8 Questions for a Traveling Paper Maker

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Photo by Laurie Bruschera

Jillian Bruschera is an interdisciplinary artist and the art-activist behind the Mobile Mill, a mobile papermaking studio that has allowed her to teach papermaking techniques at schools, in alleys, on the street, and at the beach.

Originally conceived as an entire vehicle, the Mobile Mill has evolved since Bruschera first conceived of the idea three years ago. With the money earned through a partially funded IndieGoGo campaign, Bruschera was able to create a push cart and truck set-up, designed for easy roll-out and with travel storage in mind. Then, Bruschera made her portable studio even smaller with the suitcase-sized Papermaker’s Pack in order to teach abroad. With these two mobile kits for making paper, Bruschera has been able to teach thousands of classes on two continents.

The classes are casual and public. Students come by invitation or curious happenstance. Bruschera demonstrates the techniques for Western style mould-and-deckle paper creation and then lets students use her equipment and material to make paper of their own. Because of the slow drying time for paper, students make their paper, then take the finished paper of someone from a previous class.

Photo by Jillian Bruschera

I reached out to Bruschera to learn more about her work on the Mobile Mill, teaching her craft, the democratization of art, and what it takes to make an artist’s studio road worthy.

Why did you come up with the idea of creating a mobile papermaking studio?
It started as a need. In my case, the idea to build a mobile papermaking studio came to me after two years of intensive work within the Paper Studio at The Center for Book and Paper Arts in Chicago, Illinois, as a graduate student and adjunct faculty member in the Interdisciplinary Arts Department at Columbia College Chicago. While I would leave a program exposed to a high level of innovation in the paper arts, I recognized early on that I would eventually lose access to the school’s top-notch book arts facilities once I graduated. Part of the idea for The Mobile Mill came from this need to fill a future lack of studio space. Knowing I’d be without the tools to carry on conducting my papermaking, I figured I ought to make my own. The development of a portable paper studio became my thesis work. It was built so I could further my work as a studio artist, an activist, and a teacher.

As an interdisciplinary artist, socially engaged art is one vein of my practice. The Mobile Mill considers working with people to be a form of art. For me, The Mobile Mill is about practicing art outside of the studio; it’s a way to share what I know and what I have in terms of rare tools/equipment; it’s a counterbalance to my insular making-practice; and it’s not necessarily concerned with the art market or the production of market-valued art objects for that matter.

What is a typical lesson at The Mobile Mill like? Where are the majority of these classes held?
While the settings vary, the set up for a pop-up workshop remains the same: arriving onsite, I unpack tools and materials, I build a temporary studio, and I begin to make paper. My students are strangers who arrive to this mobile classroom unannounced. Some have been invited; others stumble upon the scene, lured in by curiosity. As they draw near to the action, a conversation begins — they want to know what I am doing. I demonstrate how to make paper, and then I offer my tools to those who wish to try using them.

My demonstrations in papermaking are a way to actively engage in a variety of communities and dialogues. It does not matter that I know, or do not know, my students — the process and its voluntary participation always leads to personal introductions and positive group discussion.

The Mobile Mill can work with anyone, anywhere. I have hand made paper with the public in art museums big and small, in school classrooms, community gardens, art galleries, festivals and markets, on children’s playgrounds, sandy beaches, city sidewalks and streets, in cold rainy weather and under hot summer sun. Take a look at what we’ve done and where we’ve been this last year.

How does the “make it and take it” model of the class work? How do students react to the idea that their art goes to someone else (or that they’re taking someone else’s work)?
Becoming involved with The Mobile Mill means becoming part of a workflow that results in community-generated paper artworks. In many cases, my workshop participants do not actually take home the paper they make with me. Instead I tend to operate on a pay-it-forward system wherein participants receive a sheet of handmade paper made by someone at a previous MM workshop in exchange for their own papermaking efforts. In this process, we challenge authorship, ownership, and the preciousness of the art object.

Being part of this exchange process means donating individual efforts to relative strangers in the larger project work-flow. It’s a difficult pill to swallow, especially for younger students, but it’s an important part of my teaching philosophy. I think it’s important to recognize that we as individuals are part of a larger body. Hand papermaking is very much a communal making experience. There is a ton of physical labor involved in the process – it really is art ‘work’. That said the ‘work’ part progresses quite quickly when everyone participates. Here is a relevant blog post I did on ‘pay-it-forward’ papermaking.

