By Robert Blood
It’s tempting to paint artistic innovation as an immaculate singularity — a eureka flash in which inspiration pops into physical reality.
But, assuredly, most such moments are preceded and followed by countless hours of toiling, teasing, and tweaking. And (this is the part nobody bothers to tell you) innovations don’t come with presentation instructions or marketing plans.
Whether they trickle in or arrive in a downpour, innovations can leave you reeling in their wake.
Such is the gleeful plight of Prescott-based artist Annie Alexander.
For the past dozen years she’s crafted handmade paper, a product that, though precious and essential, is often regarded as a raw material, not a finished work of art.
“Finding people who are patrons of paper is difficult,” Alexander said. “It’s people who are scrapbooking, it’s people who are doing calligraphy, and it’s people who are doing wedding invitations.”
But Alexander knew paper could be so much more. It could challenge and enrich people’s experience of light, texture, nature, and motion — if only she could just figure out a way to recontextualize it.
So, for the past two years, she’s been tinkering and toying, warping the pragmatic dimension of the paper itself, and exploring larger formats.
“One day, I realized that I’ve got dozens of these 8-foot banners lying around,” Alexander said. “I had to ask myself, ‘What the hell am I going to do with them?’”
The answer she’d eventually arrive at answered questions she hadn’t even thought to ask yet.
Prescott, art, & paper
Annie Alexander could’ve ended up just about anywhere.
The middle child of three siblings, Alexander grew up in the suburbs outside New York City. The path that lead her to Prescott included stops in North Carolina, Seattle, and Too-Many-Small-Towns-in-The-Southwest-to-Name as well as incarnations as a wife and mother of three, a graphic designer, a real estate agent, and a Seventh-day Adventist missionary.
“The short story is that I came to Prescott because it’s the county seat and I was looking for some kind of work,” Alexander said.
“And then I found this dump,” she said with hearty laughter as she motioned to what, nearly 20 years later, is a bright, clean sitting room in a bright, clean house.
(Ask anyone who’s been around Prescott for more than a decade; apparently she’s done a lot of work on this place.)
Today, 70-year-old Alexander proudly says she’s been an artist for 50 years, but that’s not how she saw herself when she arrived.
“It wasn’t until I got involved with a 12-step group for artists that I was confident enough to call myself an artist,” Alexander said. “To me, artists are people who do this magic stuff, sort of like wizards, and I didn’t see myself that way.”
A former roommate who worked with troubled teens introduced her to handmade paper a few years later.
Some science, some thoughts
Paper is made from the most abundant organic polymer on Earth, cellulose, which comes from the cell walls of green plants. Those plants can be ground into pulp that, when properly processed, becomes paper.
Cellulose molecules, (C6H10O5)n, form long linear chains that connect via hydrogen bonding. Too much chemistry? Paper is basically a bunch of pieces of hooked-together plant fibers.
“What happens on a molecular level — the electrons, protons, and neutrons — now I dream about that,” Alexander said. “It’s beautiful.”
As an homage to its origin, she often includes flowers and other organic matter in her paper. In the shed outside her house, Alexander has bins of Datura, Sego Lily, Cosmos, various grasses, Kudzu, and other earthy ephemera for possible inclusion. (Two noteworthy oddities: cicada shells and shredded currency.)
“You can’t make a mistake in papermaking,” Alexander said. “And you can always restart the process, anyway.”
Trial and error is an important part of the equation — something noted by Prescott Valley’s Sid Freeman, a calligrapher who met Alexander in an art class more than a decade ago.
“When I want really wonderful paper, I go to Annie,” Freeman said. “Her paper is always beautiful and always unique.”
Freeman, who’s part of an art book collective, SeQuence, with Alexander, further stressed her friend’s inexorably creative nature.
“She’s always planning and doing things, and not just with art,” Freeman said. “She’s always finding ways to grow — to live better.”
Once Alexander decided to make bigger pieces of paper, she had to develop a technique compatible with her existing equipment.
“I figured out how to integrate the fibers, to make long, single sheets of paper,” Alexander said.
The final dimensions of each tableau is 1-foot-2-inches wide and 8-feet tall, to be exact-ish.
“Annie’s always done a lot of experimenting, but I was amazed when I saw them,” Freeman said. “She’s come up with her new method all by herself, and that’s really cool.”
Jacques Laliberté, a friend and fellow resident artist at Alexander’s place, described the transformation of her work:
“She’s been exploring her own paper aesthetic nonstop for the last two years,” Laliberté said. “And what she’s come up with is an ethereal, sensitive aesthetic that’s new for paper.”
But Alexander (and her faithful new assistant Josh Chaney, she was quick to point out) weren’t satisfied yet. They wanted to turn heads.
The idea came to her literally out of the blue one morning, but some background is in order.
Alexander sleeps in a room that was once part of Beyond Words Gallery, a venture she ran inside her home for a spell. She abhors curtains, and often hangs new works from the ceiling to contemplate them in variable daylight.
“So I had some of these tableaux hanging in my bedroom,” Alexander said. “And I woke up and it was like I was looking through five layers of them, like I was in a forest.”
Recently, Alexander hung handmade paper in a friend’s barn, hired a woman to dance through it, and paid a video production crew to film it. (The details: a few dozen sheets, Larry Kantor’s, Jess Lozel, and Big Picture Video Production, respectively.)
Alexander plans to use the video, “Ineffable Joy,” to promote her tableaux in the context of art installations for art galleries and museums.
“It needs to be an immersive experience,” she said. “Watch the video, and you’ll see.”
One of the people who stopped by the installation was Tony Reynolds, owner of A Small Art Gallery, in Prescott, where Alexander’s work showed late last year.
“I could feel the shivers start at the back of my neck,” Reynolds said. “Below the high ceiling, moving in a gentle summer breeze, were about two dozen paper banners — most in delicate pastels, but with the same strong presence as the artist herself.”
Knowing Alexander, Laliberté said, this installation and video are the start of something, not the culmination.
“She’s probably Arizona’s premier paper scientist/engineer/artist,” he said. “There’s a lot more she has to say to paper and book media.”
See more of Annie Alexander’s art at FineArtAmerica.Com/profiles/Annie-Alexander.html. Search YouTube for her promotional video “Ineffable Joy,” or access it directly at Youtube.Com/watch?v=szzVL_VDhQk. Contact her at CezAnnie@Gmail.Com.
Robert Blood is a Mayer-ish-based freelance writer and ne’er-do-well who’s working on his last book, which, incidentally, will be his first. Contact him at BloodyBobby5@Gmail.Com.
Tags: Annie Alexander, Big Picture Video Production, cellulose, Ineffable Joy, Jacques Laliberté, Jess Kozel, Josh Chaney, Larry Kantor, paper, papermaking, Robert Blood, Sid Freeman, tableaux, Tony Reynolds