Peace of paper

The artist explains her uncommon medium

click to enlarge Betsy Dollar’s paper art on display at the Chatham Area Public Library. - PHOTOS BY BETSY DOLLAR
Photos by Betsy dollar
Betsy Dollar’s paper art on display at the Chatham Area Public Library.

Betsy Dollar, whose current exhibition “New Paper Works” is ongoing at the Chatham Area Public Library, explained that papermaking was not always an end in itself for her. “It started out as a technique to generate something to print or paint on, to make into a book or fold into a sculpture,” she said. Eventually, she recognized that paper did have the potential to be the finished work of art itself. “I started working on a larger scale, exploring the techniques for different textures and began manipulating the layers to generate a single sheet of paper that is like a tapestry.”

Dollar, who is executive director of the Springfield Art Association, said she has always been fascinated by paper, recounting childhood visits with her father to a Chicago store called Aiko’s, where many different types of paper were on display, none of it bearing much resemblance to the standard wood pulp-derived product westerners are used to. She first learned papermaking in the early 1980s while studying at University of Colorado Boulder, taking what she described as a traditional, western-style paper class, geared toward making a piece of paper which would then be used for printing.

A number of years after graduating, Dollar went to Boston for three weeks to take a comprehensive course in papermaking.  “For some reason, that captured my imagination. I don’t know if it was just because I could finally make bigger work.” Dollar, who is just under 5-feet-two-inches tall, says she is limited by her height, rather than her strength, in terms of the leverage needed to pull a large sheet of paper out of a vat. “It wants to pull me back in, even when I stand on chairs,” she said. At the Boston workshop, she learned a spraying technique which allowed her to begin making larger scale work of the kind in the Chatham library show.

Dollar said that much of her previous work had been based on replicating the illusion of fabric. “I was making a lot of life-size clothes, so I wanted paper that looked like brocade or corduroy or denim – I did a lot of lace.” This is in contrast to the more recent pieces, which repeat the same design on both sides of a large sheet of paper, working with stencils in a process that recalled screen printing. “The designs are very bold and simple. Some of my very early influences, which directed me to become a printmaker in the first place, were things like Marimekko fabrics, so these pieces have a bit of that pop art influence – shapes with bright colors. Back when I used to do screen printing, that was what my work looked like, too.”

Another element of the current show is an installation placed in the windows of the library, a piece originally created last year for a gallery in Minnesota. It consists of two large white sheets of paper, hung horizontally, with generic figures alternating male-female, moving in gradation from a very dark brown to a peach, which Dollar says is meant to represent a range of race. Red ribbons emerge from the feet of the figures, comingling and wrapping around three-dimensional lamps in the shape of peace signs. “I think it makes a nice, universal statement of trying to come together around something peaceful,” she said. “Paper is a nice, peaceful thing. The fiber I used for these is called abaca, which comes from the leaves of banana trees – it’s a renewable resource. Overall, the work in this show is designed to be playful, with a lot of shapes and colors.”

Scott Faingold can be reached at

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