PITTSFIELD -- In 105 C.E., Ts'ai Lun, a servant at the Chinese imperial court, invented paper made from pulped fibers soaked in water and dried on a screen.

Because of his invention, the Berkshire Museum knows his name.

Paper keeps a record of the mind of this one man. Nineteen hundred years after he dried his first sheets, a visitor at the museum can imagine him in a tall-windowed, sunny work room with his hands covered to the wrists in paper pulp, or walking the water meadows looking for plants and seeing them as fibers to experiment with.

To celebrate its 110th anniversary, the Berkshire Museum has curated a broad look at the science, art and history of paper.

"Paper has changed the way we use language," said director of interpretation Maria Mingalone.

Artists evoke hills, rainbows and stars in paper in a curved folded paper sculpture from Erik and Martin Demaine’s ‘Earthtone’ series.
Artists evoke hills, rainbows and stars in paper in a curved folded paper sculpture from Erik and Martin Demaine's ‘Earthtone' series. (Jess Gamari / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

As she curated the exhibit, she said, she imagined the visual storytelling in contemporary art leading into the history of papermaking and its uses.

In "PaperWorks," she sets out to explore the medium of paper and to honor its innovators. The museum's founder, Zenas Crane, co-founded the Crane Paper Company of Dalton -- which now makes paper used in bank notes, solar panels, water filters, sterile packaging for medical instruments, auto transmissions, and -- according to Great Barrington artist Dai Ban, who has several paper sculptures in the show -- panels in airplane fuselages.

Dai has discovered paper as a medium only recently. In fact, he said, paper has brought him back to sculpture.

He moved to the Berkshires from Brooklyn, N.


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Y., 19 years ago to make models for the film industry. He had sculpted in metal, he said, but had moved away from those pieces 10 years ago, feeling that his work needed to grow more organically, not to make too deliberate a statement.

Recently Crane commissioned him to design a 5 by 15-foot panel for a conference room. He used the fuselage panel material to shape water lilies floating on an impressionistic pond surface. The room is a clean, bare place of glass tables and glass walls, he said, and it suggested to him the idea of purification -- the material he chose is used to filter air or water.

It felt good, he said, to forget his ego and follow the force of the work. And he has found the natural source he wanted for his sculpture in his own garden. His new work looks closely at the overlapping plates on a centipede's back or the shape of a fiddlehead opening. Picking at a stem of grass from his yard, he sees patterns of seeds and leaves, and the way the wind shimmers in the grasses, dropping seeds.

In PaperWorks, his paper fronds unfurl, white leaves against a white background, as though he is painting with shadow.

Jen Stark uses foam boards and holographic paper to create an irridescent shine in a tunnel.
Jen Stark uses foam boards and holographic paper to create an irridescent shine in a tunnel. (Jess Gamari / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

Unlike many of the artists in the show, he said, who use software to design a piece or laser cutters to shape it, he cuts his paper shapes freehand and by eye, without tracing them first.

"I enjoy the free movement," he said.

Around his translucent paper wings, more colors and textures of paper have become light boxes and folded books, waterproof collapsable shelters given to homeless people in Los Angeles, cereminial gifts to burn as sacrifices, banners, mosquito-proof clothing, disposable mini-skirts -- and a rowable boat built in Troy, N.Y.

In PaperWorks, the possibilities seem limitless.

Contemporary artists and scientists are using paper to explore cutting-edge technology, Mingalone said.

Erik Demaine, a professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Martin Demaine, artist-in-residence at MIT, explore folded, curved survaces in their origami paper sculptures.

Nanotechnologists use paper folding techniques to make devices too small for machines to shape -- and too small for the naked eye to see, Mingalone explained. They can model, in paper, a technique for scoring a sheet of material and then heating it so that it folds into the shape they need.

Paper folding can also model protein folding for biochemical research, she said.

She has designed this show to surprise people with the range and flexibility of what paper can do. 

She invites visitors to play with paper, in shadow puppets and book sculptures, in folded shapes and airplanes.

She invites them to think about the way people build and record and preserve knowledge.

Paper has changed societies, Mingalone said.

"Whenever there's a shift of power," she said, "people burn libraries."

"The impact when we create written ideas that can be dispersed" is too large and deep to measure.

The Chinese guarded Ts'ai's discovery for 500 years. Slowly, it traveled with trade to Korea in the 6th century, Baghdad in the 8th century, Damascus, Egypt and Morocco in the 10th century, and Spain in the 10th century.

And while a Coptic Christian scribe was copying the script in a prayer book -- one the museum dates to Armenia in 1428 -- Mexica (Aztec) philosophers and theologians were recording legends in folded bark-paper codexes.

Paper's lasting strength lies in the words and images, the faith and feeling, and the discoveries it can contain.

If you go ...

What: ‘PaperWorks:
The Art and Science of an Extraordinary Material'

When: Monday to Saturday,
10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday
noon to 5 p.m.

Where: Berkshire Museum
39 South St, Pittsfield.

Admission: $13 adult,
$6 for children under 18

Information: (413) 443-7171, berkshiremuseum.org