Thread of fiber: A trail
Pat Gentenaar-Torley’s career has been one woven in changes. In the process, her artworks have given the world enchantment and beauty.
Born in San Francisco, Pat grew up in Mountain View, in the Santa Clara Valley (now Silicon Valley). Did California’s pioneering spirit influence her? The long vacations gave her, an observant and curious child, time to examine everything in the house and go exploring in the neighborhood. She would weave little rugs and make her own toys, or create landscapes from the clay dirt in the garden for her fantasy stories.
During her first years at college Pat decided that oil and acrylic paints were too plastic looking. Believing in hippie ideals, she wanted to “return to nature”. Ceramic and textile classes were her favorites.
She was selected for the fiber arts department at California College of the Arts (in the past: CCAC). Trude Guermonprez, the head of the department, was an inspiring teacher for Pat and became a close friend. Just as Trude, Pat too had met a Dutchman, Peter Gentenaar, and began a relationship. He was studying for his M.F.A. at CCA. After receiving his degree, he had to leave the US. Pat also moved to the Netherlands.
Life in Holland was a shock after living in California. The feelings of loss triggered anxiety attacks, possibly magnified by her use of psychedelics in the ‘60’s. Yoga and Tai Chi lessons slowly helped and working at the loom was a calming meditation. Pat wove intricate pieces and three dimensional and monumental forms, often experimenting with new weaving techniques.
Meanwhile, Peter began experimenting with papermaking when commercial paper could not fill his needs for etching paper. He used a hollander beater to mill plant fibers into pulp and a vacuum former to make his sheets. Pat joined in these experiments, as she had studied plant fibers and dyes at CCA. She combined hand formed paper with fibers and threads, sometimes woven. She experimented with making pulp from many fibers: hemp, linen, cotton, silk, sisal, abaca and more. Experimentation led to a crucial innovation, to work with the pulps “upside down and backwards”, mirror image.
Her approach is organic: let the painting grow. Pat makes a sketch on a piece of smooth interfacing and lays it on a mat on her vacuum table. Using a turkey baster (pipette), she starts with the foreground details and pours layer after layer of (pigmented) pulp onto the interfacing, often using a knife to model it. When the painting is complete, she pours a thick layer of cotton pulp on the entire piece as a backing. To remove the piece from the table, she puts a board on it and with the help of a vacuum pump sucks the piece to the board. She can then lift the board from the table, peel off the sketch and let the painting dry.
This mysterious technique gives a fascinating result. Paper is not just an image bearer it has become the image itself. It is 3-dimensions squeezed into a few millimeters of pulp. Variation in beating times, combined with different fibers, produce very subtle differences in the texture of the surface of the paper.
The color is pigmented fiber, the basis for the piece. This creates a stunning brightness of color and depth of vision. Many of the layers are almost transparent, as in the old techniques of oil painting, when layers of varnish contain only a bit of pigment. It is hard to imagine that Pat knows what the piece will look like as she works to the back, building up the surface images. She knows because the fibers in the pulp become extensions of her fingers. They glide in the water and take their place, swimming like fish as her fingers guide them. There is an intimate relationship with the fibers of the plant as they work together to form new organic images portraying live subjects using live material.
To connect with a larger body of paper artists, Pat joined IAPMA (International Association of Hand Papermakers and Paper Artists). In 1994, after four years serving as secretary, Pat organized a paper congress in Holland with thirty workshops, an exhibition and the first “Paper Market”. Peter organized six more paper related shows.
Inspired by the public’s enthusiasm, and as a continuing ode to paper art, they initiated the Holland Paper Biennial (1996). For a permanent document, they produced Tactile Paper, the first book in the Holland Paper Biennial series.
Their worldwide network of fiber artists continues to grow, as they remain active with the Holland Paper Biennial.
The Japanese Paper Academy invited them to make exhibitions and to give demonstrations of their special paper techniques. These travels inspired Pat to recreate, in her fiber medium, the wonderful koi she saw. By physically putting bright, golden fish under reflections on a water surface and by working with fibers floating in water to create the water image, the pond almost comes alive.
Pat continues to receive inspiration from her annual trips to California and the large garden of her old Dutch farm. Her work is a powerful and colorful expression of her bond with nature. The results are fascinating: enlarged bright irises or poppies, curling leaves with sunflowers, baroque parrot tulips, cats and birds, gnarled trees or fine veined cabbages.
Her latest experiment is a return to the ‘60’s. She began her series with parrot tulips and porcelain as usual, but the Ming dynasty porcelain cried out for hand painting.
Pat, still influenced by her use of psychedelics in the ‘60’s, shows through her work how she sees the world around her. The fibers that form the piece look like they are in motion. As you gaze longer at the piece it is as if the layers begin to move and reveal new images. The paper layers transform as your eyes seek the deeper layers of the piece. Pat aspires to be a magician who pulls us into her world: she catches what cannot be seen and makes it visible.