paper-folding

When I arrived in Chicago five years ago, I heard about Ox-Bow as the place where Chicago artists went for their summer retreat. It was described as an experience you could not possibly understand unless you were there. After having been involved with residency programs including InCUBATE, Harold Arts, ACRE, threewalls, and as a visitor to Ox-Bow, I think a lot about what makes for those moments of magic, whether it’s the landscape, the freedom people grant themselves from the pressures and constraints of the “outside world,” or simply living communally for a time. 

Recently I’ve been reading an account of Black Mountain College, the experimental community that hosted people like John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, and Robert Rauschenberg, amongst many others, in North Carolina from 1933-1956. Its educational philosophy was to make art central to all fields of learning, though when it started, it was decidedly not an art school. Invested in the idea of forming the “whole” student, Josef and Anni Albers (the first art teachers), agreed that art was not solely an avenue for creative expression but more importantly, provided insight into all aspects of daily life and ways of understanding the world. 

So in the interest of sharing a moment that no one reading this could have experienced, I was thinking about Josef Albers’ lesson described below. It’s a simple exercise really, just one of their first steps in a long series of steps that brought a group of students and teachers together in the spirit of experimentation and progressive education. 

At Black Mountain, Albers tried to make his students see that the life of an object involved its inner qualities, its external appearance and finally, its relationship to other objects. Among the exercises Albers used to help familiarize the students with both his material and his fingers was “paper-folding.” In the “outside world,” Albers would explain, paper was generally glued and used as a flat sheet. “In that process, one side of the paper often loses its expressiveness. The edge is hardly ever used.” So instead of pasting, Albers encouraged his students to put paper together ‘by sewing, buttoning, riveting, taping, and pinning it; in other words, we fasten it in a multitude of ways. We will test the possibilities of its tensile and compression-resistant strength.” Both sides of the paper were used, and not simply laid flat but constructed in ‘upright, folded, or sculptured’ ways as well.

The paper, moreover, was never destroyed or supplanted. In the that sense, one never had an “advanced” course with Albers? moving say, from Basic Design (Werklehre) to Advanced Design, or from paper to wood to plastic. The advance was from paper to more paper, the challenge focused on how to give new language to familiar material, each time aiming at greater intricacy. And when the exercise was over, back to the beginning; after the paper had been worked and reworked, it was smoothed out and returned to its original form as a flat sheet. “That was one of the wonderful things about Alber’s class,” Ruth Asawa, one of his students, has said, “you never destroyed anything.’’ (Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An exploration in community, Northwestern University Press: 1972, 57)

Everyone should be able to have their way of looking at the world reoriented sometimes, not just artists. My experience at Ox-Bow and at other places I’ve been is that the most lasting memories happen when you give yourself over to a rhythm that has nothing to do with producing at regular speed or with specific outcomes in mind. As a model for creative practice, regardless of one’s career trajectory, it’s vital to recognize that privilege and slow things down once in a while. 

Abigail Satinsky is a founding member of InCUBATE (www.incubate-chicago.org), a research institute and former artist-in-residence program. She is currently the Program Director of threewalls in Chicago.