Words Stephanie Donaldson
Photographs Michael Bodiam
As a child, she was fascinated by dust in the corners of rooms. Then at art school, she wasn’t so much interested in her artwork as the material she was making it on. Jane Ponsford has found her calling as a papermaker for whom pulp is precious. Paper, she says, is never a neutral surface…
There’s an air of quiet calm about Jane Ponsford that is extraordinary given that I am two hours late for our interview, courtesy of rail disruption. ‘Oh, I so rarely get time do nothing,’ she tells me. ‘I bought a book and have been sitting here reading.’ A similar air of quiet calm suff uses her work. It’s sculptural, delicate, textural and largely monochromatic, although she has recently begun venturing into colour. Her making process involves walking, collecting, arranging and papermaking, sometimes in the open air and sometimes in her studio or other spaces.
How do you define what you do?
On my website I call myself an artist and papermaker, but that’s to give a shorthand so that people understand the sort of thing I do, but I’ve never really worked out whether I am a papermaker or an artist – and I’m not sure the distinction is helpful. Is my work useful? I don’t know. Does it have utility? Well, you could write on it, so possibly I am a maker, but on the art side of craft. I do occasionally write on it but then I find myself rubbing what I’ve written into the surface.
‘I had a compulsion to make something where form and the object was the focus. It’s the “thinginess of stuff ”. It’s a vital substance’
As a child I was fascinated by dust in corners – its texture and softness, although I think that my early interest in material with a tactile element went into hiding for a while – I would draw obsessively, very accurately and very realistically. I didn’t like ‘modern art’, I liked my art to be representational. Then I went off to art college and found all these wonderful surfaces to work on and became so much more interested in them than the piece of artwork I was making. It was the material itself rather than its use as a vehicle, and it came to a point where I didn’t want to put paint on a canvas and I didn’t want to make a mark on a piece of paper because the canvas or the paper became the thing. I started soaking into it, tearing canvas, or collaging paper, so although I wasn’t yet a paper maker, its beginnings were there. I had a compulsion to make something where substance, form and the object was the focus, whereas when I was younger the paper was almost irrelevant, it was what I put on it that mattered. I’m not sure I can put it into words – it’s the ‘thinginess of stuff ’. It’s a vital substance. Occasionally I use other materials but I use them in the same sort of way. Paper is a material full of meaning, it has always been used as something to communicate with; it’s never a neutral surface – it is something that absorbs the essence.
What is your papermaking process?
Papermaking skills were brought over to Europe from the East – in Japan and China paper is made from the inner bark or fibres from plants and requires a great deal of preparation, scraping off the outer bark and hand-beating with mallets. European papermakers adapted the methods and materials, using linen or cotton rags, and developed a machine called a Hollander beater. This can be any size – my Hollander beater is oval and about the size of a hip bath – it’s got a motor and paddle that beats the torn or cut fabric in water until all the fibres are released and it becomes a slurry. I use this European style of papermaking because I find it really satisfying to take textiles, tear them up, pulp them and turn them into something else – a sort of recycling before recycling became the norm. My most useful supply of rags has been ripped bed sheets, but these days I find that even 100 per cent cotton has a coating, so it can be quite difficult to source. Fortunately my work isn’t huge so I don’t need vast amounts. Turning rags into paper depends on the fabric, how tough it is and how it responds. I enjoy the process. I start with a pile of fabric and spend a day cutting it into bits and ripping it up, then I will spend a day beating it and then a day paper making. It’s time consuming but it’s all part of the project. It’s a bit like walking, it calms one down and sets the tempo of the project – it’s a very important part of it all.
What other elements make up a work?
Shadows, edges and light are important. Light came first and moved me into my interest in materials. Until recently I worked mainly with white and my first foray into adding materials in my papermaking was with chalk and although it didn’t add colour, the process of working the chalk into the paper did lend it a nearly invisible colour. Chalk gives paper a matt surface – historically it was added – especially to notepaper – because it helps form a nice smooth surface. But I wanted to see how much I could add and for it still to be paper. Beyond a certain point it would no longer bond, it just fell apart. This piece, Chalk Circlet is half way between paper and chalk and is made up of mineralised shards of cast paper. Traditionally, when you make a sheet of paper you have a big vat of pulp, and a mould and deckle – something that looks like a picture frame with a mesh across it – which you dip and capture a certain amount of the pulp and let it drain, then you couch (pronounced ‘cooch’) it onto felt, but I didn’t do that. Each fragment in the circle is actually a small sheet of paper. I didn’t cut it – instead I made little moulds to capture each fragment. The process of collecting the material, crushing it; sourcing the textile then ripping and pulverising it to make each individual sheet of paper, was part of the finished work. Once the fragments had dried a bit I picked them up and moulded them in the palm of my hand to give each the feeling of a gesture. However many hundreds there are, they were made individually. It’s very slow. Then they were threaded together – I became interested in how you hold each one together like marks in a drawing by fixing them together on a thread. It is quite fragile, still paper but only just. The next step beyond it would have been a little circle of dust.
