On a warm spring day, Mirella Belshe, Italian-born sculptor and paper maker, works in her chilly studio in Alexandria's soon-to-be-renovated Torpedo Factory. Her intense, safety-goggled face is reflected in the wall of dirty glass that separates her from the noise and chaos of demolition work on the building just across the street.
As the explosive impact of the wrecking ball jars the studio, Belshe turns and describes her art of paper making:
"I have learned so much from artistic insects," she says, bringing out thin sheets of paper streaked with subtle blues, browns and greens--all produced by wasps, beetles and other bugs. "Aren't these elegant? The insects chew and spit, chew and spit the fibers to build these, like building a coral reef." Her paper making, as she describes it, mimics the insects' activity. "Only I use a Cuisinart," she said.
Starting with bits of wood, weeds that have been dried "to get rid of the chlorophyll," spider webs, cocoons of "wonderfully strong" silk, strands of her own hair or strips of cotton or linen, she breaks the materials into little pieces and mixes them in a food processor or blender with water and wallpaper paste.
Using the glue of "natural bacteria in the fibers" and the wallpaper paste, she said, she works with the pulpy material from her blender, kneading it into a sheet.
First she must sculpt the piece in clay. Once this is dry, she encases it in plaster of paris to make a mold. Then she paints the mold with 12 layers of synthetic rubber. "You can do two coats a day, on good days, but you must not rush it or you will form bubbles within the rubber that never harden," she says.
"This is a labyrinth from the Villa Nova people, who lived before the Etruscans near my home in Florence," she says, picking up one of the pieces. "To get to the center you must touch all bases, so it is a symbol, see? And this is a mold I took of Hawaiian lava."
It was in Hawaii that Belshe started working with paper. "I taught art history at the University of Hawaii until five years ago," she said, "and to learn art history, the students need to try and feel the old techniques."
In Hawaii, paper, or tapa, comes from the "paper mulberry tree and its wood yields a fibrous, almost transparent golden substance that "looks very delicate but is indestructible," she said. To demonstrate, she drops a tapa bust that resembles the head of Michelangelo's David. It bounces.
Belshe, whose work was once described as "Jasper Johns in the Renaissance," has spent the past decade working with neoclassical figures on a graphics background, making what one critic calls "cast paper poems."
Other paper makers in this area also use the medium in ways that expand the concept of art.
Marguerite Richards, whose work is on exhibit at Alexandria's Atheneum, does photocopying on handmade paper. The city's well-known sculptor Hilda Thorpe, whose work is shown through Gallery 4, creates gauzy, ghostly abstracts. Others, such as Ruth Tansill and Liz Lyon, use paper the same way sculptors use marble or bronze, producing works that are beautiful and deceptively light in weight.
And unpopular, the way Belshe tells it.
"I don't mean to say that I'm ahead of my time. Maybe I'm behind my time," she lamented. Although her works now hang in Italy (in the Archaeological Museum of Maremma, in a town between Florence and Rome), Williamsburg (at the 20th-Century Gallery), the Art League, the Atheneum, Touchstone Gallery downtown (she is its president) and throughout the United States in private collections, she says she still managed to lose money last year.
Another crash outside, and we decide to leave the studio. "I'm supposed to move in a few days, but when they finish here I will have a lovely studio upstairs with a big window--a long, thin room. I will learn to do reclining nudes," she said, grinning, and locking the door behind her.