"It is exactly what academia is not these days," says printmaker Claudio Orso about the Morgan Conservatory, a studio that will teach and practice the art of handmade paper, book arts, letterpress and other fine printmaking techniques. Orso has been volunteering in the DIY tasks of converting a former machine shop into an art studio: patching concrete floors, building walls and endless cleaning. "This is grassroots," he says. "This is inspiring. They let these things die in academia, and now it lives here. It takes a madman like Tom to gamble two years of his life to make this kind of thing."
The madman he's facetiously referring to is Tom Balbo, an artist who works in papermaking and cast paper, among other media. Papermaking is dying in academia because even art schools are obliged to prepare students for "jobs," which these days are overwhelmingly automated and digital. Balbo bought the former industrial space on East 47th near Payne two years ago, and since then he has been cleaning and converting the 15,000-square-foot facility into a place where visiting artists can work, and where people can learn papermaking techniques and a range of related skills. His own studio is nearby.
Already, in the part of the shop Balbo calls the "art lab," there are eight large bus pans filled with various neutral-colored slurries left after a recent class - pale, soupy pools of cotton, flax and other fibers. To make a sheet of paper, you dip in a framed screen and a "deckle" (another frame, which contains the fiber soup and defines the shape of the sheet) and pull it out with a layer of fiber. After the water drains, the sheet is pressed between layers of felt. It's a simple concept and a slow process, but it's one with endless possibilities.
The details of the ambitious project also seem endless. Balbo has sustainability in mind, so he's planted kozo trees - farmed in Japan for their fiber - in the formerly rubble-strewn lot behind the building. There are now 40 of them growing there, started from cuttings provided by the noted papermaker Tim Barrett, who brought some back from Japan. Rainwater is collected from the roof of the building to keep the trees hydrated. Balbo eventually hopes to use natural filtering techniques to make the same water usable for papermaking (which isn't done with tap water, because it has too much chemical content) and eventually drinking.
He also plans to install a geothermal heating system, which will involve drilling some 20 wells at a likely cost of $150,000, which could eventually be recovered through savings in the cost of heating such a large building. The recycling of materials - wood, paper, fabric and more - goes on constantly.
Between the purchases of the building and the equipment inside, Balbo has already sunk approximately $350,000 in the project. He's expecting to recover that eventually from a trust which, thanks to the generosity of his friend and collector Charles E. Morgan, will eventually transfer to the facility bearing his name. He's purchased several Hollander beaters, which are machines that thrash fiber until it is usable for papermaking. So, you can throw in chopped-up jeans and T-shirts and make paper from them. Balbo says that denim, in particular, makes a very fine paper.
There are racks of type for hand setting, letter by letter. There are silk-screening tables, vacuum drying tables, a clamshell press and more. This is not a place where people will learn to be Photoshop jockeys; they'll actually get their hands dirty.
Eventually, the Morgan Conservatory will offer classes, gallery exhibits, programs in cooperation with Zygote press, papermaking by contract and - above all - facilities for artists. "We've got a lot going on here," says Balbo. That's putting it mildly. The conservatory will make its public debut on Saturday with an open house and fund-raising event, which includes a silent auction, papermaking demonstrations, champagne toast and live music. firstname.lastname@example.org