What in the world is that made of?” many viewers ask when seeing Jessica Beels’s translucent sculptures for the first time. Resembling the spiral form of a seashell, the muted color of fossils, the stippled surface of a fallen leaf, her lyrical works echo nature—at once familiar and mysterious.
“People don’t recognize paper,” Beels says matter-of-factly. “They wonder, ‘Did you make it out of sticks? Or rawhide? Or parchment?’ It flummoxes them.”
A hands-on purist, Beels uses materials as basic as her sculptures’ organic appearance suggests. “Fiber and water; that’s it,” she explains. A single plant, flax, is her medium of choice. Broken down and beaten in a machine for up to eight hours, the raw fiber arrives as liquid pulp in a bucket. After draining it through screens and pressing it into sheets, Beels folds the moist paper like pie dough over a steel armature, which she has hand-formed using pliers and wire cutters. Left to dry in the air, the paper becomes surprisingly strong and durable. Even canoes have been made from flax, Beels readily points out.
Because it looks simple, the artist frequently hears another question: Why hasn’t anyone else thought of this? “The answer is they have thought of it,” she responds with a weary smile, adding, “It’s a fairly easy and ancient process, but it gets complicated.”
Whether done mechanically or by hand, standard papermaking involves cooking and bleaching to stabilize the fibers for everyday use. Beels skips both these steps. Her technique allows the paper to shrink and stick to itself without any need for adhesives. But it also makes the process more difficult, requiring an understanding of how much and in what direction the material will shrink to become taut without ripping, how it can pull and distort its wire support and how much allowance or reinforcement is needed so that, she says, “the two things work together and have flex.”
Seated at the kitchen table in her Adams Morgan home, the artist has a striking, Earth Mother presence. Her swept-back, silvery hair frames a broad, open face and brilliant blue eyes. Over the span of her career, she has returned to this skylit kitchen to make smaller pieces, process pulp on the deck outside or cook and grind seaweed and daylily leaves to create a natural pigment used in some of her pieces.
Beels reflects on the many roads her journey has taken. “I don’t think I would be a paper artist if I had started out of college,” she observes. Focused then on traditional textile techniques such as spinning, knitting and embroidery, “I was interested in just getting it right, following the rules,” she recalls. “One of the freeing things about paper is you have to let it go. You have to give leeway for the paper do its thing, and I let it.”
While studying art history at Harvard, Beels worked on many theater productions. Involved in painting, building sets, making costumes and acting, she discovered her favorite job was stage manager. “I loved when things would go wrong and I had to jump in,” she says. The lessons served her well. “Being a paper artist is all about how to solve problems,” she notes. “Every piece involves combining an idea and structure, and working out how to get there.”
Five years after graduating, Beels went on to earn a master’s in Early American decorative arts at Winterthur, a historic museum in Delaware. Studying furniture, pottery, silver, rugs and paper on a path to becoming a curator, she discovered, “I spent a lot of time watching the conservators. I became more interested in finding out as much as possible about the materials, learning how things are made and accumulating techniques.”
Continuing her craft exploration, she moved on to bead weaving, becoming absorbed in the process of building complicated structures from tiny beads. Then, in 1998, on a lark she took a class in sculpting paper at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine. Six-months pregnant with her second child, Max, she had thought the excursion would be “a great way to have a two-week last hurrah. Instead,” she says, “I became addicted. Flax sculpture overtook me.”
She started getting her hands wet in paper pulp while helping out artist Ellen Mears Kennedy in Silver Spring, toting her son’s crib along. Two years later she was on her own. Her art has evolved along with a fascination with disease and biology, interests she attributes to family influences; her father was a doctor, her grandfather a renowned physicist.
About half of Beels’s recent work is based on scientific themes. The largest piece, “Pass It On,” covered a 10-foot-wide wall at “Pulse: Art & Medicine,” a recent exhibition at Strathmore Mansion in Rockville. The group of five spidery mobiles, ornamented with gold leaf and mirrors, was inspired by neurons related to Alzheimer’s. In the staggered, suspended row, moving parts cast dancing shadows and reflections across the white wall.
In her ongoing quest, Beels has landed on a convergence of method and meaning. “The beauty of science is both its incredible complexity and its incredible simplicity,” the artist observes.
“If you can find a material that conveys both, that’s the sweet spot. And in a way, paper does that.”
Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
For more information, visit Jessica Beels’s Web site at jbeelsdesign.com. Beginning September 10, Waverly Gallery in Bethesda will present Beels’s smaller pieces among those of regular exhibitors; displays will change each month for a year. In January 2014, Beels’s sculpture will appear at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Art Gallery in Washington. Abstract works will explore the theme of melting Arctic sea ice, a collaboration with DC artists Ellyn Weiss and Michele Banks.