Paper. We write on it, wrap things in it, receive too much in the mail. But what you are now holding in your hands has no resemblance to the handmade paper art born of the paper-making revival a little more than 10 years ago.

Walk through the Gemini G.E.L. exhibit in the East Building of the National Gallery. Robert Rauschenberg, today's foremost experimenter in paper works, repeatedly and clearly demonstrates the endless sculptural, textural, visual and even visceral dimensions possible in this medium, now considered a serious art form. His "Capitol," a shaped paper print made of "rag-mud," a combination of paper pulp, fenugreek powder and ground tamarind seed, has olfactory as well as visual appeal.

This area's most knowledgeable paper artist, Helen Frederick, operates Pyramid Prints and Paperworks Inc. in Baltimore, a large paper-making studio where she provides artists with workshops and collaborative assistance. A teacher at the Maryland Institute College of Art and a printmaker, Frederick first became interested in handmade paper when she visited Rauschenberg's paper-making studio in India in 1976. Since then she has traveled to Holland and Japan to study traditional paper-making.

In the past few years Frederick has seen a surge in buying and exhibiting paper works. "There have been so many art consultants besieging this studio this fall it's been incredible," she says. Major corporations such as IBM, USA Today and U.S. News & World Report have begun collections of paper art, and the International Paper Co. in New York houses an extensive collection.

Paper-making and its growth as a serious art "started from a need," Frederick explains, "as a spillover from the other arts." Printmakers, among them Frederick and Don Farnsworth, find directness in the medium, printing in, not on, paper. Painters such as Kenneth Noland work directly with colored pulps or, like Sam Francis, drop pigments into white pulp. For sculptors, such as Washington's Yuriko Yamaguchi, paper offers new dimensional and textural possibilities, and "for weavers it has been a good spinoff material," Frederick says, calling up limitless experiments in pattern and texture.

According to Washington artist Margery Freeman Appelbaum, "paper has its own memory. You can imprint with it. It will pick up lines. A lot of people use it the same way they'd use papier-ma che'." Depending upon the fiber used, its mucilage proportion, the inclusions, dyes and manipulations, the resulting product can be diaphanous and soft, opaque and rough, translucent and hard, thick and fleecy, thin and Formica-like or any combination of these and more. Appelbaum sees endless possibilities in the medium because "there's no proper way, no precedent."

Frederick praises the medium, too, for its ability to involve the public with raw materials and handcrafted products in an age dominated by machine-made goods. Pulling out two identical-looking papers, one machine-made, the other made by hand, she offers a touch test. Because of its erratic grain -- in machine-made papers the fibers run in one direction -- the handmade piece has more "life."

The tactile appeal perhaps explains the surge in purchases of handmade stationery. Jane Farmer, a Washington free-lance curator who has been a maverick in promoting shows of paper works, is, like Frederick, concerned with the quality of goods with which we surround ourselves. In the telephone age, she says, "When you do write a letter, it's a fairly significant event." Through Farmer's efforts, a show of American paper works toured Asia in 1982 and will tour this country through early 1986.

Locally, the WPA, the Athenaeum Gallery, the Plum, the Addison-Ripley, Gallery K and Fendrick regularly exhibit paper artists. Finnish-born Sirpa Yarmolinsky, who shows at the Plum, combines a childhood fascination with tar paper, a love of weaving and an interest in creating strong papers from colorful Finnish linen yarn to produce pieces ranging in size from miniature books to large wall pieces and sculpture. Appelbaum, also seen at the Plum, creates work resembling shaped canvases.

Hilda Thorpe, who exhibits at the Addison-Ripley, sees her work as bridging the gap between sculpture, painting and drawing. A Thorpe environmental sculpture, three 12-by-16 foot sheets of cotton netting layered with paper particles and suspended by cables, now hangs in the three-story atrium of the VVKR Building in Alexandria. Sculptor Yamaguchi, who occasionally works in paper, is featured at Gallery K.

The Athenaeum Gallery is currently displaying a juried show of paper works, through Feb. 15. Unlike the gallery's previous annual juried shows -- all media and open to Maryland, Virginia and D.C. residents only -- this year's was open to artists nationwide and featured paper "as the primary means of conveying the esthetic," says executive director Betsy Mansmann. "There are a lot of very exciting things happening in paper right now," she adds, "some very sophisticated things."