Miller Merges Mexican, Alabaman Symbols on Quest for Distinctive Paper
By Richard LeComte
A piece of handmade, hand-cut paper, made from the bark of a Tuscaloosa paper mulberry tree, unites through art the symbolic protector of a remote Mexican village with Big Al, thanks to an intrepid UA professor’s creative research.
Steve Miller, coordinator of the book arts program, possesses this rare piece of paper art, along with samples of other works produced by a family in the village of San Pablito, near the Gulf Coast of Mexico. His story begins in his quest to study a rare paper made from bark of a particular tree by the residents of the town.
“We had heard about this paper-making village for years, but we didn’t know where it was,” Miller said. “So my friend Martin Vinaver rooted around among his artist friends in Mexico and figured out where it was.”
Miller then undertook an 18-hour journey from Tuscaloosa to the village. He met up with Vinaver in Vera Cruz; then they traveled by rusted car and buses to the villages of Xalapa, Puebla, Tulancingo and up a mountain to San Pablito. He traveled light. He brought along a backpack with a sheaf of bark from the Alabama paper mulberry tree, which Miller and other artists use to make an Asian-style paper called Kozo. In San Pablito, Miller was both expected and welcomed.
“My friend had been able to make contact with the chief paper-making family there in San Pablito,” Miller said. “It’s a town devoted to making these amate ‘spirit papers.’ It’s not actually a true paper pulp, but it’s a faux paper made from beaten fibers, beaten directly together and then dried in the sun.”
The reason Miller calls the work of this Mexican family “spirit papers” is because of its importance to the San Pablito community. The process of making the paper, then cutting it into images creates beautiful works of art the people of the community view as protection for their lives and their crops.
“A mango farmer will come to this family and ask for them to make this amate paper to protect his crops,” Miller said. “They make a paper with a base of bark from their trees. The bark is cooked, then beaten with a flat lava stone and shaped into a piece of paper. The paper is sometimes very decorative – sometimes the bark is woven together and layered … then the lava stone will be used to beat the pieces together.
“Then, one of the brothers will fold a piece of thin, dyed paper and, with tiny scissors, he will cut and cut and cut, so that when the piece of paper is opened up, suddenly there might be a double-headed eagle – the symbol of their village – and there will be stylized representations of a mango.”
The farmer then takes the item to one of the shamans, an Otomi Indian, who lives in San Pablito, Miller said. The shamans use a ritual to “activate” the paper.
Miller observed this process and brought back samples of this art from San Pablito. It’s a process that, as an artist, he found exhilarating.
“As soon as we got there, we looked around their paper mill and saw the bark the farmers harvested from their trees and saw this whole drying-area that was at the cliff edge, which looked out to all the mountains beyond,” Miller said. “It was like stepping back a hundred years or more.”
At the core of village life is the symbol of the double eagle, which adorns both the amate sheets the artisans create and the entrance gate to the village – the first symbol that greeted Miller when he arrived. Miller says a strong myth powers the residents’ belief in the double eagle.
“Every Dec. 24 celebrates the double-headed eagle,” Miller said. “In their lore, an eagle flew into their mountain and took up residence. People started getting sick and dying. They didn’t know what to do. Another eagle flew in and fought with that first eagle, and then they both flew off, and the sickness stopped.”
Of course, Alabama has its own symbols – Miller thought of the yellowhammer, Alabama’s state bird, and the elephant, UA’s mascot. So, in his two-day stay, Miller found a way to bring together the village’s strong tradition of paper-making and the double eagle with his own UA culture. When Miller showed the family the Alabama bark, the oldest brother insisted that they cook it. The family subjected the Alabama bark to an overnight process of cooking over a wood fire.
“I went back the second day to see how the fiber was coming along,” Miller said. “They already had taken some of the cooked paper, rinsed it and beaten it out into a square sheet. It was in the sun on a board drying. They were well pleased with it. So I asked them if they would consider making an amate sheet, the base of which would be our Alabama Kozo paper, and then the figurative part would be the double-headed eagle of their village, the yellowhammer bird of Alabama and the elephant from The University of Alabama. They took it at face value, and they said ‘absolutely,’ as long as we could help.”
“He cut the animal forms while the others made the base sheet,” Miller said. “When they finished the amate sheet, at the end of the day, the whole family rolled all the paper into a plastic cover for me to take back. The whole family worked together. It was quite beautiful. They were excited that we had brought a new fiber to the table. Their interest was scientific; they really wanted to see how our fiber was different from theirs. In the end, they concluded our Alabama Kozo fiber was stronger than their own, and a pleasure to work with.”
Miller and Vinaver carefully carried the wet papers back over the mountains and by bus and car. It was dried the next day in Vinaver’s studio, La Ceiba.
As a result of Miller’s adventure and research, a small town in Mexico, known for its traditional art, and a college town in West Alabama have united much-revered symbols through the fibers of a most unusual paper.