Let’s do a little role-playing. Imagine you’re directing an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear at the College of Charleston. You’re trying to think of how to approach your production in a truly unique way when, suddenly, inspiration hits. Instead of using actors in the traditional sense, you choose to stage the production utilizing traditional African puppets. Next thing you know, you find yourself fascinated by the paper you used in the production, and your life’s purpose changes. End scene.
That’s what happened to papermaker Arthur McDonald. From 1982 to 1997, he served as the chair of CofC’s theater department, selecting the Shakespearean tragedy as the last production he would direct before retiring. Many of his plays up to that point had involved various acts of ritual — like having his actors chant in French — and he sought to find a similarly ritualistic way to adapt King Lear. McDonald decided to use natural objects to represent the characters, specifically African puppets made of sticks, cloth, and rough paper, and renamed the play Lear Africanus.
“The puppets weren’t so much authentic African as they were texturally African,” McDonald says. “It dawned on me that homemade paper had a texture I wanted to achieve — it picked up that texture as the story was told.” He made the majority of the paper himself, which sparked an interest in the art of papermaking. He decided to explore the craft further by studying at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina after retiring.
“My paperwork is a continuation of my interest in rituals, sacred rights, and ancient cultures and religions,” he says. Beginning in 1998, McDonald also made several visits to Asia, stopping by Burma, Laos, Tibet, Mongolia, and China to explore small villages and learn more about their papermaking rituals. “Paper in Asia is made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree. I now import that from farmers in Asia, then I cook it in order to clean it, and then I beat the fiber by hand, add water, and make paper. That in itself is a ritual,” he says.
During his travels, which also included a stop in Morocco, McDonald picked up various objects, like fossils, antique fabric, stones, nails, and shaman figures, to include in his papermaking process. “The work is anchored in the handmade paper that I make, but to that I add other elements that add definition to the paper,” he says. He uses only natural elements in his paper, which means that he tends to retain the natural color of the fiber, though he sometimes adds black with walnut dye. “With that, you’re taking a tree, then you’re adding some color from another tree to it,” he says.
His work was recently featured in the 2010 Cheongju International Craft Biennale in Seoul, South Korea, in addition to the Design Gallery in Burnsville, N.C. McDonald’s pieces have also appeared in the Black Mountain Center for the Arts in Black Mountain, N.C., where he teaches and keeps a summer studio. He has also taught courses locally at the Gibbes Museum of Art.
McDonald’s upcoming exhibition at Nina Liu and Friends, aptly titled Icons for Meditation, will feature 16 of his 18×20 wall pieces. “This is a little different from what I’ve done before. It’s more eclectic and not as theme-oriented. It probably will read more as individual works than a group of work,” McDonald says. The earthy pieces on display take inspiration from McDonald’s Buddhist faith, exploring the need for meaning beyond the self, while also reflecting his love of rituals. “Western culture somehow does a lot of their religious activity automatically. I like to think that my work slows people down and makes them think of what a ritual actually means, even if it’s just lighting a candle. I attempt to articulate in my artwork a kind of understanding of the ritual of life, the ritual of day, the ritual of moment,” he says. McDonald hopes that each viewer will have at least one image that will stick with them after leaving Nina Liu and Friends, hopefully serving as a point of meditation.
The papermaker credits his theater background with helping prepare him for the later-in-life transition into a visual artist. He says that directing entailed working extensively with set designers, which taught him a lot about the importance of texture, as soft or hard textures can have a major impact on the look of a scene. Directing also helped him understand the importance of unity in artwork. “In the theater, you’re pulling together a lot of elements,” he says. “In my artwork, I’m combining things, but I want to make sure that they’re unified, that they’re saying one thing.”
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