DeKalb County artist expands frontiers of experimental creativity
Claudia Lee loves what she does and loves living where she does it.
Growing up in Connecticut and New Jersey, Lee always knew she wanted to live in Tennessee.
“When I was little, I had a best friend and he and I were determined to move to Tennessee because that is where Davy Crockett was from. We were big Davy Crockett fans,” recalls Lee, who 20 years ago moved to the woodsy slopes and shady hollers northeast of Dowelltown. Prior to that she spent three decades in the Tri-Cities area, in fact not far from Crockett’s Greene County birthplace.
Lee has become something of a pioneer in her own right — not just living, as she does, encompassed by DeKalb County’s timberland wilds — but as an artist. On an old farmstead along Cripps Road, she’s made a home and runs her Liberty Paper art studio amidst the tall pines, thick cedar and sturdy hardwoods, by a small stream that runs down to Smith Fork Creek.
Lee’s artistic expertise lies in handcrafting colorfully elaborate paper — typically from raw fibrous plant materials, like flax and leaves of abaca, a species of banana tree native to the Philippines. In turn, she masterfully stitches, weaves, molds and otherwise shapes the paper into elegant sculptures, ornamental boxes, wall pieces, decorative lamps, table adornments and richly detailed book covers and scrapbook pages.
Lee says she’s always experimenting, always making unique paper sheets with novel textures, hues and consistencies.
She’s collected numerous honors and recognitions for her expressive spirit and innovative initiative over the years.
In 2011, she was commissioned to design the various individual Governor’s Awards that the Tennessee Arts Commission biennially bestows upon the Volunteer State’s most creative contributors to the arts and cultural life. “The awards themselves represent artistic genius from some of the finest working artists across the state of Tennessee,” the commission’s website declares.
Lee’s latest accolade came in the form of a cover-feature and six-page photo spread of her work in this summer’s edition of a national quarterly magazine called Bound & Lettered, which is prominent in the world of bookbinding, papercraft and calligraphy. In addition, the editors asked her to craft an essay detailing her fascination with papermaking.
Lee wrote that her vision has always been to “develop a signature body of work” which would blend “many textile techniques, including weaving, spinning, dyeing, and stitching.” But it’s the methods of her undertakings, as much or more even than the finished products, that fulfill her yearning for artistic adventure.
“When you make paper almost every day for more than thirty years, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the magic of the process,” Lee wrote. “It begins with a humble plant growing in yard, field, or woods; cooking the plant to remove non-cellulosic materials; beating it into pulp; and adding the pulp to a vat of water.
“Next is stirring the vat with your hands,” she continued. “An experienced papermaker can tell by the feel of the pulp in the water if the amount of pulp is sufficient for a sheet. With each dip of the mould and deckle into the vat, the sheet miraculously forms before your eyes.”
Lee doesn’t see her artistic role solely as one of blazing new trails and charting exploratory courses on her own. She gains great satisfaction and gratification in teaching the techniques of her craft both to novices and other experienced artists.
Lee said papermaking was something she learned “from the ground up.”
She knew immediately it was something she wanted to learn when she first encountered it at a craft school decades ago. It’s something that often draws people in from the moment they see it, she said.
“Sometimes people just walk into the studio and that’s it,” Lee said. “It is very tactile. And it is immediately accessible to people.”
Getting started “is so easy to do,” she said.
“I have worked with small children and handicapped kids, they can all make paper,” said Lee. “So it is a very friendly medium. If you make a mistake, you dump it back in and make another one. It is user-friendly, easy to do and you can do it very simply at home with very little equipment.”
One of Lee’s primary objectives when instructing people is to teach them in a way that build their confidence and understanding of the process, so they indeed can do it again on their own. “I want them to go home and do it,” she said. “I don’t want them to be like, OK, I did that once, now what?”
Those who take an immediate interest have sometimes become absorbed already with scrapbooking or notecards or activities that require purchasing a lot of paper at a craft store. “It’s kind of the next step up to make your own paper,” Lee said.
Working with established artists who’re already proficient in some other medium is also rewarding, she said. Helping them incorporate their own handmade paper into other projects and creations enables them to dive deeper into their own creative processes.
“People can design a unique sheet of paper for their work, so that no one else is going to have that kind of paper,” Lee said. “And the great thing about making your paper if you are an artist is you can design what you need. If you run out, you just make more.”