My inspiration is a bud, which, in spring, unfolds into a leaf. A compact folded form feeds itself with water and turns into a great spacious form. In autumn this leaf falls of the tree, the water evaporates and a small web of fibers curling around the spine is the end of this form.
Peter Gentenaar was born in 1946 in Rijswijk, the Netherlands. In his youth he spent hours in his fathers garage and the neighboring old iron dump. His drawings were very bloody cartoons or designs for cars and battleships. In high school he took up puppet theater and puppet making with Tonke Dragt, his drawing teacher and writer of children’s books. The sixties were the years of endless possibilities. He followed lessons in drawing, painting, sculpture and printmaking at the Free Academy in the Hague. In 1968 he studied one year with a grant of the Italian government at the Accademia di Brera, with Marino Marini, in Milano. The student revolt in Paris, in May of that year, spread to Italy and Peter was in the middle of it.
The following year, Peter went to California where he received his Masters Degree in printmaking at the California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland. He bathed in the openness and warmth of the rich social life of the Americans. The hippy period was only just over its peak. Here he also met his future wife, Pat Torley. Pat was at the same college, studying painting and weaving with Trude Guermonprez. Her lessons and personality were unforgettable for both Pat and Peter. They named the first of their two daughters after her. John Elsesser, Trude’s husband, was a carpenter and an organic gardener, making his compost with special techniques, which Peter later used at their farm in Holland. Politically it was a very active time, with demonstrations and occupations, to protest the war in Vietnam. Meeting Sy Lowinsky, the publisher of ZAP Comics and owner of the Phoenix Gallery resulted in Peter’s first exhibition of his paintings and prints in Berkeley. He enjoyed the work of ZAP Comic artists like Robert Crumb, Victor Moscoso and Clay Wilson and all the concerts and great radio stations which filled the days with music of the Grateful Death and Jefferson Airplane.
The early works
Back in Holland, in 1970, Peter set up a print studio in an old school in the Hague. He was making figurative color lithographs with 6 to 12 color runs. The color intensity was important, as if the California sunlight still radiated in the gloomy school buildings. This feeling got stronger when Pat Torley arrived 4 months later. The young couple lived in a very cold and old classroom. The rest of the building was used as studio space. Neighbors Roel Jonges and Wil Bouthoorn become good friends. After half a year they found a house in Rijswijk and the school was again only studio. In Rijswijk, a commission for a grade school inspired Peter to make an animated movie machine, of the type that was used in old fair grounds, but much bigger. The fast rotating drawings of the children were mounted on a turning mechanism inside a huge forged iron head. You could look at the movie through its open mouth while someone else turned a big wheel. Peter welded the iron head in the metal shop of the Free Academy. Back in the familiar surroundings of the free academy, he started teaching model painting and drawing lessons, an inspiring experience. The academy grew rapidly in the seventies and classes with more than 40 students were normal, especially in the evenings.
Though concentrating on his work in color lithography after returning from California, Peter found it limiting and reverted back to experiments he had made at Arts and Crafts, where he engraved and scratched drawings on thick pieces of Plexiglas. To use the one-inch thickness of the Plexiglas, he had drilled grooves into the surface to press the paper into. As the first prints were a success, he drilled the grooves deeper. This resulted in frustration because the paper was not able to breech that depth. He tried filling the gaps with torn, wetted and smashed bits of paper. These failed experiments stayed in his mind and an obvious solution came. Why not lay fresh wet paper on the Plexiglas to dry? He decided to solve the problem by starting a new experiment: papermaking.
Sheet formers and vacuum pumps In a short period of time a lot happened: Peter received an experimental grant from the Ministry of Culture; he contacted the Royal Dutch Paper factory in Maastricht, with questions about papermaking; the head of the fiber laboratory, Joop Persoon, taught Peter the basics of industrial papermaking and supplied him with materials to work on his own. Inspired by the laboratory in the factory, Peter didn’t work with a mould and deckle in the traditional way, but built a sheet former that used a vacuum pump to suck the water out of the pulp. Peter tried to copy the stainless steel sheet formers at the laboratory, in wood and bought a huge second hand vacuum pump. The results were disappointing, as the wooden sheet formers kept imploding. Eventually the vacuum technique became a success, thanks to a student of Peter’s, a contractor who told him about a vacuum technique that is used to suck excess water out of freshly poured concrete. With this new inspiration, Peter built a vacuum table based on this principle, large enough to make a sheet of paper, 120 x 240 cm large. Later, he doubled this table surface in size. A new technique of sheet making by pulp pouring started to develop.
