The deckle edge
Paper-wasp nests among what inspires Julia Rabin
WENDELL (November 17, 2013) — Many of Wendell artist Julia Rabin's pieces make use of the deckle-edge ends of paper that she saves from the Easthampton book bindery where she works. Recorder/Trish Crapo
WENDELL (November 17, 2013) — The range of mediums Wendell artist Julia Rabin works in can be seen even in just this one flat-file drawer where photographs, ink drawings, acrylic paintings and pages made from paper wasp nests are jumbled together. Recorder/Trish Crapo
WENDELL (November 17, 2013) — Wendell artist Julia Rabin used natural materials, such as dried leaves, a bird's nest and a wishbone, as well as man-made items such as white buttons, beads, and a key to create this mirror assemblage that has the quiet feel of an altar. Recorder/Trish Crapo
WENDELL (November 17, 2013) — A detail from one of Wendell artist Julia Rabin's pieces shows deckle-edged white paper protruding from layers of paper wasp nest that Rabin has peeled apart and glued to thin tissue. Color variations in the nest are the result of the different woods that paper wasps eat, Rabin said. Recorder/Trish Crapo
WENDELL (November 17, 2013) — Wendell artist Julia Rabin carefully peels apart the layers of a paper wasp nest. Beyond is a proto-type of a work that Rabin hopes to produce as a large wall-sized piece. Recorder/Trish Crapo
WENDELL (November 17, 2013) — Wendell artist Julia Rabin fashioned this tiny "coffin" of wood to hold small flat pebbles she's collected over the years. Recorder/Trish Crapo
WENDELL (November 17, 2013) — One of Wendell artist Julia Rabin's books made from paper wasp nests stands within a section of intact nest. Rabin peels apart the layers of the nest, then glues them to thin tissue to create sheets of paper. Recorder/Trish Crapo
WENDELL (November 17, 2013) — A collection of handbound books made by Wendell artist Julia Rabin includes a variety of handsewn bindings . Recorder/Trish Crapo
WENDELL (November 17, 2013) — Julia Rabin's home studio in the woods of Wendell holds many found treasures, such as the paperwasp nests that she carefully peels apart and uses in her art. Recorder/Trish Crapo
Layers of paper wasp nests are thin and fragile and Wendell artist Julia Rabin has to work carefully to peel and separate them from the irregular sphere. Later, she’ll glue the thin sheets to equally thin tissue to create pages for hand-bound books or to use in collage.
Rabin points out the striations of gray, white and brown that swirl through the delicate curl of nest she holds in her hand.
“Wasps eat wood and then they spit out these little lines,” Rabin explains.
The color variations are the result of different wasps eating different woods, Rabin says, and the swirling patterns are created as the wasps circle the growing nest, spreading their line of pulp, building from the core out.
“That’s what makes the nest, eventually. They go around and around and they build their comb in the middle,” Rabin says.
Paper wasp combs are dry, not waxy like the combs of honeybees, and are used for laying eggs and hatching the next brood. Each season, the wasps abandon their nests, which is great news for Rabin.
“I’m not taking anything I’m not supposed to take,” she said, a point that is clearly important to her.
Though their stings can be painful, even fatal to those allergic to their venom, paper wasps are a beneficial presence, pollinating flowering crops and feeding on the larvae of other insects that are considered pests. And the wasp’s process of mixing masticated wood with saliva to form a wet pulp that, when spread thin, dries into sheets of paper may have inspired observant Chinese during the Han Dynasty to invent a similar process, making wasps the first papermakers.
Rabin’s studio in the woods of Wendell holds many paper wasp nests she has collected herself and some that people have brought to her. At the suggestion that she has so many, she might not need the one down in the barn at my home in Leyden, she smiles and says, “You know, you never have enough.”
Rabin came to Wendell 15 years ago — before that she lived for about the same number of years in Warwick, proof of her preference for out-of-the-way places. She serves on the art committee for the Wendell Free Library, helping to curate shows in the Herrick Meeting Room Art Gallery.
