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Pulp fiction: PAO spares the time to sustain an ancient art.

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The idea for the book The Poetics of Endangered Species was simple: What would the world's threatened animals and plants say if they could speak? Convinced that these creatures would choose poetry over prose, I and the book's other developers searched for simple yet profound poems, hoping this apparent paradox would cause readers to consider the poems and reflect on their world. Thus, the book became a literary sanctuary giving voice to the voiceless.

The Poetics of Endangered Species was the brainchild of Anatolij Ljutjuk, director of the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Tallinn, Estonia. Ljutjuk is also a State Artist of Ukraine, an award-winning Estonian designer, the builder of Estonia's Ukrainian Catholic Church and a Benedictine monk. Kay Phillips, wife of former U.S. Ambassador to Estonia Dave Phillips, called him "Estonia's Leonardo da Vinci."

Work on Poetics began in 2000 when Ljutjuk created a series of icons featuring Estonia's endangered species. These icons inspired a young Estonian poet, Timo Maran, to write a series of accompanying poems. As a growing number of visitors to his beautiful church fell in love with the combination of images and words, Ljutjuk realized that he needed to convert this creation into a more accessible form--hence the book.

But first he needed to find someone who knew how to make paper by hand.

The Papermaker

That would be me. While serving as a U.S. Information Agency Library Fellow in Tallinn in 1993, I wrote a series of original fairy tales--two of which were published by Estonia's largest press. But when I gave a copy of my first book to the six-year-old daughter of the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn's most senior Foreign Service National, the precocious girl was unimpressed. She said, "It's very nice that you write books, but can you make your own books?" She then showed me her books--made out of scrap paper, held together by tape and string and illustrated with colored pencils and crayons.

As my ego deflated, I still managed to think: "What a brilliant idea."

Developed by the Chinese more than 2,000 years ago, the process of papermaking by hand remains largely unchanged. Plant fibers such as linen, cotton and fl ax are used, but the fibers must be broken down. I use a "beater" machine that was built in Brooklyn but is based on a Dutch design from the 1600s. When mixed with water, these fibers create a pulp from which the papermaker pulls sheets of paper by using molds that capture the tiny fibers but allow the water to pass through. The wet sheets are then pressed between two pieces of felt--wool doesn't stick to plant fibers--and then dried.

Useful Instruction

By 1994 I was back in Washington, D.C., working at the Library of Congress and studying at the Corcoran College of Art + Design, where I learned to make handmade paper and books. I took time off work to spend part of one summer studying under one of America's leading papermakers. Along the way, I joined the Friends of Dard Hunter, a group of artists and craftspeople dedicated to preserving the skill of making paper by hand. An activist of the Arts and Crafts movement, Hunter revived papermaking by hand in the United States, and succeeding generations of Friends have helped return the craft to countries as far apart as Spain and Australia.

I joined the U.S. Information Agency in 1999, and when it was merged with the State Department later that year, I was posted to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. There, I tried but failed to get Russian artists interested in establishing a mill to make handmade paper. In the process, I met several artists who worked with paper, including one with Ukrainian roots, Igor Zadera. After exhibiting our paper at various universities and libraries around Moscow, we were invited to do a small show in Tallinn at a gallery owned by the illustrator of my second book.

One day in 2002, Ljutjuk saw the show, tracked me down and recruited me as his papermaker.

While still in Moscow, I helped design the first paper mill in the Baltic States since Estonians had stopped making handmade paper in 1913. Shortly after I became the public affairs officer in Estonia in 2005, I did what any Friend of Dard Hunter would do: I helped bring the handmade paper mill to life there. Located in the basement of a 14th-century building in Tallinn's medieval Old Town, this paper mill is another living example of Ljutjuk's art.

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My volunteer work on this project has since expanded to include assignments as translator and editor--and showing Estonia's President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and his wife how paper is made from cotton, linen and rags. Together with a growing team--including Ljutjuk's talented sons Nestor and Bogdan, and Estonia's top calligrapher, Heino Kivihall, I produced the handmade original for The Poetics of Endangered Species: Estonia, published as a facsimile edition in 2007.

When Ukraine's First Lady, Kateryna Yushchenko, visited Tallinn, she was so impressed she decided to sponsor The Poetics of Endangered Species: Ukraine. And so on Feb. 17, the First Lady unveiled our new book, which aims to reconnect people with the world around them. Thanks to massive media coverage of this event, an entire nation learned what threatened plants and animals might tell them if they could speak.

The author is public affairs officer at the U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg, Russia.
COPYRIGHT 2009 U.S. Department of State
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Title Annotation:After Hours; The Poetics of Endangered Species: Estonia; public affairs officer
Author:Johnson, Eric A.
Publication:State Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2009
Words:915
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