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The medium really is the message in this exhibition at MOWA’s downtown Milwaukee gallery at Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel. Handmade Paper Stories highlights four fiber artists who use paper in a way that goes beyond being a medium for art to become the art itself. Hannah O’Hare Bennett, Mary Hark, Henry Obeng, and Maria Amalia Wood are all affiliated with the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Their work is remarkable in both its depth and simplicity.
Paper is often only the substrate for another medium, such as drawing, painting, and printmaking. Even in origami or paper cutting, where no additional element is added, the paper itself is still not the art as much as the cuts or folds that transform a single sheet into a sculpture. Paper itself becomes art when a sheet alone is enough to satisfy both the maker and the viewer, when nothing needs to be added or subtracted from the matrix of cellulose fiber. Oftentimes, one can see and feel the interlocking fibers and recognize the constituent material that forms a sheet.
While not so well known as other artistic forms like painting or sculpture, contemporary handmade paper is in its fifth decade in the United States. The International Association of Hand Papermakers and Paper Artists (IAPMA) was founded in 1986 and focuses on the role of paper as art form and contemporary artistic medium.
The exceptional, beautiful works in the exhibition offer unique points of connection and entry for audiences. For Anwar Floyd-Pruitt, the exhibition’s curator, there is an especially arresting quality to Mary Hark’s single sheets displayed in piles or stacks. Their soft sheen and crisp edges remind him of the hardened caramelized sugar layer of crème brulée: “I just want to snap off an edge of her paper and put it my mouth to see if it melts on my tongue.”
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