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June 8, 2001

What to do with the paper in our lives, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the stacks and piles of outrageous clutter, or to take arms against a sea of papers, and by opposing end them?

The electronic revolution has not reduced our preference for paper. We may not have ticker tape for raining on parades anymore, but we have posters, memos, cigarette packages, and cereal boxes galore.

There’s a word for much of the paper that passes our way — ephemera. Things like workshop flyers, cigar bands, railway tickets, air-sickness bags, beer labels, religious tracts, passports, postcards, sewing needle packets, stamps.

New to the library is a fascinating book called “Encyclopedia of Ephemera: a guide to the fragmentary documents of everyday life for the collector, curator, and historian.” The author, Maurice Rickards, worked on the project for decades but died before its publication. If ever there were a never-ending project, this would be it.

If I were a still-life painter, these are the kinds of things I would put in my paintings. The artwork and lettering on these “documents” have a certain appeal, and there’s the challenge of rendering the creases and textures of the paper.

There is a kind of still-life painting called trompe l’oeil, and the intent is to fool the eye into seeing the painted objects as real. I was witness to a marvelous exhibition of it in London. It was called “Painted Illusions” and featured the work of Cornelius Gijsbrechts from around 1670. The objects seemed to come out of the canvas. It was hard to resist touching them. I’m sure it would have been the end of my visit if I had.

A favorite subject was something called a “letter rack” or “letter board.” These are the neatest things. Straps criss-cross a board and are pinned at the edges and the junctions. In the paintings, these straps would be full of letters, papers, letter-openers, scissors, pens, feathers, combs, jewelry–all hanging from or stuck behind the straps.

I believe this is how letter racks were used in real life. They were the equivalent of junk drawers or refrigerator doors. I really like the idea and plan to make one of my own. Many of the paper objects in the paintings would fall under the heading of ephemera.

In the spirit of bringing back old technology, such as the commonplace books discussed a few weeks ago, I offer you letter racks for organizing papers at hand–in particular, those papers you just don’t want to get rid of yet, but for no good reason.

Last fall, I spied a simple letter board in Bongo Billy’s beside a Fiber Arts display. Near the door was a small board with straps like those on letter racks. Handmade paper scrolled down behind the straps, and visitors were invited to write their comments.

I found this little rig appealing. I’ve always liked handmade paper. I made paper as a kid; made the screen, pulped the fibers. Paper is neat stuff. And good thing, too, since our lives are full of it.

Coincidentally, you have the opportunity to attend some papermaking workshops this summer, taught by Lynn Petrillo. The workshops are not listed in the Summer Recreation Guide, but the flyer is posted in the library and may last there until the first class in late July.

A letter rack is one solution to the problem of what to do with the possibly useful but unclassifiable paper in our lives.


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