Now through the second week of January, Rabin and the other members of the art committee — Helen Haddad, Annie Souza, Sylvia Weatherby, Phyllis Lawrence and Richard Baldwin — are exhibiting in a group show that includes a variety of work in many media. Rabin’s work in the show includes three acrylic paintings and some small sculpture and two-dimensional collages.
Rabin has long worked in more than one medium. During college in the 1980s, she concentrated on photography at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. But, after graduating, she switched to ceramics, which she studied at the Massachusetts College of Art.
“I dropped photography because it wasn’t intimate enough for me,” Rabin said. “I need the tactile sensation of working a thing and making a thing.”
This need is evidenced in her myriad collages and assemblages made primarily from found natural objects: dry leaves and bones, tangles of sticks, sea urchins, stones that have been rounded and smoothed by water. And the need seems to go both ways: the wealth of shapes and textures in her pieces ask to be touched.
The man-made objects Rabin chooses also have a found, cast-off feel: pearly white shirt and dress buttons, old keys, round, black Victorian shoe buttons, photographic tin-types she bought at a yard sale. Rabin works intuitively, grouping materials that “seem to fit together visually to me.”
“I’m really interested in black and white,” Rabin said. “Things that are of the earth. Things I find. I’m not really very interested in manipulation. I never manipulate my photographs. I like the process of honing in, thinking about how something’s going to hang together as a thing of its own or as a group of things.”
Other materials Rabin likes to use are salvaged scraps of paper she brings home from work at the Praxis Bindery in Easthampton, where she assists bookbinder Peter Geraty in book repair and conservation, and in the creation of limited-edition fine art books. No regular office paper, the scraps from Praxis come from beautiful, handmade papers from mills, such as Cave Paper in Minneapolis, that specialize in papers for artists and fine-art book binderies.
“Handmade paper has a deckle edge to it,” Rabin said, referring to the soft feathering created when paper slurry seeps under the deckle, the frame that’s used to shape a sheet of paper as wet slurry is lifted on a screen from out of a vat of water. In contrast, most paper we use every day has been made in long rolls by machines and has a straight, precise edge.
“I am just fascinated by the deckle edge,” Rabin continued, showing me a photograph she took of a stack of handmade paper at Praxis Bindery, its deckle edges resting one atop the other in irregular waves that almost read as rolling hills in a snowy landscape.
“I like the lines, I like the space in between the lines, in between the papers, the fact that it’s not straight, exactly …I really like the light and shade of all that. I could keep myself busy there for a long, long time.”
One of Rabin’s collages features thin strips of white, deckle-edged paper standing on end so that they protrude in a long line from a ground of swirling gray and brown paper-wasp-nest patterns. There’s something geological about the piece; it seems to refer to something larger than itself, as if it were a model of a stone ridge seen from above. And it is, in fact, a model: Rabin thinks of it as a prototype for a full wall-sized piece she will create someday.
But in the meantime, Rabin works on smaller things, some as tiny as the little rock coffin she made of wood to hold thin, smooth rocks the size of coins. She shapes pinch pots of porcelain or of the common, “not good” clay she dug near the banks of the Sawmill River, bisque-firing them or raku firing them, sometimes throwing a bit of motor oil into the kiln to see what colors it will make, then using the pots to hold a bird’s nest or a stone or some tufts of dried grass. She paints pocket-sized stones with intricate lines; she wraps large, ovate ones in Kitikata paper, a Japanese tissue used for mending old books, or in material from the paper-wasp nests.
The white-wrapped stone is an enigma. The delicate color and soft surface of the paper makes it seem hollow and light, an empty form. But the shape and size signal weight: a stone you might pick up along the Green River and use as a doorstop.
Cabinets of curiosity
One of Rabin’s inspirations has long been the collections stored in the drawers at the Amherst College Museum of Natural Science. “You can still pull out drawers there and there will be eggs and things. Butterflies, flowers,” Rabin said.
