The Art of Paper by Sarah Dawa Root '06 + Christopher Pastor '06
Sarah Dawa Root '06, Christopher Pastor '06 and Visual Arts faculty member Kris Philipps spent last fall's October Study Days in northern Nicaragua, where the women of a rural farming community near Esteli had formed a papermaking co-op. The SLC contingent was there to teach the women how take the papers they'd created and bind them into books to be sold in Managua, Nicaragua's capital. Here, in their own voices, are the students' accounts of their trip, which was sponsored by SLC's Office of Community Partnerships and organized by ProNica, a Quaker organization promoting self-sufficiency in rural Nicaragua.
Chris Pastor: I'm not one for the outdoors. I never liked camping and small critters of all kinds generally terrify me. My idea of a "hike" was something that happened on a Stairmaster, not a mountain, but nevertheless, I believed in the cause of this trip and was excited from the start. While preparing, I learned that Nicaragua sits on a major fault line, is frequented by hurricanes, has active volcanoes and is home to the world's only lake with freshwater sharks. Understandably, I was a little nervous about going.
Sarah Root: We get off the airplane; the air is hot. We begin to sweat immediately. We arrive at Quaker House, the guest house run by ProNica, and begin to unpack our treasure of supplies. We're here!
We drive to Esteli and meet Marcell, our guide, who tells us the scientific names of every plant we see, with special attention to orchids. He creases and tucks paper to create colorful origami flowers. Hours go by. Marcell gives us some of his origami and shyly says that with each piece, he is giving us a bit of his soul.
Later we drive up a mountain to Posada Tisey, an ecological reserve, where the clouds become the air we breathe. We slide down hills, cross streams, climb over and through barbed wire, and finally meet an old man who resembles the jungle in which he lives, with his white beard, rugged skin and bare feet. He uses thin, rusted metal scraps to carve into the rock cliffs that surround him, creating scenes of history and of his mind. We climb back up through the mud just before dark.
Chris: The next day we loaded the truck and headed out towards the papermaking co-op. The rainy season had ended but the dirt roads had not recovered. Less than halfway there we were told that we would need to hike the rest of the way, carrying all of the materials, because the truck would inevitably sink. A deep sea of wet earth stretched out before us, and my sandals, some materials-and even Sarah-had to be pried from the sucking jaws of the slimy mud.
I arrived at the co-op barefoot and on the brink of tears. I had cut my hand on barbed wire in an unsuccessful attempt to save myself from belly flopping into the sludge. I had never been dirtier and I was completely out of my comfort zone.
Sarah: On the third day, we meet the women of the co-op. They stand before us with such eagerness to learn and desire to create. They are giddy, inviting and warm. Teaching them how to measure and cut paper, however, is more difficult than expected. The women have no relationship to rulers, needles and knives. They are quite confused by our emphasis on exactness and strict attention to detail. One of the women, Erika, breaks three needles immediately.
Chris: My mind has always worked in two languages, English and Spanish, but rarely in both at the same time. During our teaching sessions, I served as the sole translator, which demanded far more than I ever expected. I was at the center of each conversation, asking and answering every question.
It was stressful trying to make sure that every nuance of language came across, knowing that any misunderstanding would fall squarely on my shoulders. Towards the end, however, my feelings about my position as translator changed.
The paper made by the Cooperativa de Mujeres Ambientalistas is made from a plant they call piñuela, and comes in a variety of colors and textures. For more information, or to support the co-op by purchasing the women’s work, call the SLC Office of Community Partnerships and Service Learning at (914) 395-2573, or email the director of community partnerships, Irene King, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah: It's day 6. We have dinner with Javier, a young and incredibly handsome farmer, art teacher, father, actor and artist who is Kris Phillipps's friend. He shows us some of his paintings and sculptures carved out of a single piece of wood. He tells us of his wish to spread artistic expression throughout Nicaragua. With his emphasis on teaching and making art, and lack of interest in fame and fortune, he is an inspiring model of the kind of artist I would like to be.
Chris: In serving as the sole translator, my relationship with the women grew stronger. They were dependent on me to understand what Kris and Sarah were teaching, and were so grateful to me for helping them. By the end of the trip, I felt a tremendous sense of satisfaction knowing that my language skills had aided the exchange of knowledge, art and cultures. I had even come to appreciate the daily hikes to the co-op, which, despite the bugs and the mud, became part of a morning meditation that gave me a deep admiration-if not yet a love-for the outdoors.
Sarah: En route back to the States, sitting in between my professor and my friend, I feel endlessly grateful for the entire experience, and especially for being exposed to four different ways of making art, all unique. Being in Nicaragua taught me that tools such as rulers, knives and even paper are wonderful to have-but they're not required to make art: it's motivation that must be there.