SOUTH HADLEY — In the middle of the internal court at Mount Holyoke College’s Williston Memorial Library is an elegant stone structure, a wellhead from the 16th century. It has a Latin inscription on it that reads: “Free water for all those who thirst.”
As far as library mottos go, this one is up there with the best of them, including Victor Hugo’s “A library implies an act of faith.” Certainly it was good enough to inspire one of the most beautiful art installations in New England, a work that’s worth traveling to see, Rie Hachiyanagi’s “Inspirare.”
“Inspirare,” which rises from the hexagonal wellhead in a cylindrical column of translucent, mysteriously textured sheets of handmade paper, took eight months to make and five days for Hachiyanagi and a team of assistants to install.
The paper, sewn together and supported by a single dark thread and a number of nearly invisible monofilament wires, cuts out at the level of the library’s second floor, before resuming again — ethereally — near the top.
Hachiyanagi is an associate professor of art at Mount Holyoke. She has a studio in a converted old paper mill nearby. Holyoke, which used to be called “Paper City,” is filled with such places. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was producing more paper than anywhere else in America.
That industry grew out of the textile industry, which exploited the region’s powerful rivers. As Hachiyanagi explained to me in an e-mail: “Since old rags were the main source of paper, the success of textile industry paved the way for paper industry.”
Demand for the cotton paper fell off, however, in the 1920s, when mass paper production using tree pulp became the norm. Most of the local paper mills closed in the 1950s.
Hachiyanagi, 40, first came to America from Japan as a high school exchange student in 1988. She had little English and the exchange took her to rural Kansas. The experience was jolting. Because of her inability to converse in English, she was treated, she says, like a child; when she needed something, she was reduced to sketching it on paper.
But her drawing habit led unexpectedly to her being asked to make a homecoming mural. The completed work earned her the respect she craved, and a sense of belonging in the community.
She never returned to live in Japan.
Hachiyanagi has worked with paper for many years, and has made it her mission to collect and document stories from old Japanese papermakers before their knowledge disappears.
In her own work, she combines Western traditions of paper preparation with Japanese traditions of papermaking.
More specifically, she makes the pulp for her paper using a Hollander beater, a machine invented by the Dutch in the 17th century. But she makes the paper itself — or at least, the higher, more delicate sheets — using the same techniques employed by the Japanese for making paper doors.
These sheets give the top section of “Inspirare” an extraordinarily delicate appearance, like diaphanous clothing. You can see the paper actually moving in the circulating air.
The lower section is very different, with thick, sculptural sheets that crumple and bend and have textures that conjure elephant skin or dry, mountainous landscapes seen from above.
Hachiyanagi told me she used abaca, a non-fruit-bearing banana plant from the Philippines, for the paper in “Inspirare.” The abaca’s strong fiber is more commonly used for tea bags.
She starts working with it after it has been harvested, dried, and bleached in the sun, cooked in a mild alkaline solution, beaten to separate the fiber, then dried again. In the paper business, the pulp at this stage is called half stuff.
When Hachiyanagi gets her hand on this half stuff (it’s not yet pulp), she soaks it overnight, and beats the fiber further for 12 to 16 hours in a Hollander beater. This, she explained to me, gives the resulting paper strength (through hydrogen bonding), but also translucency. It also prepares the pulp to take on the unique textures that are the finished work’s most enticing and seductive aspect.
These textures arise in the paper almost magically. They come from exposing the pulp, which has been pressed with a 30-ton hydraulic jack to extract excess water, to shifting air currents. This surprising technique is enough to create the wrinkles and ripples that so call out to the viewer’s sense of touch, and it chimes with the way the finished work occupies the courtyard’s space, shaped and sustained by the surrounding currents of air, and complemented by the warm, tactile textures of the surrounding stone.
“Inspirare,” explains Hachiyanagi, is Latin not just for “inspiration” but also for “breath.”
In a poetic artist’s statement, she adds: “The spirit of the well — to provide water for all those who thirst — arises as a column of light in the center of learning.”
How beautiful. How apt.