Helen Frederick: Paper Tiger

Washington Portraits - Museum Arts Magazine

By Kate Tyndall

When she was four years old, the little girl from Pottstown, Pennsylvania, sat outside in a special place away from the house and the cacophony of everyday adult concerns. It was a room in nature where a child could dream undisturbed, letting her visions take shape.

Thirty-seven years later. In a cavernous twilight lit studio where the printing presses and vacuum tables cast odd nocturnal shadows, making the place seem more like a set from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis than an artists atelier, Helen Frederick casts her mind back to the child she was then.

“Being in nature was extremely comfortable and I made a wish- I wished I never had to move from the place where I had what I called my ‘vision space.’”

Circumstances did not oblige; the child lost her vision space when her family moved to a cramped railroad apartment in the city. Yet even then, says the pale, auburn-haired woman with the face of a 14th century Madonna, “I knew I’d be making art, and I knew that the right space would make it possible.”

In between came years of study. Frederick got a degree in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, worked in Norway on a Fulbright Scholarship, and traveled in India, where she investigated Indian traditions of papermaking. For three years she taught art at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. Finally, eight years ago, a search for a vision space and a dream of artistic collaboration brought her to Baltimore, where an ad in the Sun netted ten students eager to learn the art of papermaking.

Today the dream has expanded. The Baltimore studio, still in operation, houses 11 resident artists; Frederick’s new D.C., studio includes printing and binding equipment, as well as a darkroom. Both go by the name Frederick gave to her enterprise: Pyramid Atlantic. (The name was greatly inspired by a large mural in Baltimore. “Drive to the Great Pyramid mural and turn right one block,” she would tell studio visitors.)

Pyramid is Frederick’s most collaborative effort: a center for papermaking, printing, and the book arts, where paper-minded artists use the studio’s paper mill and printing facilities in a workshop atmosphere. Those who work in unrelated media often come as well, learning about printing and papermaking to expand the range of their art.

Pyramid also offers classes, open to all, on papermaking, bookmaking, binding, offset printing, letterform design, marbling, paste paper, and Japanese papermaking. The history of these art forms is interwoven with technical instruction.

“It wasn’t all altruistic,” she says about starting Pyramid. “I wanted to have a space where master craftsmen would come to me, as well. I had already gone through having private spaces and private studios of my own, so I set up standards of how much I wanted to give up and how much I wanted to get back. “I was single-minded about it, too,” adds Frederick. She laughs huskily, for that moment an earthy Madonna taken with her own temerity.

“She brings out the best in people,” says Lois Fern, a member of one of Pyramid’s advisory boards. “She seems almost religiously dedicated to this task,” Fern continues. “She doesn’t seem to be interested in other aspects of life in Washington, but about books and paper she is very gung-ho.” With almost maternal concern, Fern worries: “I don’t even know if Helen has a home. She never gives out a home number. She’s always at the gallery.”

Responds Frederick, blue-gray eyes twinkling: “And the staff is always telling me to go away. I guess I really am married to all this,” she says with a sweep of her hand. “The artists here are my extended family.”

Kenneth Polinskie, a Manhattan paper artist who came down to teach at Pyramid, is a member of that extended family. He knows both Frederick the earth mother and Frederick the facilitator. “She gets up at six in the morning and has breakfast ready. [Polinskie stayed with her-she does have a home.] There is the toast and the yogurt and the juice, and it’s all presented so lovingly,” he says.

Whereas other institutions are not always ready to accept his nontraditional use of pigmented pulp for painterly expression- hand forming a piece of paper and producing a painting in the same gesture- Polinskie says that Frederick encouraged him. “She welcomes a personal approach and is absolutely open-minded.”

Ask Frederick to assess the current status of her papermaking odyssey, and she will give artistic collaboration top billing on the credit side of the ledger. On the debit side, however, is a dearth of time to do her own work. “I usually do my own work at two or three in the morning,” she says.

For the studio’s late night denizens, Pyramid offers a few creature comforts: a couch to stretch out on and even a refrigerator for those prescient enough to schlep food from home or from the deli down the street for midnight snacking.

“And if you want to take a shower, you just close the beater room door [where paper pulp is made] and theres a hose,” adds Frederick. “I’ve been known to do that if I’ve worked late and I have an appointment in the morning.”

It’s the paper mill that gives Frederick the means to define space and make her visions take shape with the material she finds most appropriate to her needs. As a child, she showed talent for drawing, but it was working with paper, not paint, that drew her. “I would go to Philadelphia Museum of Art and be fascinated by the sketches of Picasso’s paintings. You could look at the sketches, then look at the paintings, then refer back. I always found the seed of the idea more helpful in understanding what the artist was all about.

“Basically, I find canvas a very dead surface,” she says. “I’m not intrigued to work on it. Whether drawing or printing, I’ve always preferred the responsiveness of paper. It’s more rewarding to my imagery than canvas.”

For Frederick, paper is alive, alive with images waiting to be coaxed from the grayish pulp by the artists imagination, ready to be stretched and pulled to define a moment in time and hold on to it for eternity. She calls it a material manifestation of the spiritual. I think artists become very involved in their material and for me, paper brings insight; it revitalizes and charges me.

“There is kind of a spiritual preparation in making paper, too. It’s like the birth cycle, but you have complete control over it, and I like that.”

Plunging a fine-boned hand into the vat of pulp that has been processed by the Hollander beater, Frederick lets the smooth textured lumps dissolve between her fingers before slicing a paper mould beneath the pulp’s surface and out again. Released from the mould, which bears the paper mills pyramidal watermark, onto a piece of wool felting, the sheets of paper are spread across the felt and then stacked and put through the hydraulic press to bond the fibers. Taken out of the press, the sheets of paper are placed on a drying surface, usually Formica or glass.

The pulp, made of linen and cotton rag in varying proportions, depending on the type and strength of paper to be made, can be pigmented. Paper sheets as large as large as 30 by 40 inches can be made; larger paper-works can be poured directly onto the vacuum table, which draws water out of the shaped pulp.

The Hollander papermaking beater, Frederick’s not-so-secret pride, is the heart of the paper mill. It resides in steely pot-bellied solitude in a small room at the back of the studio, surrounded by five-gallon plastic buckets used to transport the pulp that the mill often sells to artists and schools.

The spirit of collaboration at the core of Pyramid Atlantic is also at the core of a new work by Frederick: a large-scale (306 inches long by 38 inches high) paperwork entitled Return, the Turning Point. She plans to make it into a book in collaboration with the artists at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop, a studio of master silk screeners. Meanwhile Return, a nine-panel cycle of birth and re-birth, will be displayed in a show of large-scale paper-works at Baltimore’s Artscape Festival July 15-17.

Frederick wants to make the books cover out of paper (“something very functional and strong, like linen”) and fashion the pages out of fabric. The fabric will be printed and silk-screened. She hasn’t designed the narrative yet, but says some of the words will be “reverse: and “return.” The 16-by-20-inch book will hinge onto a wall, its spine formed by one corner of the room.

“Working in this atmosphere has allowed me to create an idea for the book. The drawings will be very personal, but I’m very enticed and kind of challenged to do a new book form. And I think this happens a lot at Pyramid,” she says.

Frederick’s determination to create this space for herself and other artists has led her to take risks in areas that her schooling didn’t prepare her for: incorporating, navigating the intricate legalities of non-profit organizations, scavenging for corporate support and racking her brains for other fund-raising schemes. Her success in these endeavors is evident in the thriving artistic community that Pyramid has become. Now she is anxious to get back to her own work, to the paper tat makes it all possible.