Say you’re bumping through a poorly maintained parking lot and you’re cursing the municipal authorities who are not repairing the surface. Then you behold a woman in shabby, dye-stained clothes sitting in front of you on a milk crate, with a roll of Japanese paper and a jar of ink beside her, perhaps with a portable radio playing. She’s peering with intense concentration at the raised lines of asphalt on the ground in front of her. That just might be artist Jennifer Davies.
She’s in the process of taking what you curse as a driver — big, axle-bothering asphalt cracks on the surface of the lots — and transforming them into what you likely will admire as an art appreciator: delicate, mysterious, old/new dance-like or calligraphic shapes on Japanese handmade paper.
The intriguing results of her work in those potentially dangerous venues are on view in “Paper is a Path: New Work in Handmade Paper,” the next exhibition at City Gallery, which runs at the Upper State Street venue through March 26.
She’s showing 23 separate works all on papers that she’s made in her various pots, cauldrons, and bathtubs either at her Erector Square studio or out in the garage behind her house in Branford.
During a tour of the gallery, which is open Thursday through Sunday from noon to 4:00 p.m. or by appointment, Davies confessed that occasionally she buys commercially produced papers, but by and large, she not only makes the artwork that’s on the paper, but the paper itself.
In a sense, Davies is offering two shows: the images she has created and the paper she has created to put the images on.
“In many of my pieces, the paper is both the support and the art itself,” she said.
To make the paper, Davies starts with the stalks of the mulberry plant, in the Japanese tradition. Then “through the alchemy of cooking, cleaning, and beating, the stalks turn into fluffy pulp from which I make translucent sheets,” she explained in her artist statement.
For decades — ever since she finished a degree in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design — Davies said she knew she preferred the more color-absorbing and more tactile feel of paper to canvas.
However, she began to immerse herself in the craft of paper-making only in the mid-1980s, when she took a paper-making workshop at Creative Arts Workshop. She’s gone on to teach the age-old alchemy of paper making.
She said that when you do or view a life drawing, for example, “what you are looking at is the drawing on paper. In my work, the work starts with the paper. A conscious choice,” she said, out of which she gets the pleasure of having produced the actual object on which her image will be placed, or from which it will emerge.
Having done this for so many years, Davies was hard put to find an analogy to the pleasures of making the paper and the image all together. “Maybe it’s the difference between making a cake from scratch or its coming out of the box,” she said.
Her show, which is varied, colorful, and inviting, has three sections. The first is the “Bound Books” series, for which Davies took old thick papers she had made years ago, wrapped them with thread and yarns, and then worked them up in various deepening layers to evoke books of the occult that she stumbled across on the internet.
A second section is the “Shift” series, for which Davies inked up large agave plant leaves and pressed the delicate papers over them. In this series she said she also dropped in, like a Nutmeg alchemist channeling the potions of Japanese ancestors, the juice of fermented, unripe persimmons, which the Japanese call kakashibu.
“It smells awful, ” Davies recalled. But using it as a pigment, she was able to create the effect of pock-marked depths, which darken with age, she said.
The third series — and my favorite — hail from the parking lot. Make that parking lots. Over the last months Davies visited two, one behind Hamden Hall, the private school on Whitney Avenue, and the other off Route 1 in Branford.
She said that for years she’s had her eye on certain sets of tar lines. “I love them, I’ve admired them, they’re like natural drawings.”
In some instances, after she had taken photographs of the lines of her dreams and readied herself to make prints, she returned to the location only to find that the cracks had been “re-asphalted,” she said, and her plans foiled.
She didn’t give up and went hunting for more naturally occurring parking lot finds.
When she decided on the locations — a certain amount of privacy was one of the requirements — she plunked herself in front of them at the two lots, spending lots of time on her milk crate, inking the tar lines, and pulling the monotypes that now appear in the show.
This is a first for Davies, and she is rightfully pleased with the outcome.
If you were a little boozy when you walked in the gallery, you might see the undulating lines as calligraphy or marks from Asian ideograms.
Davies said she sees legs of dancers pulled in various directions, and also a push and pull of action, achieved because her papers are so thin you can see through them. In effect, they are printed on both sides.
“I tend to use two legs,” she said, explaining how she put the lines together in the sequence, pattern, and rhythm she chose. “A lot of this is unconscious,” she said.
At one point it was even a little dangerous, and not because of parking cars nearby. Davies recalled that once when she was working intently she heard footsteps behind her. They got louder. She turned to see a man standing behind her clearly wondering what she was up to.
“You’re going to ask me what I’m doing,” she recalled of the interaction. “Yup,” she recalled the man replying.
“It turned out he had lived in Japan and knew about paper,” she said. “He said he thought I was from the EPA and that I was doing tests of the parking lot. We laughed about it. A 70-year-old lady sitting on a milk box doing chemical tests!”
That lady will be talking about the tar line images and much else at an artist’s talk she is giving on the show’s last day, March 26, at 2:00 p.m. at the gallery.
City Gallery is located at 994 State St. Hours are Thursday through Sunday, 12 to 4 p.m., or by appointment. Click here for more information.