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Kathmandu Through a Paper Filter 

Nepali expert in rare Japanese craft of shifu visits Colorado Springs

The show is an ode to paper," says local papermaker Tom Leech.

"We want to show the flexibility of paper and the humility that paper can carry," says the artist of the exhibit Shifu, the latest exhibit in Colorado College's Coburn Gallery, which features the work of Deepak Shrestha, Tom Leech and Jake Norton. "Paper is at once worthless and priceless," muses Leech when considering one of his many attempts to raise public awareness of handmade paper. "I want people to understand that it is the same material that Deepak's fabric is woven of, it is the same material that my poems are painted on, and it is the same material that Jake's photographs are printed on."

Deepak Shrestha is one of seven people in the world who make shifu. He is in Colorado Springs at Leech's invitation. Shrestha, Leech, and photographer Norton have collaborated -- each using their own artistic vocabulary -- to celebrate the city of Kathmandu, its complexities and conundrums, with handmade Nepali paper.

Papermaking in Nepal dates back to the 11th century. Nepali paper is made by farmers after the rice harvest in late November until the transplanting of rice begins in July. The farmers use the bark of the lokta shrub that grows locally in the Himalayas. Lokta paper in Nepal has been used for many centuries for both legal documents and religious scriptures. Special qualities of lokta paper include its antiseptic properties -- Nepalis place the paper on wounds to help healing -- and its archival strength.

In Japanese, "shi" means paper and "fu" means woven cloth. Shifu can be translated, albeit awkwardly, as woven paper cloth. In 11th century Japan, Buddhist priests wore paper clothing impregnated with a natural adhesive that rendered the paper water-repellent. Later, in the 17th century, peasants or the wives of Samurai -- depending on your source -- spun thread from Japanese handmade paper, combined it with other threads of silk or cotton, and wove their own clothing. This woven combination of paper and silk or cotton is shifu.

Shrestha's path to shifu mastery has been a complicated one. At the age of 17, the young man began studying Japanese. Before enrolling in the university in Kathmandu at age 20, he joined a handmade paper project as an interpreter, helping visiting experts from Japan teach Nepali villagers the Japanese technique of papermaking. Shrestha's innate proclivity for languages -- at last count he speaks six or seven -- led to his involvement in the papermaking process. And in interpreting Japanese experts, Shrestha himself became an expert.

Shrestha worked in the cottage industry of Nepali handmade paper for seven years, teaching villagers new papermaking techniques. "One day an ambassador from the Japanese Embassy in Kathmandu asked me for some black paper," says Shrestha. "And six months later he returned and showed me shifu. I asked him what it was. And he said, "This is your paper."

"I couldn't believe it," recalls Shrestha.

After Shrestha's disbelief subsided, the young interpreter and papermaker worked on making shifu for a couple of years -- spinning thread from lokta paper and then weaving it with both cotton and silk on Nepali looms. "I didn't show anybody," says Shrestha of this period of self-instruction and investigation. "I just made it and stored it. It was for my own happiness. I would look at it, feel happy, and then put it away again." Fifteen years later, Shrestha has shown his shifu in galleries in Japan, Switzerland, Germany, France and England. Three Swiss designers use Shrestha's fabrics.

On his way into the United States from Nepal last week, Shrestha was stopped in customs with a bundle of lokta, the shrub that is used for Nepali handmade paper. Disbelieving customs officials gathered round him as he produced various letters and documentation, but to no avail. Finally, Shrestha showed them the vest he was wearing as proof that a rich durable fabric can be woven of paper thread. Shifu must be seen and, most importantly, touched to be believed.

Shrestha uses mostly natural dyes, including turmeric, persimmon juice and various vegetables, and the odd chemical dye, on his shifu. Swaths of shifu cascade about the gallery, some of it smooth and soft, other sections wrinkled with an almost elastic quality. Earth tones abound. Shrestha recounts a Japanese wartime legend of secret missives written on paper, spun into thread and woven into fabric. While one can imagine a military message hidden imperceptibly in a kimono, it is easier to conjecture a love letter residing deep in the luxurious and charismatic shifu.

"We approach paper on a molecular level," says Leech, who spends a lot of time bending over pieces of handmade paper in his studio, peering into depths only he can know. "I relate to paper microscopically, and I think Deepak does too. We share a very deep sensitivity for the material." Shrestha has also included in the show a series of works -- objects from nature embedded in lokta paper pulp. The cumulative effect of these rough pieces is both simple and strong.

In addition to acting as the show's curator, Leech is exhibiting his "painted poems," works he created after returning from one of his many trips to Kathmandu. He fondly remembers receiving an unsolicited package of handmade paper from Nepal by mail. Paint was nearby. "I shut down everything for about two weeks and let this stuff pour out of me, trying to capture the feeling of being in Nepal."

Although the papermaker doesn't bill himself as a poet and is wary of crossing over into other mediums, his compact painted poems succeed in portraying the amazing turbulence that is Kathmandu -- a crossroad of cultures, religions and eras. For Leech, Kathmandu is both modern and medieval, and his colorful renderings, acrylic paints on handmade paper, parallel this coupling of periods. The visual and verbal works are full of longing and delight, humor and sorrow.

Leech also collaborated with photographer Norton to print the latter's photographs on handmade Nepali paper. Norton's photographs, moving human and architectural images, are a pleasure to behold. This pleasure is compounded by the play of the images with the handmade paper -- and the result is thoroughly human, warm and deep.

Shifu is a three dimensional letter to Kathmandu and its inhabitants, full of depth and affection, a letter that simultaneously celebrates the craft of handmade paper and its astonishing utility.

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