Helen O’Connor is a Yukon visual artist who makes paper by hand using oriental and local fibres to create sculpture, assemblages and installation. Her works express a reverence to nature and are influenced by the unique atmosphere of the north. She took the time to talk to us specifically about this distinctive practice, as well as future papermaking projects.

O’Connor’s exhibition ‘Salutation’ is currently showing in the Yukon Art Centre Public Art Gallery until May 10th.

What is unique about your process?

Art is a means of expression. The medium is the vehicle used to express. This is why my chosen medium of hand papermaking is so important to me. It is an age old process that connects me physically to the past and to the earth. After much repetition a physical process such as papermaking becomes a means of spiritual connection. Each step of the process contains significance that goes into the ultimate meaning of the piece. It is a slow meditative process that gives the mind space for creative thought and connection.

The sculptural installation work I have created for this show is made from handmade paper. The process of papermaking connects me physically to my work and creates a beautiful product which is far superior in aesthetics and quality than factory produced paper. I believe the closer the medium is to its primary source (the earth) the more radiating beauty and energy it emits.

The paper created for "Singing Stones" is made from oriental fibres called Gampi and Kozo and local willow. The oriental plants are small bush-like trees that regenerate each season after harvest (quite like our local willow bushes). The fibre is collected from the bast fibre (the inner bark) which is stripped from its branches. It must be soaked for 24 hours and then cooked for several hours with a mild caustic (soda ash). It is then rinsed and beaten with hardwood mallets on a large rock or wooden surface. This can be a social rhythmic event with many participants.

The resulting pulp is added to a vat of water. It retains long fibres which makes for a fine strong paper (see paper used as projection screen in "Release"). Yukon willow paper is very coarse and a reddish colour. See if you can find it among the "Singing Stone" rock sculptures.

The paper sheets formed on a screen are then "couched" onto a board to dry or onto the rocks to cast.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a multi disciplinary collaboration with filmmaker Marten Berkman (see film loop installation "Release" in YAC gallery), dancer Monique Romeiko, and musician Jordie Walker for upcoming show in October 2014. I will be creating more cast rock sculptures this time using recycled paper grocery bags (more utilitarian for dramatic stage use with dance) and a super large sheet of flax handmade paper for dancing on and under. Flax produces a rattly crisp paper which will add some interesting sound qualities to the performance. The group will be rehearsing in a weekend residency at the Old Firehall, Whitehorse, April 5 and 6th. The public is welcome to attend during development. Monique and I collaborated on an improvised dance performance for the opening of Yukon Arts Centre exhibition, Salutation, on March 6.

This summer 2014 I look forward to attending an artist residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, County Monaghan, Ireland. My project there is to create a series of sculptural artist books that will include elements of handmade paper, collage, photo transfer or photo etching related to exploration of personal connection to Ireland and ancient culture. Based on visits to ancient stone/bog sites and interaction with contemporary community.

My studio is located in the Rosati Centre, 3 Glacier Road, Macrae Subdivision, Whitehorse. I have a Mark Lander Hollander beater called a "Critter", an oriental paper stamper, as well as some interesting antique fibre processing equipment. Call ahead for studio visit, 334-4292 to experience the magical process of papermaking.

Image shows artist hand beating willow bark for installation at the Riverside Arts Festival, 2009 in Dawson City. Photo credit: Chris Clarke.