Washi: A Sensory Exploration

Photo by Kenya Mathlin

By: Ali Brown (She/Her)

As the COVID-19 pandemic forced galleries to shut their doors, Propeller Art Gallery shifted many of its upcoming exhibitions online for the community to enjoy its exciting programming from the safety and comfort of home. The exhibit Washi Sisters: A journey, set to be on view at the gallery during this time, was an exception. As Japanese Heritage Washi paper contains countless intricacies that a 2-D image alone cannot conceivably capture, artists of the Washi Sisters collective came to a mutual agreement that until they could hold it in person, the show would not go on. 

As a Disabled person passionate about accessibility and alternative formats, I very much enjoy opportunities for gallery viewing from the comfort of my home, whether by necessity or by choice. Not having encountered Heritage Washi before, hearing about the paper’s material complexity inspired me to dive in deeper into its sensory qualities. I set out with the question: How can I describe characteristics of Heritage Washi that cannot be effectively translated through 2-D images for folks who are only able to access the exhibition in an online format? This called for a visit to The Japanese Paper Place located in Etobicoke, Ontario, a wholesale retailer of Heritage Washi and other fine Japanese papers, and a community partner for the Washi Sisters exhibit. 


Entering The Japanese Paper Place showroom, I was warmly welcomed by fine paper specialist Sigrid Blohm. Supplied with a comprehensive verbal summary of Washi's history, infographics, and referral to further resources, I was captivated by the meticulous process involved in the fabrication of the papers that lay in the binders I flipped through. Sigrid prepared samples to graciously provide me with for further exploration. I slowed down and noticed the subtle differences between papers made with kozo, mitsumata and gampi fibres. I imagine that the Washi Sisters initial introductions to Heritage Washi paper made them feel like a kid in a candy store. There are so many variations of this beautiful paper and potential artistic processes to explore with it due to its versatility. Reading the Washi Sisters artist statements, I gather they were in search of a unique material that would show raw beauty and movement, accentuate natural and organic aesthetics, and provide endless possibilities for material exploration. The more time you spend with washi, the more time you want to spend with it, as there is always something new to discover or learn. 


The following video includes a visual and oral description of the sensory qualities of washi made with kozo, mitsumata and gampi fibres. I describe details such as what the textures remind me of, how Heritage Washi reveals itself in the light, the sounds the paper makes, and the how delicate, yet strong it feels. I hope this alternative and accessible introduction will add another dimension to the Propeller Gallery's online content to evoke an appreciation of the material intricacies of Heritage Washi for audiences who cannot attend the in-gallery exhibition.