A show Rabin had in the exhibit case at the Wendell Free Library this summer was modeled after “cabinets of curiosity,” collections of natural objects that were popular during Victorian times. And her studio resembles one, too. Amid the paper wasp nests and river stones is a wooden cabinet of small drawers that hold supplies, such as colored linen thread for making hand-sewn books; a wooden bowl holding a large white ostrich egg; a bobble-head moose.
“And here’s a great beaver head,” Rabin says, lifting the two parts of a skull and re-assembling them at the jaw. “Look at those teeth!”
The teeth are rectangular, long and stained brown, like bad tobacco or tea stains. They don’t necessarily conform to everyone’s idea of beauty. But Rabin’s sense of beauty goes beyond common notions of what’s pretty.
Rabin brings an exploratory vision and an aesthetic grounding in the natural world to whatever she does. One of her jobs at Praxis Bindery is to create paste-paper covers for fine-art books. Decorative paste papers are created by painting on the surface of paper with bookbinder’s glue and pigments, and have a century’s long tradition within bookbinding. Rather than work in the repeating swirls and patterns recognizable of many paste papers, Rabin paints in a more freehand style.
For the covers of a limited edition of the work of photographer and storm-chaser Mitch Dobrowner, Rabin used watercolor on handmade paper to invoke abstract compositions that complement Dobrowner’s gorgeous palladium prints. Rabin’s paintings are simple and mysterious and the texture of the paper gives them surprising depth; the “clouds” look as if they’re roiling toward you.
A book like Dobrowner’s takes months and months to produce, Rabin said. For the limited edition of 50 books, Rabin painted 120 paste papers, “because you always lose some.” The large, 16 x 20-inch finished book comes inside a brown, silk-wrapped box Geraty designed to unfold from the sides, providing a protective surface on which to open and view the book.
Rabin’s experience with painting began after college, when she ran a western Massachusetts-based business as a decorative painter and conservationist of architectural paint surfaces. After eight years, she took a job as a commercial painter at a “scenic studio” in Boston, creating backdrops and kiosks for corporate theater and plays and huge sets for theater productions at Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
“We did some great things; we did a ghost ship, we did ‘The Lion King,’ ‘The Little Mermaid.’ They’d be 60 feet by 30 feet — big things.”
The giant forms for Disney were sculpted out of Styrofoam, Rabin said, then sprayed with polyurethane before her crew painted them.
“We’d be mixing 50 gallons at a time,” Rabin said. She described the work as, “Fast, gotta look good from 30 feet. It was a gas!”
But within two years, even though she wore a facemask, Rabin developed asthma and had to quit the job.
“I went in leading crews and when I went out, I couldn’t take directions,” Rabin said. Rabin was so ill that she was out of work for a couple of years before she saw the ad for the job at Praxis Bindery.
This summer, Rabin tried her hand at large-scale painting again for the first time in 15 years when she agreed to create a 8-by-32 foot mural on the fence behind the play yard at the Wendell Free Library.
Rabin leads my car down the long dirt driveway, away from her unusual round house in the quiet of the Wendell woods and over to the library to have a look at the mural. Especially on this drab November day, the mural’s colors seem bright and pure, close to the color they’d be right out of the can. Unlike the muted natural tones I’ve come to think of as Rabin’s palette, the simple landscape of the mural seems informed by a child’s sense of color, fitting for a play yard. The sun is yellow, the sky blue, the hills are a mottled blend of dark and dazzling greens. The shapes, too, are simplified and bold. It’s such a departure from what I’ve just seen of Rabin’s work that it seems at first glance not to have been created by the same person.
But Rabin sees a thread in all of her work.
“If there’s any kind of theme it’s that I’m interested in line,” Rabin says. And I see, then, the rolling hills of the deckle-edged paper magnified in the rolling hills of the mural.
“And I’m interested in getting people to notice the little details — what’s on the forest floor,” Rabin continues. “I’m not a political person, but I guess I want to bring awareness of the environment through other means. I love beautiful things,” she adds, looking toward the trees behind the library, “And there are a lot of beautiful things out there.”
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She can be reached at email@example.com.