Jane Penny

As a child, she was fascinated by dust in the corners of rooms. Then at art school, she wasn’t so much interested in her artwork as the material she was making it on. Jane Ponsford has found her calling as a papermaker for whom pulp is precious. Paper, she says, is never a neutral surface…

There’s an air of quiet calm about Jane Ponsford that is extraordinary given that I am two hours late for our interview, courtesy of rail disruption. ‘Oh, I so rarely get time do nothing,’ she tells me. ‘I bought a book and have been sitting here reading.’ A similar air of quiet calm suff uses her work. It’s sculptural, delicate, textural and largely monochromatic, although she has recently begun venturing into colour. Her making process involves walking, collecting, arranging and papermaking, sometimes in the open air and sometimes in her studio or other spaces.

‘I HAD A COMPULSION TO MAKE SOMETHING WHERE FORM AND THE OBJECT WAS THE FOCUS. IT’S THE “THINGINESS OF STUFF ”. IT’S A VITAL SUBSTANCE’

What is your papermaking process?

Papermaking skills were brought over to Europe from the East – in Japan and China paper is made from the inner bark or fibres from plants and requires a great deal of preparation, scraping off the outer bark and hand-beating with mallets. European papermakers adapted the methods and materials, using linen or cotton rags, and developed a machine called a Hollander beater. This can be any size – my Hollander beater is oval and about the size of a hip bath – it’s got a motor and paddle that beats the torn or cut fabric in water until all the fibres are released and it becomes a slurry. I use this European style of papermaking because I find it really satisfying to take textiles, tear them up, pulp them and turn them into something else – a sort of recycling before recycling became the norm. My most useful supply  of rags has been ripped bed sheets, but these days I find that even 100 per cent cotton has a coating, so it can be quite difficult to source. Fortunately my work isn’t huge so I don’t need vast amounts. Turning rags into paper depends on the fabric, how tough it is and how it responds. I enjoy the process. I start with a pile of fabric and spend a day cutting it into bits and ripping it up, then I will spend a day beating it and then a day paper making. It’s time consuming but it’s all part of the project. It’s a bit like walking, it calms one down and sets the tempo of the project – it’s a very important part of it all.

How do you see your work?

What I love is that the process is part of the project whether working on my own or with other people – I’m not just presenting finished objects with a ‘Ta-Dah!’ I think it asks a lot of people to be presented with a finished object and not to have any way into it. They have to find a way to assimilate it in a very short time. I find that people who think they don’t like art are perfectly happy be involved and interested if you are talking to them about how and why and what. Although in talking about my work I often emphasise my interaction with people and place, I actually view my work as quite formal and methodical. I am most satisfied when there is a balance between the material world and the cerebral.

What is your papermaking process?

Papermaking skills were brought over to Europe from the East – in Japan and China paper is made from the inner bark or fibres from plants and requires a great deal of preparation, scraping off the outer bark and hand-beating with mallets. European papermakers adapted the methods and materials, using linen or cotton rags, and developed a machine called a Hollander beater. This can be any size – my Hollander beater is oval and about the size of a hip bath – it’s got a motor and paddle that beats the torn or cut fabric in water until all the fibres are released and it becomes a slurry. I use this European style of papermaking because I find it really satisfying to take textiles, tear them up, pulp them and turn them into something else – a sort of recycling before recycling became the norm. My most useful supply  of rags has been ripped bed sheets, but these days I find that even 100 per cent cotton has a coating, so it can be quite difficult to source. Fortunately my work isn’t huge so I don’t need vast amounts. Turning rags into paper depends on the fabric, how tough it is and how it responds. I enjoy the process. I start with a pile of fabric and spend a day cutting it into bits and ripping it up, then I will spend a day beating it and then a day paper making. It’s time consuming but it’s all part of the project. It’s a bit like walking, it calms one down and sets the tempo of the project – it’s a very important part of it all.

‘PAPER IS A MATERIAL FULL OF MEANING, IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN USED AS SOMETHING TO COMMUNICATE WITH – IT IS SOMETHING THAT ABSORBS THE ESSENCE’

How do you work with your collected materials in your studio or in other indoor spaces?

It always starts outside as I walk, survey, pick up stuff , look at it, feel it – I think it’s what everybody does when they go for a walk. You find that pebble interesting – why that one? If I’m making a piece of work from scratch and playing around with ideas, I need to pile up my finds on a table and arrange them. I want to keep my processes visible. I’ve been making ‘nature tables’ at the various places I’ve been working, so if it is somewhere where there’s chalk and clay then those will be on the table, as well as the flowers or plant material from which I make the dyes. They are my keys to the process. They become part of my work rather than just being things – they are like maps that lead me  into the piece of work. I’ve always been very interested in fairy stories although they are not overtly part of my work. I just love the idea of the magical nature of things – their worth, substance and significance.