Japanese paper artist Kyoko Ibe shares the process of creating "prison paper" as part of her collaboration with poet-lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts and theater maker Elise Thoron (ACC 2008, 2010, 2015). Ibe, Betts, and Thoron are working together on Dwayne's solo performance of his book of poems Felon and the Million Book Project, which brings micro-libraries of 500 books to 1000 prison across the United States.

Learn more about their work on December 8th at ACC's next inDialogue online talk, Felon - An American Washi Tale.

I was moved by the strong power of the “prison paper” that Dwayne made from inmates clothing and towels: two types of grey, light and dark, remind me of Rikyu Grey, favored by the 16th century founder of the tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu. Rikyu recycled scraps of paper to paste at the bottom of the teahouse he designed.

Sumi ink remains in paper after recycling, and recycled paper has a different grade of grey for each recycling. The first extant record in our history of recycling paper is in 9th century, when Fujiwara Tamiko, the consort of our emperor, recycled his poems into new paper and wrote calligraphy sutras to pray for his soul’s peace. Recycled paper was called Kankonshi – or “re-spirited paper” in China. People admired her act and recycled paper was often used as official paper when the emperor or top of samurai class wrote an official order to the people. People thought that recycled paper was something special, more valuable than newly made ordinary paper.

Rikyu, in 16th century, was not the first person to recycle paper, but he was one of the first individuals to appreciate the different grey tones of recycled paper as an art in itself. He accepted the grey as it is and appreciated the nuance of its tone. He was a Zen Buddhist and his accepting the “thing as it is” became the key philosophy within tea ceremony. Visually, Rikyu Grey is not a specific color scientifically numbered, but rather it is the color of the material or object nature gives us over time.

Rikyu's aesthetic, wabi sabi, was a revolution, or rebellion, against the mainstream, gorgeous Momoyama culture supported by the samurai class. His way was extremely minimalistic. The color Rikyu Grey is one of the most symbolic elements of the wabi sabi aesthetic.

When I handled Dwayne’s “prison paper,” I was very shocked by the heaviness of the sheet, physically and mentally, especially the color: Rikyu Grey. I understood the meaning hidden in the paper immediately. I thought to myself, "This paper is re-spirited paper of our time." I recycled it with old Gampi paper. Known as “the noble queen of paper,” Gampi paper is light. thin, and half-transparent with a silky smooth surface–just opposite to the “prison paper.”  By combining the two together, I am creating squares for a hanging installation for the performance of Felon. I found in this counterbalance, a harmony and new beauty born as one object.

In addition to working with "prison paper," I am working on bookshelves for Dwayne's Million Book Project. I found a recycled square paper pipe maker in Japan and designed how to adapt their system to install bookshelves in prisons. There are many necessary conditions to be take into account, and I am making 1/10 model to discuss and check with the maker to find out the possible artistic way of presenting 500 books as one object in the prisons. The dialogue with the maker is ongoing to order prototypes to examine and experiment in an actual size.

I feel this project is like the symbolic icon of recycled paper. Books are presented with recycled paper pipe bookshelf artistically, with the performance played in the art space recycled paper creates. As an artist working in paper media for all my life, this is a once in a lifetime project (Ichi go Ichie,一期一会 key word of tea ceremony), and feel very honored to work for the project.