Arts)

Paper is what drew director and dramaturg Elise Thoron to develop and direct the project.  “Washi connected us,” she said. Thoron had already been working with paper artist Kyoko Ibe for several years to bring Japanese washi tales to the stage.  When Betts showed her photos of his work with Ruth Lignen (the “Ruth” in his Felon poem) to make “prison paper” from the clothes, towels, and bedding of his fellow inmates, Thoron saw the potential for an American washi tale.  “That’s our set,” she recalls saying. “It’s paper.”

The set is a collaboration created by Ibe from Lignen’s "prison paper."  Correspondence with inmates in which Betts advocates for their freedom accompanied Lignen’s paper to Ibe’s studio in a small Japanese artists’ village.  From this, Ibe created an installation called A Thousand Kites made of square pieces of prison paper layered with fragments of inmate correspondence along with fragments of 19th-century land rights documents from a Japanese village that no longer exists.   Thoron refers to the set as “waterfalls of paper.”

A key objective behind Betts’ “Felon: An American Washi Tale” is to communicate how prison touches all of us.  Thoron points out that Ibe’s approach to papermaking reinforces this idea, “I think one of the things I like about Kyoko's set and work is that it's fragments. It's bringing all our lives together,” she said.  In 2023, the series of events surrounding Betts’ washi tale had this effect on the Princeton community. “We reached almost a thousand members of our communities, on campus and off,” said Cox,  “with an extremely important story told by a brilliant artist and crafted by some wonderful theater makers and visual artist Kyoko Ibe.”

“I think one of the things I like about Kyoko's set and work is that it's fragments. It's bringing all our lives together.” – Director and Dramaturg Elise Thoron