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Art & Science: Paper – Nutritious and Versatile




The White Rowboat, St. John's River by Winslow HomerThe properties of paper and the concerns that surround the care of artwork on paper initially grabbed my interest.  The fact that any damage caused to paper is cumulative and irreversible makes our jobs as caretakers of these treasures even more critical.  A change in relative humidity, temperature, radiation which includes visible light, pollution, or biological factors can destroy a collection.  Degradation of paper can affect its chemical, physical, or optical properties through hydrolysis, oxidation, or crosslinking.  In order, this is a decomposition of a compound due to the addition of water, the change to a compound due to the addition of oxygen, and the connecting of chains of molecules to each other resulting in a change of properties for the compound. Observed physical changes are often a result of chemical changes, but biological factors directly interfere with the integrity of paper as well.

Along with the elements that may treat or hold paper such as sizing, paste, and starches, paper is also a smorgasbord of carbohydrates and proteins. Rodents, insects, and fungi, which includes molds, will feed off of paper; additionally, any dirt or dust will add to the buffet.  Although humans are not equipped with specific bacteria in the digestive system, such as the protozoans that live in the intestinal tract of termites or the bacteria that resides in the rumen of a cow, needed to digest the cellulose of paper into needed nutrients, paper can be used in any garden as compost and mulch.  There is no need to be concerned about the ink, however, since most are carbon and soybean-based nowadays.

DNA 1Besides its nutritional values, it is important to note other properties of paper products and their uses. Being innovated upon for thousands of years, paper is natural, renewable, and recyclable; it can be cut, torn, folded, bent, twisted, crumpled, creped, dissolved, molded, embossed, waxed, glazed, waterproofed, enameled, impregnated, and sensitized. When used in packaging, color-changing paper allows us to see clearly if products are past their sell-by date while scratch and sniff brings perfume ads in magazines to life.  Solar cells, radio identification tags which allow products to be traced at every stage, and batteries can be made from paper. Since it is a cheap and versatile substrate, paper is desirable for printing circuits onto instead of the traditional heavy circuit boards.  Printing electronics on paper reduces environmental impact over traditional methods and allows paper to be interactive.

According to some historians, paper dates back to 105 A.D., but according to recent discoveries, it might be 200 years older than originally calculated which would make paper around 2000 years young. Invented by Ts’ai Lun, a eunuch and official in the royal court of the Chinese Han Dynasty, paper was so revered that Ts’ai Lun eventually was declared God of Stationers, or paper sellers.  Prior to this, writings, drawings, and paintings were done on fabrics, flattened plant material, or prepared animal skin known as parchment.

Though paper derives its name from papyrus, the writing substrate of the Egyptians during 3000 B.C., papyrus is not like our modern paper.  Made from the plant by the same name, Cyperus papyrus, the Egyptians took this herbaceous perennial, a reed, a laid split, and flattened strips next to each other on a flat board.  A second layer of touching strips was laid perpendicular on the first, then covered with muddy water from the Nile, and finally pressed to produce a laminate sheet.  With squared edges, these sheets could be attached to each other to form larger sheets and rolls.  Collectively known as “tapa”, similar writing substrates were used around the world by processing the flattened plant material or the inner bark of paper mulberry, fig, and daphne trees to name a few. As with papyrus, these substrates were either flattened or laminated pieces of material, but these substrates are not the same as the paper we are familiar with today.

Cellulose 1True paper, the paper of Ts’ai Lun onward, uses plant derived materials, and the material is macerated into a pulp of individual fiber strands.  This soft, wet, and shapeless mass of material, also known as pulp, is strained and formed into sheets of paper.  The Chinese initially used paper for wrapping delicate items, but over time, the Chinese developed the paper tea bag, toilet paper, and created magnificent works of art on paper.  The breakdown of materials, including cellulose – a constituent of the plant cell wall, into the individual fibers is what gives paper its unique properties such as versatility of shape, form, and function.

Paper comes in many forms for many different uses.  The fibers of which it is made have come from a variety of components, but its basic production process and essential properties remain the same.  With slight changes or additions, it is still paper, whether it is used for the 500 year old manuscripts from the exhibition Art of Empathy or the more recent photography exhibit titled One Family: Photographs by Vardi Kahana. With such versatility, society will always have a need for paper, and with this need, new life is breathed into paper everyday.

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Director of Art Education

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