Issue 18.2: April/May 2015

Pulp Nonfiction

In a remote corner of Hawai`i Island fiber artist Susan O'Malley transforms plants into paper
Story by Alan McNarie. Photos by Josh McCullough.

In Susan O’Malley’s half-finished house on the dry southern slopes of Mauna Loa sits a small sculpture: A few pieces of wire have been skillfully twisted to suggest three graceful young women holding hands as they dance.

What really brings the piece alive are the flowing dresses the women wear—dresses that have their origin in a primordial ooze that fills white plastic buckets lined up along the path outside. The buckets are filled with chunks of banana stalks that are “retting”: Water and bacteria are breaking down their soft parts, leaving behind plant fiber. It’s one of the first steps in the process of transforming vegetation into fine art.

Striding along the path is the slender, silver-haired woman responsible for the fine-art part of that transformation. She stops and peers into one of the buckets as she observes, “You want something that’s the consistency of cream of mushroom soup.” After inspecting all of the buckets, O’Malley heads to a pot on a big outdoor stove and fishes out a wad of banana fiber that’s been cooked with washing soda to get rid of any non-fibrous plant material. This she rinses and plops into a sturdy commercial-grade blender with more water. But she’s not ready to hit the “on” button just yet. O’Malley has always inte-grated her other passions—Hawai‘i Island and living sustainably in nature—into every dimension of her art. And so she lives off the grid in a kīpuka, a patch of forest set among jumbled ‘a‘ā lava in Ocean View, the most remote community on the island. To power her blender, she must go back to her house to turn on the generator. When she returns, she runs the blender on its smoothie setting, then transfers the resulting slurry of pulp to plastic tubs and mixes it with more water. As she does so, she notes that banana is one of her favorite materials to work with. “If you don’t bleach it,” she says, “banana has these little black flecks in it that I just love. Texture, texture, texture!”

O’Malley knows all about texture. She’s been winning awards for her art since 1995, when a piece called “Infrastructure” —a hollow cylinder constructed of wire and dried paper pulp with shredded money flowing out of its windows—picked up an honorable mention at Hilo’s annual Trash Art Show. Now a veteran papermaker and respected artist with a growing inter-national reputation, she’s had six solo exhibitions of her art since 1996 and has placed numerous pieces in juried gallery shows in Hawai‘i, Europe and on the American Mainland.

For most of her art career, she was also a grade-school teacher in Hawai‘i Island schools, introducing generations of first graders to reading, writing, arithmetic and eleven other classroom subjects—and, she says, “always integrating art in all of them.” It was when she retired to step into a full-time career as an artist, she says, that “I decided I wanted to focus on one thing,” and concentrated on paper. The same day she retired, she was on a plane to an arts residency in her native Minnesota, where she had “room and board and a beautiful studio” in which she made paper for a month. Since then she’s alternated between other art residencies and her lot in Ocean View, where she lived for months in her studio shed before moving into her house. In addition to creating her own artwork, she continues to teach papermaking to people of all ages. One of her treasured mementos is a booklet she produced in which she let first-grade students describe in their own written words why they liked to make paper. The one-page essays ranged from a boy’s gleeful, “I like the pulp because it is soggy, because I have to put my hands in it,” to a girl’s, “I love making paper because we have colors—like red, blue, purple and banana!”

O'Malley crafts her paper from all manner of plants, including shell ginger (at left). The sheets drying in the sun (at right) are made from hau, banana, ginger and bleached banana with strands of ginger.

Paper gets its name from papyrus, a reed that ancient Egyptians would pound into flat sheets that they could write upon. But true papermaking got its start in China in the second or third century BCE. A set of ancient Chinese woodcuts shows a papermaking process that’s virtually identical to the one O’Malley uses today, except that where O’Malley uses a blender, the ancient Chinese pounded the raw fiber into pulp using wooden mallets. (If O’Malley needs to soften up some really tough fibers, she might run over them repeatedly with her car.)