Making the paper pulp was another problem. Old washing machines acquired new functions they could not cope with. Peter built a mixer in a 200-liter oil drum but this only separated the fibers and did not open their cell walls. It made a glorified type of paper mache, which he used to fill moulds. He also couched sheet after sheet, in different colors, on top of each other, pressed these packs dry, cut them with a band saw and endlessly sanded and polished them. The paper quality greatly improved when Peter was able to buy an old laboratory beater. It was an Umpherston type beater, made by Voigt in Germany, with a 7 horsepower electro motor. Thanks to the hollander beater and the vacuum table, a new type of work emerged: the papers were brightly colored with pigments added during the beating. The fibers were mainly bleached flax, from Belgium, in the vicinity of Kortrijk. The old school slowly changed into a small paper factory.
The Peter Beater
As the Voigt laboratory beater was not designed to mill unrefined long fibers, it broke down regularly. Peter decided to design his own beater, which would be easy to clean, and able to beat unrefined hemp and flax. He developed a beater that not only enabled him to produce specific pulp for his own paper art, but also contributed to small-scale paper making in Europe and beyond. He started the manufacture of his design of the Hollander beater and markets it under the name “Peter beater”. Among his clients are the Indians of the Amazon who make paper from jungle plants, the Sioux Indians in South Dakota who make hemp paper and, in the Netherlands, there are 10 institutes for the mentally handicapped, making paper with his machines. In order to offer a complete package, Peter developed a spindle press and a paper drier. A version of the “Peter beater”, with added safety features, was built for an institute for the blind and has a CE and KEMA safety certificate.
In 1983, the demolition of both their house and studio, caused a two year interruption in Pat and Peter’s work. They bought a ruin of a 16th century farm, which they restored to use for their house and new studios. Back at work in 1985, Peter kept researching the effect of the hollander beating on the fibers. The drying of the fiber became crucial to determine the final form of the paperwork. A wet 2-dimensional shape was transferred to an ultra light, 3-dimensional shape. Giving freedom to the material became the objective. Thin bamboo sticks were used to build a frame, which was covered with pulp on the vacuum table, where it was sucked dry. “Dry” is very relative here. There is a lot of water left behind in the fibers, but at this point the 2-dimensional shape is strong enough to be picked up and formed into a 3-dimensional shape above the wet vacuum table surface. The sculpture now has its rough form. Dehumidifiers and fans speed up the drying and the sculpture shrinks about 30%. The bamboo, unable to shrink, looks for the shortest way, and at the same time the fibers shrink in spiraling ways. The bamboo fights the shrinking but has to bend. The tension between the two materials is responsible for the final form in the sculpture.
The memory of paper
A papermaker uses the natural properties of the fiber. The paper he makes is as strong as the fibers he uses. Not every fiber is as well suited for paper making as another. Through the ages, papermakers have experimented with different fibers. Each kind of fiber gives a different paper. It can be durable like hemp paper or as short lived as wood pulp used for newsprint.
Peter’s paper consists of plant fibers like hemp, cotton and flax, long fibers, in comparison to wood fibers. When these fibers are beaten in the Peter beater, the chains of fibrils that form the building blocs of the plant, are rubbed apart. Water fills the gaps between these microscopic filaments but does not change the properties of the fibers. Floating in water, the fibrils unite in a new order and when the water is drained, a sheet of paper is formed. If this sheet is not pressed flat, it will start to curl: the fiber remembers its past spiraling plant life. Under the press, this property can be restrained, but Peter prefers to use this quality to shape his work.
The duration of the beating and the adjustment of the beater is directly related to the shrinkage of the fibers.
