You may know Simon Blattner as a businessman or the consummate community volunteer, but he is also a handmade papermaker. He came to it in his forties, after a San Francisco neighbor (a renowned book restorer) told him that, as a paper company CEO, he really ought to learn how to make paper himself.
He took her suggestion and signed up for a class with Don Farnsworth at the California College of the Arts. At his first session he discovered that he had a knack for the papermaking process. But it was about a week later when, on a business trip to Japan, he went to visit some artisan papermakers and, as he says, “just fell for it.”
Simon had never thought of himself as a creative or artsy person, but something about papermaking clicked. The process involves a complex series of prescribed steps. You have to harvest plant fibers, boil them, beat them into pulp, dissolve the pulp in water, and then use a screen to sift it back out in an even layer – which, finally, will dry into a sheet of paper. That sifting step requires a very particular move that takes a certain amount of athleticism. And that, Simon says, is the secret to the whole thing. “It’s like a magic trick. Because all of a sudden, what was in the slurry is now a piece of paper. There are OK papermakers, there are crummy papermakers, and there are good papermakers. And it’s all in that move.”
Simon had that move down by the end of his first class at CCA, and it made papermaking feel like something he was just naturally suited for. He also found in it an important lesson in patience.
“Paper is very physical, it’s hard work, and I liked that. Not everybody can do it. And if you mess it up, you might as well throw it right back in there because if you don’t do it right, it won’t work. I’ve never been the most patient guy. But I learned that if I didn’t take my time and do it right, the result was… there was no result. So I got patient really fast.”
You might think of creativity as the opposite of discipline and structure. After all, creativity is all about thinking outside the box and being free to explore. But the reality is that creativity thrives on discipline. A violinist can’t fully convey the emotion of a piece of music unless they put in the time to practice their technique every day. A painter can’t produce an original work if they don’t regularly clean their brushes. A potter will destroy their one-of-a-kind vase if they don’t fire up the kiln just right. And a papermaker can’t create a beautiful sheet of artisan paper if he doesn’t follow the required steps.
Simon found both a lesson and a creative outlet in the discipline of papermaking, and it has shaped his life ever since. After that experience in Japan, he became an apprentice with Don Farnsworth at his Magnolia Editions studio in Oakland – and later went on to found his own Eastside Editions print studio right here in Sonoma. “It was the dream of a lifetime, to have been able to do that. My dream was to make paper that was good enough for printers to use with an intaglio press. Very hard to do. And I was able to do that.”
As someone who thrives on structure, the idea that creativity can blossom within it feels liberating to me. And Simon Blattner’s experience feels like an invitation. It means that I don’t have to change who I am to add a little more color to my life. Just like Simon, those of us who find fulfillment in hard work and discipline can still – or even especially – tap into the excitement and happiness of creative expression.