A rare and innovative merging of the very old with the very new sums up the work of artist Jimin Lee, who creates digital prints on papers made by 500-year-old techniques and who, during her recent six month sabbatical, spent residencies in Japan, Korea and Montreal, studying in-depth the ancient techniques, as well as new experiments in handmade printing papers. The initial focus of her research odyssey was two weeks spent in residence at the Awagami paper factory, where papers of kozo—mulberry pulp—are still made by hand on large-scale wooden frames, vats and molds. "At Awagami paper factory, I gave lectures about how I use their handmade paper for digital printing. That was one of the main reasons why I was there. I even got to lecture in Japanese," she recalls with a laugh. "I showed them what I do, how I use their paper. In the audience were the actual people who had developed the paper, as well as many specialized crafts people."
Lee was impressed that her talk was so heavily attended, especially since her residency in Japan revealed that the artists using washi (handmade Japanese papers) are far fewer than in the past. "Many printmakers and photographers are using Western-made paper now."
While at Awagami, " I went through all the steps—they taught me how to make the paper, and I even made my own paper, using pure, natural mulberry pulp. It was such hard work," she sighs, "and the process was very complicated. The paper I made was huge," she stretches out her arms," probably about 30 by 40 inches." The resulting handmade papers Lee sent back to Santa Cruz for future use.
Journey to the East
For the past decade Lee's creative focus has been on contemporary photographic printmaking processes, and her own hybrid technique integrating photo intaglio with traditional etching processes. It was her work in digital printing combined with photo etching on handmade kozo papers—which she calls digital chine collé—that motivated her research trip to Asia. In her process, Lee first prints a digital image onto the specially coated kozo paper, and in turn that digital image is printed a second time from a hand-inked etching plate. The resulting "double" image has an antique quality —haunting and mysterious—which is also highly sophisticated.
Calling her residency at the renowned paper works "a lifetime experience," Lee maximized her time in Awagami by forming strong networks with the staff. "They even asked me to curate a show—using their papers—in their Tokyo gallery." Another result of her tenure at Awagami was being asked to act as consultant for a proposed printmaking studio to be built adjacent the plant. "I expanded my knowledge and made contact with the university programs in printmaking. After much practice, very slowly I got better at it, and made the paper a bit faster. I ended up producing 150 sheets to bring back and use here in my digital printing work." Other parts of her research residency included testing the paper and its qualities. "I used digital jpegs sent to the plant by other artists all over the world. There were so many images I worked with—it was incredible, and quite inspiring."
Mulberry—the traditional pulp used in making these resilient papers—is becoming increasingly rare. "Now it must be imported from Thailand." So in Japan they are working on new materials, and on silicone coatings, which can alter and enhance the characteristics of printing. "There is an important adjustment going on in this area right now between tradition and the need to innovate," she observed. "What I'm really interested in is the coating required on paper used for digital printing." For digital printing, Lee insists, "the paper is incredibly important. It is like human skin, it must be wearing perfect makeup. The best coating for papers is still in development."
Handmade paper for digital technology
Papermaking arose in China and then traveled to Korea, Lee explains, before it flourished in Japan. While in Asia Lee also made a point of visiting two important sites of paper making in Korea. One of these—Wonju—is celebrated for colored papers, and has been an important center of papermaking for over 1000 years. At another site, Jonju, Lee observed papermaking innovations to eliminate some of the arduous physical labor. "Lots of repetitive arm movements," she dramatizes, pumping her arms and rolling her eyes. " In Jonju they developed a machine to collect the fibers onto the screens—it helps them be able to make more paper each day, and yet it is still able to be considered handmade."
"My usual printmaking process is digital chine collé—I combine digital images with photo etchings of the same image. This is a unique wiping and inking technique," she notes, "a new process in color etching. It only needs a few plates, rather than one for each color. The effect is more diffused, it softens the image, so that it's like a painting.....but not quite." After her residency in Japan, followed by a longer stay in her native Korea, Lee made her final research stop in Montreal. "I made good connections for future exhibitions of my work, and gave a lecture on my printmaking techniques at Concordia University."
Lee admits that she loved Montreal. "Great food and great energy. But it's such cold weather. It snowed while I was there—twice!"