'Paper Routes' finds creators spinning common material into artistic gold

Andy Downing
"Mountains to Climb" by Susan Li O'Connor

There can be a temporary quality to paper, a material that easily degrades, and which is commonly recycled or trashed outright. 

In new exhibit “Paper Routes: Women to Watch 2020 - Ohio,”which opens digitally today (Thursday, July 30) at the Ohio Arts Council’s (OAC) Riffe Gallery, artist Susan Li O’Connor plays with newsprint’s ephemeral nature, cutting and rolling Chinese and U.S. newspapers and then utilizing hundreds of these tight, narrow cylinders to construct massive, island-like creations that are meant to stand the test of time, the artist’s effort “to make something last that wasn’t meant to last,” as O’Connor wrote in a statement accompanying the work, dubbed “Mountains to Climb.”

Paper likewise destined for trash heaps undergoes a similar transformation in the hands of Carmen Romine, who collects thermal printer receipts gathered from her work in the service industry and uses them to create gorgeous images that mirror mountain landscapes. Riffe Gallery Director Cat Sheridan compared the process on display throughout the space with alchemy, the contributors spinning common materials into artistic riches.

O’Connor and Romine are just two of the 13 artists displayed in “Paper Routes,” curated by artist Stephanie Rond and Matt Distel and produced by OAC in collaboration with the Ohio Advisory Group and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Rond and Distel will leada curators’ tour of the exhibit at noon on Friday, July 31.

The breadth of art on display reflects paper’s adaptability, with some creations, like those by Romine and O’Connor, built to last and others existing in a more temporary nature. Such is the case with a large-scale installation by Cincinnati artist Emily Moores, which would be impossible to replicate precisely elsewhere, as it was partly shaped on the fly, its construction informed by the space in which it’s erected. 

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Rond started researching artists for the exhibit more than a year ago, conducting in-studio visits with prospective creators last fall, well before the pandemic altered the global landscape. A number of displayed works reflect these new realities, though, which Rond attributed to the artists being constantly engaged in creative conversation with the world. 

“They’ve all been working on [these pieces] pre-pandemic and during the pandemic, so the conversations have mutated in an interesting way,” Rond said in conversation at the Riffe Gallery, which is likely to be the first exhibit hosted in the space that can only be viewed digitally (Sheridan said the gallery was still researching if scheduled visits might be possible in the coming weeks). “I think that’s one of the beautiful things about artists: They already know how to adapt; they already know how to solve problems.”

As a result, some pieces have taken on new, previously unforeseen dimensions. A series of obscured black-and-white portraits drawn in a grid by artist Sa’dia Rehman, for instance, mirror the now-ubiquitous Zoom conference call screen, which likely wasn’t the intent when the piece was conceived. Similarly, an instillation by Sydney Joslin-Knapp transforms a room the size of a grand walk-in closet into an alien garden that blends aspects of dark and light (there are paper flowers, glowing stars and twisting rainbows covering nearly every corner of the space), which Rond equated with the strength and vulnerability that have become twin emotional pillars of the COVID era. In another unexpected turn, the room, which might have been jammed with visitors prior to the coronavirus spread, has been forced by social distancing into a place for solo reflection, giving it a more immediately immersive quality.

Still other works, such as a series of large-scale pieces by Breanne Trammell speak more bluntly to this era. These include a print covered in text taken from Langston Hughes’ writings on democracy and a large, checkered print tacked to a west wall of the gallery that asks: “Is there a tomorrow?” (Let’s hold off on that thought, for now.)

Indeed, our current reality has added a number of unexpected layers to the exhibit, beginning with the fact that works created solely using paper can now only be accessed digitally. This in addition to rich themes initially inherent in the concept, which Sheridan drew out in comparing paper— a material whose ubiquity can sometimes cause it to be overlooked — with the sometimes lagging public appreciation for women artists. “How do we make sure these things that kind of knit together our society,” Sheridan asked, “are raised up to the stature they deserve?”