Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist


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Priceless Papers

Yesterday morning, our doorbell buzzed. I reluctantly stopped editing photos to open the door, and there stood a FedEx guy with a tentative smile on his face. Panting from his walk up the stairs. He held a big skinny package between in his hands. It was just the right size for what I’ve been waiting for, for weeks: my custom-ordered paper from northern Thailand.

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I looked over the box.

Outside: Thai Airways and Australian quarantine stickers — check.

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Inside: obsessive layers of packaging to protect this paper from delivery blokes in Lampang, Bangkok, and Alexandria (Sydney) — check.

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Underneath it all: a stack of gorgeous paper — CHECK!

It had a distinctive scent to it — I could smell it as soon as I opened the box. Have you ever bought a knit silk shirt, and noticed a starchy clean smell? That’s what lightly-bleached mulberry paper smells like. When I travelled through Thailand and Laos earlier this year in search of handmade paper, I could tell we were near a papermaker’s place each time I sniffed the air and smelled fresh mulberry pulp.

There is no paper quite like that made of mulberry bark. It has a strength and suppleness that is unmatched by any other material. It can take any kind of abuse that an artist wants to dish out, especially in the high-quality thick grade like those I’ve ordered. This paper is 100% made by hand by the papermaker and his assistants (only a specially-modified Hollander beater is used to beat the pulp).He created a special blend of fibers, size and weight to my specifications, and these are BIG, thick sheets of paper – 100 x 70cm (around 3.3 x 2 feet).

The man who made this paper is, without a doubt, the best papermaker in Southeast Asia today. I feature him in my book on Southeast Asian paper. He is meticulous about everything that goes into it, from the chemical elements to what kind of teacup he uses to burnish the paper to a unique artistic finish. If you look closely at the photo above, you’ll see there are two textures in the paper. On one side you can see impressions from the papermaker’s screen.  The reason the other side is smoother is because it was burnished by hand with the open side of a teacup – three times – while the paper dried.

His paper is significantly more expensive than the many Thai papers I saw during my journey, and more than the high-quality machine-made paper from famous French brands like Rives BFK. But – really – what fun is there in talking about machine-made paper? Handmade paper is more lustrous and has a story to tell. Best of all, I know that because he’s a perfectionist, this guy’s paper will last for centuries — and so will the art that I make on it.

And that’s priceless.

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