Form control Gentenaar’s sculptures are constructed using shapes directly borrowed from the plant world. After having imitated the spine structure of a leaf, he returned to more basic forms such as triangles, squares and trapezium’s. These show the baroque work of the shrinking force in a much more expressive way. The use of these basic shapes allows more control over the end result and helps him to plan and dream new combinations. Bold colors added as pigments to the fibers during the last phase of the beating, make the sculptural forms more fantastic. Coloring the bamboo framework accentuates the form. The paint can bleed into the pulp, giving the sculpture surface the look of ceramic glazing.
Light and movement
The paper objects are independent sculptures but engage easily in a playful interaction with the surroundings. For the 100-year birthday celebration of Frits Philips, in 2005, Peter was invited to build light sculptures with LED’s. The electrical wires formed the framework around which the paper pulp dried and twisted. The tiny LED lights formed an integral part of the paper sculpture. In Joop van den Ende’s musical theater, situated in the old Krupp Steel Works in Essen, Germany, lighting of varying colors is projected onto 20 paper sculptures that float in the space of the 20 meters high hall. The sculptures are hung in a system, enabling them to turn at the slightest movement of air.
Paper and bronze
In January 2005, two large paper sculptures, each 4 meters high, were cast in bronze. The city of Capelle aan den IJssel commissioned for a bridge. The thin paper sculptures were coated, on the inside, with a 4 mm thick layer of wax. The sculptures were each cut into three pieces and cast in bronze, using the lost wax method.
Making a 4 meter high sculpture in paper made great demands on the strength of the materials used. The tension of wet pulp drying on a skeleton of one meter high is much less than on a 6 meter structure. The vacuum table had to be enlarged to accommodate this size. The sculpture was constructed from two large triangles with curving rectangular shapes between them. During the drying and shrinking, there was a playfulness created between the stiff triangles and the rectangles that easily turn and twist.
The sculptures are named “The Wings of the Farao”, as a tribute to the much older papyrus.
Experiments In the course of his 35 years of making paper, the question of the durability of Peter’s work was often put to him. Paper is seen as a disposable product and making sculptures with it does not immediately change people’s idea of paper. In the laboratory of the Royal Library in The Hague, Peter asked Henk Porck, chemist and head of the Paper Historical Department, to place one of his paper sculptures with a bamboo frame in an aging cabinet. The sculpture was cut in two, so that just like in a washing soap commercial, a comparison could be made between the “before and after” pieces. After three weeks in this aging cabinet, which equals 300 years, the paper had yellowed slightly but was still as strong and bouncy as the piece that had not been aged.
The Holland Paper Biennial
To generate more attention for paper art, Pat and Peter Gentenaar organized a congress for the International Association of Hand papermakers and Paper artists, the IAPMA, with 7 international exhibitions of paper art, in 1994 in the Netherlands. The response to these events inspired Peter to organize the first Holland Paper Biennial in the Museum of Rijswijk in 1996. Since 2002 there’s a second location: the Museum CODA in Apeldoorn where more monumental works can be exhibited. Each biennial was accompanied by a book in two parts: a section with stories about paper culture and paper history; and a catalogue section, containing photo’s, stories and paper samples of the paper art on exhibit in the biennial. The stories are collected and edited by Peter Gentenaar. Loes Schepens has done all the graphic design. Pat and Peter have been the publishers of the books including Paper & Water. The publishing work involved so much administration that a professional publisher, Compres in Leiden, was asked in 2002, to take over the business end, leaving the book making with Loes, Pat and Peter.
This cooperation has led to 6 biennial books, which have won many design prizes: 1996 Tactile Paper (sold out), 1998 Paper & Fire, 2000 Paper & Water, 2002 Timeless Paper, 2004 Spirit of Paper and 2006 Paper takes flight.
Peter has published a number of articles about his experiments with paper*. This does not mean that the mystery of his work is solved. His travels through paper land are fascinating and have inspired many to start papermaking too. Peter will not stop you. On the contrary, he knows as no other that no two hand made sheets of paper are the same. And before you know it, you’re making paper yourself.
Written by Veronica van Verschuer
*Articles by Peter Gentenaar about paper - About papermaking, in Tactile Paper 1996 - Working with the hollander, in Paper & Water 2000 - Papermaking without felling trees, Timeless Paper 2002