Kris Westerson does interventions.
A paper artist, Westerson makes books — as in notebooks, journals — that are so beautifully blank it can be hard to decide how to use them. Sometimes the paper is perfectly smooth. Other times, it’s ridged like corduroy. The books’ covers are decorated with details from nature, and open with symmetrical flaps or accordion-style. They’re works of art in themselves. So she must talk her patrons into filling the pages, despite her having hand-made the paper, the binding, and the cover art.
Westerson thinks of her art, which she creates in her garage, as starting like a science experiment. “I think in all of art, science comes into play,” she says. “In sculpture, you’re adding patinas. There’s an oxidation process that could be part of that. For silver work, for oil painting — it’s an underlying part of all art. You have to know what the materials are going to do to be able to express what you want to express.”
Her equipment includes obvious items like a Hollander beater (a paper-making apparatus invented in the 17th century), pigment, and a utility sink, as well as more intriguing things like an old car jack and recycled yogurt containers. Water is also essential to the process — the hydrogen atoms in H2O help beat, or thin, the pulp.
To make her paper, Westerson uses pulp from the abaca plant, which is related to the banana plant (abaca is also the fiber used for tea bags). It takes about 35 minutes for the pulp to be beaten to the consistency of paper, and two hours to turn it to the consistency of paint, which she then dyes and uses to decorate the books.
It’s a method she learned back in Texas, where she worked in the nonprofit sector as a grant writer. She spent her last six years there attending art school, and after mentoring with the chair of the book arts and paper department, Westerson found her corner in the art world — and then wanted to find a new one in the real world as well. She found that in Charleston and moved here about a year and a half ago. “I wanted to move some place that would be supportive of artists and the artist community, and I really fell in love with Charleston,” she says.
She’s currently affiliated with four local galleries: Spacecraft Studios, Surface Craft Gallery, Charleston Crafts Cooperative, and Studio Open on Folly Beach.
Westerson also recently held a Street Pulp project with the community organization Enough Pie, which works in Charleston’s upper peninsula. At four different locations in the upper peninsula, including DwellSmart and James Simons Elementary, she had people decorate her paper with watercolor and stencils using the prompt “Create what you’re attracted to.” This month Westerson thinks she’ll be able to make five long accordion books out of the paper participants decorated.
She hopes to move forward with this same idea in her PULP Parties, which are just what they sound like: she’ll provide the pulp, you’ll provide the party, and everybody makes paper. She sees these as team-building opportunities — a chance for a group of individuals to come together to gain confidence through learning a new process.
Westerson isn’t just a paper artist, however. She also creates art books, which are her handmade books that are then filled with her drawings, patterns, and poetry. On her own walls hang pieces of paper arranged in quilt-like patterns, meant as an homage to her mother, a quilter.
Just like her mother, for Westerson working with her hands is important. She sees as much beauty in the process as in the finished work. “It’s more than just the paper you see on the wall,” she says. “It’s the little artistic decisions you’ve made all along.”
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