What seemed like an ordinary visit to Riverside High School in Yonkers turned extraordinary when 11th and 12th grade students in Laughton Huggins’ computer class energetically participated in handmade papermaking and desktop publishing workshops. What was the secret ingredient that had the students so engaged? In part, it was the presence of ArtsWestchester teaching artist Dene Ross in the classroom. In part, it was the integration of a digital arts curriculum with the lost art of bookmaking that created such a dynamic learning environment.
Students rolled up their sleeves and dipped their hands into what they called “stinky” vats of white cotton paper pulp. They “pulled” paper with a papermaking mould into what became 100% cotton paper pages. Most of the students had never made a book, never mind having created handmade paper out of wet pulp. The plan was to use a fancy Cannon printer to actually print a book cover design, which the students created in the digital software program Adobe Photoshop, onto the handmade paper.
Although the pages of their books were still blank for the most part, the goal was to use the computer to create a visual collage of sorts, which would provide its readers with a window into the students’ world. Graphic design skills were utilized to express the students’ individual interests and personalities. Some had started to hand draw their title pages, while others had begun working on the Photoshop files to create their personal book covers. While the stories on their pages were works in progress, what was already hardwired into the cells of those students who were lucky enough to participate in this one-of-a-kind artist residency, was an appreciation for the care and artisanship that goes into the design and production of actual books. This appreciation, of both the technology and the limitless creativity of the artistic spirit, is something that these students will carry with them for the rest of their lives. They will likely treasure their completed handmade books for years to come … even those who are used to downloading books or listening to them on audible.com. As they’ve now learned: nothing beats holding the real thing, especially if it is lined with handmade 100% cotton paper.
Dene Ross’ papermaking residency at Riverside High School was funded by an ArtsWestchester Arts Alive Grant, made possible by the Decentralization Program of the New York State Council on the Arts, and with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
Top image: Riverside High students remove water from their newly formed sheet of handmade paper before putting it on a special drying rack.