Light is almost a pigment in itself, or a material – it’s caught, captured and leaves a trace, even if it is only temporary. A lot of my earlier work is about light and capturing it in a particular way and, while these works have substance in an evenly lit gallery, I’m always pleased when they are in a space with a raking light because it shows what I’m interested in – capturing the moment when the light passes over; the point of it is not the form, but the shadow beneath.
How has the direction of your work changed more recently?
Something that I absolutely adore about paper is that it’s very strong and can last for hundreds of years in an ideal environment, but in wet conditions it can deteriorate in a day or two. That’s its vital quality – that it can be altered. I find the effect of substances near it very interesting – it draws them into its surface. Recently I’ve been working on a project in the Surrey Hills called Unearthed, incorporating the materials of the landscape, not just the chalk and clay and charcoal but also natural dyes and all sorts of things to colour paper. I’ve been making a dye from oak galls and iron because the particular places where I’ve been working have an abundance of oak galls and have been used for ironworking in the past. The chemical reaction between them makes a gorgeous black. Walking and collecting has become part of the process. It’s a measured thing. I’ve become interested in the different colours you can extract from different materials – a yellow that is a tannin dye from oak bark, another pink-brown from birch bark and a purplepink from blackberry. As a side project I’m making a series of work at the moment that I’ve called Fugitive Maps, with dyes I know will fade because I find that quite fascinating. The blackberry will soften to grey but it won’t disappear entirely.
How do the seasons affect this outdoor work?
Seasons are important, but not necessarily in a bad way – they off er different opportunities. Last summer I worked with a Butterfly Conservation group on Box Hill looking at the habitat for the small blue butterfly and helping to remove invasive plant material. It was wonderful working with a group of people on a hot day, then collecting the removed plant material to take back to my studio and use as a dye-stuff . It made a particular dye that I can’t get at another time of the year, or in different circumstances – it was the season and the activity that gave me the opportunity to collect that material. Also, when I’m working outside in the summer it is much easier to make paper simply because it will dry.
‘Paper is a material full of meaning, it has always been used as something to communicate with – it is something that absorbs the essence’
For one of my outdoor works, Creta (from the Latin for chalk), I made a large disc shape on chalk ground by laying pulp down in a circle and then repeatedly pressing powdered chalk into it – it was almost like making a piece of ground. Because it was summer it dried naturally and could be lifted up – in winter it would have become a soggy mess. My winter work is more about walking and collecting things – fallen materials like acorns, galls and twigs to take back to my studio. I’m sensitive about what I take, my ideal would be to take nothing away, but the oak galls litter the ground and have already been an acorn that’s been invaded by a wasp that has laid its egg in it, and has provided a home for the lava, so it’s just the next iteration.
How do you work with your collected materials in your studio or in other indoor spaces?
It always starts outside as I walk, survey, pick up stuff , look at it, feel it – I think it’s what everybody does when they go for a walk. You find that pebble interesting – why that one? If I’m making a piece of work from scratch and playing around with ideas, I need to pile up my finds on a table and arrange them. I want to keep my processes visible. I’ve been making ‘nature tables’ at the various places I’ve been working, so if it is somewhere where there’s chalk and clay then those will be on the table, as well as the flowers or plant material from which I make the dyes. They are my keys to the process. They become part of my work rather than just being things – they are like maps that lead me into the piece of work. I’ve always been very interested in fairy stories although they are not overtly part of my work. I just love the idea of the magical nature of things – their worth, substance and significance.
How do you see your work?
What I love is that the process is part of the project whether working on my own or with other people – I’m not just presenting finished objects with a ‘Ta-Dah!’ I think it asks a lot of people to be presented with a finished object and not to have any way into it. They have to find a way to assimilate it in a very short time. I find that people who think they don’t like art are perfectly happy be involved and interested if you are talking to them about how and why and what. Although in talking about my work I often emphasise my interaction with people and place, I actually view my work as quite formal and methodical. I am most satisfied when there is a balance between the material world and the cerebral.