All over the world, wherever humankind has made paper and paper-mâché, they used fibers and glue that were commonplace in their natural environment. In ancient Egypt they made paper from papyrus (reeds), in Japan they used the mulberry tree and rice fibers, and in Europe they cotton rags. Natural starches made from rice, wheat, cassava, or hibiscus were used to make glue, adding salts and even toxins to repel insects.
As the British expanded their empire to the Far East, Europeans brought back the secrets of making paper-mâché from artisans in Pakistan, India, Japan and Indonesia. During the Victorian times, factories were built to produce products made from paper-mâché as an alternative to plaster casting, which was a more fragile material.
These paper-mâché product were cast into moulds to produce decorations for carriages, ceilings, and walls in the home, as well as furniture, decorative screens, trays, and containers. The demand for such products was so great that the factories had to dry the products in big industrial ovens.
Once the Europeans had mastered the process of casting and mass producing plastic products, the paper-mâché industry gradually disappeared as they focused more on plastic production.
Fortunately for us artists, especially folk artists, paper-mâché was not abandoned. In places such as South America, Mexico, Japan, India, Indonesia and Thailand, as well as Czechia, the states of former Yugoslavia, and Turkey, local and regional artists continued to make dolls and masks for the theater, toys, religious and ceremonial sculptures, carnival figures, puppets, theatrical props and sets for festivals.
Wherever they made paper-mâché they used whatever fibers and glues they had available. Whether it was Paper and rice glue in Japan, cotton rags in India and England, or the cassava plant in Brazil – a gift from the jungle.
Here in Israel, as in most westernized countries, there are mountains of fibers just waiting for us to put them to good use. Paper and cardboard, waste from offices and from packaging, lie waiting for creative hands to turn it all into gold.
Mounds of plastic bags, styrofoam, and containers are also waiting to be planted inside sculptures – a wonderful way to rid us of waste that would otherwise take at least the next 400 years to decompose. These are the materials that are available to us, and we can use them to make our paper-mâché art works.
We can always add additional materials, experiment with different glues and the many recipes that are available on the internet for making paper-mâché. Every teacher has their favorite method. We are each responsible for our health and our environment, and we should always try to recycle as much as we can, in addition to using paints and glues that are safe and non-toxic.
Paper-mâché is the ultimate “green” art. Let us preserve and protect it, so that we can further develop it, take it to new areas in art, interior design, and furniture, for our own benefit and the well-being of the planet.