It’s believed that the earliest paper was made from a blend of mulberry (the same plant Hawaiians use to make kapa, or bark cloth), hemp and old rags. O’Malley makes the ancient practice fresh and distinctive by harvesting fiber from unusual Hawai‘i Island plants. When she gathers, she notes, “I say a prayer to [Hawaiian gods] Kāne, Kū and Lono, and I try to take no more than I need.” She has samples of dozens of types of paper, each made from a different plant or blend of plants. Some are trans-lucent, almost golden sheets made from iris leaves; there are textured beige papers made from coconut fronds; there’s even a deep chocolate-brown sheet made from fungus. She colors some sheets with natural dyes such as indigo, which grows along Hawai‘i Island roadsides and produces rich blue tones. A friend in Minnesota sends her black walnut hulls, which can be used to produce various brown and pinkish-brown tones. She came back from a recent residency in the Italian town of Assisi with several large insect galls: plant growths caused by nesting insects, which have been used to create dyes and ink since ancient times. To make the paper “bite”—absorb the dyes—she might pre-treat the fiber with other natural substances known as mordants: things like milk, vinegar, salt and alum.

Commercial paper has had all the woodiness processed out of it, but there’s no flat white anonymity to O’Malley’s paper. Touch it and you feel fiber, texture, bits of plant. It’s paper’s three-dimensionality that has kept the medium interesting for her. “There’s no end to what you can explore after you get off of that rigid 2-D idea,” she says. “Let it dry over a ball or dry over a leaf or dry over a branch. Don’t feel restrained by that flat shape that it comes in originally. You can braid it or tear it or web it or sew it!” O’Malley has produced paper forms that are at once natural and abstract, wild and wildly imaginative. Ocean View’s Coffee Grinds Café, which is located a couple of miles downhill from her house, has a whole wall devoted to her works.

Some of her experiments have been highly complex, deliberately pushing limits. During the Minnesota residency she covered a single sheet of paper with nine hundred layers of dye brewed from black walnut hulls that she’d gathered by “following the squirrels” in the Minnesota woods. O’Malley wrote of the work that she “wanted to see just how dark and colorfast I could make a strong piece of handmade paper using walnut dye.” Her fellow artists-in-residence dubbed the sheet “Black Beauty.” Back in Hawai‘i, O’Malley married Black Beauty to another work, this one nicknamed “Pearl Jam.” The latter was designed to evoke valleys of clouds; it featured hand-beaten fiber cast onto a grid-work of stretched hemp threads and, to add texture and mystery, tiny iridescent freshwater pearls O’Malley had captured from a broken necklace. She named the combined piece “Kēōkea” after a valley in South Kona that is often bedecked with clouds. A recent abstract piece called “Poliahu,” after the snow goddess of Mauna Kea, used bleached white paper pulp and wavy wires to suggest the movement of snowdrifts. Some of her pieces celebrate the curly edges that in commercial paper are trimmed off. In Assisi, doing a winter residency in a place where it was “too cold to dip my hands in water,” O’Malley changed her emphasis from making paper to sculpting paper. She packed over six hundred pieces of paper she’d been saving, took them to Italy and used them to create two major wall hangings.

O’Malley’s lifestyle exhibits this same blend of primitive and sophisticated, sustainable and imaginative. Much of her house—she thinks it will take another five years to complete—is built from recycled materials. The elegant cabinetry and stone counters of her kitchen and bathroom came from Habitat for Humanity’s recycled materials store in Kona. The lighting is solar-powered; she uses the generator mainly for her blender. She does her sewing on an antique Necchi treadle sewing machine that she bought on Craigslist. The open, airy structure will eventually have shoji screens—very likely made from O’Malley’s own paper. But she also wants to preserve her views of the distant ocean and her beloved kīpuka of land, which is an oasis of native vegetation, including ‘ōhi‘ā, ‘a‘ali‘i, māmane and alahe‘e. There is texture everywhere on this land.

“I’m trying to integrate the aesthetic of what I love with how I live,” she says. “How do you meld the two and keep your desire to live outside in nature and enjoy the beauty of nature and still be warm and dry? Trying to have the principles of nature in my own life—what a challenge. What an exciting challenge!” O’Malley’s whole life, in a sense, is much like the paper she creates: natural, untrimmed and ready for beautiful things to be written upon it. HH

Story by Alan McNarie. Photos by Josh McCullough