Photo by Jillian Bruschera

What is it about paper that attracts you to it as a medium?
Tactile materiality and versatility. I am interested in physically handling materials as a means of exploring my conceptual ideas. Because natural and manufactured fibers for papermaking can be found all over the world and pulp can be produced in a variety of ways, there are countless methods for making paper and seemingly limitless means of applying it as a medium.

Recycling is a very important aspect of my art-making. I arrive on site and make paper directly from my surroundings – using found food, fabric, and paper waste scraps as art material. I prefer to make paper out of waste material because I’m a big believer in ‘waste-not-want-not’. As an artist, preferring to work with recyclables has always been my attitude, especially as I am enmeshed in a particularly wasteful capitalist environment here in America. As a teacher, I encourage creative re-use and look to inspire environmental-mindfulness in my students.

What is it like teaching in classrooms vs. in public spaces?
The primary question I asked when developing The Mobile Mill was ‘what happens when you move the studio outside of the studio?’ As a moveable space, The Mobile Mill challenges the idea of the traditional paper studio, which historically throughout the world generally exists/existed as a brick-and-mortar location and serves/served as a place for production. In this way, the idea of portable machinery radicalizes a traditional craft.

Photo by Tricia Van Eck of 6018North Gallery in Chicago

Placing a mobile studio in a visible landscape allows a public to engage in this little-known art form and consider it in relationship to everyday materials that can be transformed into handmade paper. As well, by taking the craft outside of the traditionally static studio space, this project democratizes the papermaking experience by giving local shared-access to the expensive, and even rare, equipment required to make paper.

I am also very interested in the creation of spontaneous community that often takes place during pop-up art-making events in public spaces. The creation of physical sociality is a primary objective of The Mobile Mill project.

The evolution of the Mobile Mill seems to be to make the paper studio smaller and more mobile with each iteration. How has that affected your idea of what the studio needs in order to function?
The mobile paper studio formats stem from practical need, and throughout the evolution of this work, I’m consistently reminding myself that less is more.

I created the Papermaker’s Pack because I needed to take my studio practice abroad, and shipping a truck-studio wasn’t a logical answer. In short, downsizing has enabled me access to places that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to drive a car to. In hand-carrying my studio to my working-location, I am in essence relying only on my human body to transport and operate the studio. I can walk, bike, ride public transportation, and fly with a suitcase — making my destinations fairly limitless.

Photo by Jillian Bruschera

Furthermore, the push-cart/truck version of the work is cost-prohibitive for myself as operator and for persons without a budget for visiting artists. As a transportable space able to interact between edges, the idea of the Papermaker’s Pack is to travel lighter in hopes of reaching further beyond studio walls. Carried by hand, this miniature, self-contained studio democratizes the papermaking experience by expanding my ability to offer free, public programming to those communities who wish to see the work but are under-resourced.

In terms of production, the difference in downsizing is the size of the handmade papers that we’re able to produce in a workshop — smaller tools yield smaller papers — but I don’t see this as a negative limitation. The Mobile Mill is most certainly an environment dedicated to the making of objects — in this case, sheets of handmade paper — but it’s less about the object and more about the people that are making the paper. This sort of process-based, creative pedagogy poses a direct challenge to traditional hierarchies existing in academia and in the art world, moving away from authoritarian models of education and off of the gallery walls.

Would you have any recommendations for other artists or craftsmen who are looking to create their own mobile studios or classrooms?
Work with what you’ve got, and say yes to all the help you can get.

Are there any plans for future iterations of The Mobile Mill?
Yes, of course… stay tuned.

Jillian Bruschera documents her travels and updates to The Mobile Mill on her blog, Facebook, and Instagram. The Mobile Mill will hit the road again in January 2016, touring the southeast region of the United States. If you are in the FL, NC, SC, AL, GA, LA areas and are interested in getting in touch, you can contact Jillian at themobilemill@gmail.com.

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A typical day for Lisa includes: getting up to see the sunrise, bicycling, interning at Make:, reading and writing short stories, and listening to audiobooks and podcasts for hours while working on projects or chores.

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