Paper Circle celebrates the work of founder Sara Gilfert

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NELSONVILLE, Ohio – Paper Circle (35 W. Columbus St.) hosts an exhibit celebrating the work of Paper Circle founder Sara Gilfert Friday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. The exhibit is free and open to the public and light refreshments will be served.

Sara Gilfert has been preserving and innovating the paper arts for more than four decades. At her current age of 93 years, she has been making handmade paper since her 1983 visit to Japan, where she learned the specific technique invented by Mr. Ando Kazuhiza, a master paper maker in the village of Obara. Spending three months there, Sara learned, watched, and participated in the complicated and precise paper making processes that produce the large sheets used as walls and sliding doors in traditional Japanese houses. Upon returning to Athens her interest in papermaking was piqued and she sought out workshops and books all over the country to deepen her understanding.

An image of Paper Circle founder Sara Gilfert. She has white hair and a black shirt on.
Sara admits that she never imagined herself becoming an artist when she was younger. She married her husband, Jim, at 19 years old and they had three children together. She was busy maintaining the house and raising the children until she took her first art class at 40 years old.

She had been taking Home Economics courses at OSU before the family moved to Athens in 1967 because she grew up making and mending her own clothes. She enjoyed the sewing courses at OSU and intended to continue her courses when the family moved to Athens, so that Jim could teach at Ohio University. Unfortunately, her OSU courses were not accepted by the OU Home Economics Department as transfer credit. They were, however, accepted by the OU School of Art. Thus, she began her studies in artwork and never looked back.

Her first art class was in wood sculpting, where she made Angela Woodstock. She enjoyed the class, but knew it wasn’t the right medium for her.

She was about 40 years old at the time and, therefore, double the age of the average student alongside her. But she didn’t let that deter her.

She then took ceramics after wood sculpting, which was a requirement for the School of Art. Another required class was a Mixed Media course, where she was introduced to weaving.

Her career in weaving began in the 1970’s and spanned into the mid-’80s. She was already familiar with tailoring clothes from her Home Economics classes at OSU, which included a Tailoring course, which she remembers fondly. From that course, she had made her husband a fitted suit jacket and his PhD gown.

Innovating with weaving techniques was the main component of her MFA, which she earned in Fiber Studies in 1976. Her courses and artwork during those years were varied and evolving, expressing her emotions and realities at the time. The pieces in her exhibit showcase her dynamic abilities and skill.

After earning her MFA, she took her initial papermaking workshop in 1979. That began her 40 years of papermaking.

Sara had heard a rumor of a printmaking student making paper with Mary Manusos, an OU professor of printmaking at the time. She attended the student’s papermaking workshop at OU Lancaster and was enlightened. She started making her own molds and deckles at home to frame and shape the pulp as it drains and dries. She bought felt to couch the paper pulp onto from the mold. You press the shaped and molded pulp dry and you have paper!

She joined the Friends of Dard Hunter, now the North American Hand Papermaker’s Association. This organization gave her the inspiration and information she needed in her self-taught paper making journey.

At the same time as her burgeoning love for papermaking was establishing itself, Sara began teaching in the Fibers Department at Ohio University in 1980. She taught weaving, spinning, and natural dyeing classes to adults for 5 years, until 1985. She also taught Fibers at Rio Grande, OU Lancaster, OU Chillicothe, and workshops all over Ohio during that time.

In those years, across the US, all colleges and universities offered weaving. It was the style for roughly a decade, though weaving and fibers went out of fashion around 1985. Afterwards, colleges around the country defunded their Fiber Departments, all within about two years. When OU defunded their Fibers Department, Sara was out of a job. By that time, however, she had already been attending workshops and accumulating her papermaking tools and supplies at her at-home studio on Canaan Road.

In the middle of her teaching career, in 1983, Sara joined her husband on a three-month sabbatical to Japan. He was going to teach Physics for a quarter, and they had contacted Chubu University beforehand to arrange an apprenticeship for Sara, as well. She had already learned the basics of papermaking and was extensively familiar with fiber materials, so her time learning from Mr. Ando Kazuhiza was well spent.

Shortly after coming home from the sabbatical, in 1984, the family moved to a new house that had a barn on the property. With the help of her husband and sons, they renovated the barn to become Sara’s at-home papermaking studio. She worked in her studio for almost a decade, creating new tools, techniques, and elaborate pieces of art and sheets of paper. She explored various motifs and themes, mostly revolving around the feminist movement.

Throughout that time, she continued to attend papermaking workshops around the country and around the world, particularly in Southeast Asia. Sara’s daughter lived and worked in Japan for years, so Sara and her husband would often visit, and Sara went farther and farther afield to visit people who were still practicing the traditional art of hand paper making. Her notable visits were to Myanmar and the Philippines.
Paper making has been practiced for over 2,000 years all over the world, utilizing a variety of techniques. Almost every aspect of modern papermaking has been foreshadowed by traditional practices and Sara sought out to learn from the sources.

In 1988, her husband started a small manufacturing business, Athens Technical Specialists Inc., for which she did the accounting, alongside her artwork. The technical business flourished and their son took it over about a decade later.

In 2003, Sara founded Paper Circle, a nonprofit papermaking studio, dedicated to the art and craft of papermaking, in Nelsonville, Ohio. She has been committed to the nonprofit ever since, training apprentices and sharing the love of hand papermaking with the wider community. Her hope is to preserve and celebrate the joy, art, and craft of hand papermaking for more people to discover and fall in love with, just as she did.