Bittinger Paper Artist Transforms Plants Into Colorful Artwork

Last Updated on Feb 1, 2019 at 10:14am | Arts & Culture

Article courtesy of NCWV Media - The Republican. Staff Writer: Brenda Ruggiero. Submitted photo.
 
 
In her studio near Bittinger, Annie Simcoe, transforms plants into what she calls “paper quilts” — an unusual combination of collage and quilting.
 
She explained that she primarily uses cornhusks to begin the process, but when she has the time, she uses many other plants, such as onion tops, rye grass and iris leaves.
 
“First, I boil the plants with baking soda to break down the cellulose,” she said. “Then I ‘beat’ the plants in a blender with an additional fiber called abaca.”
 
Simcoe said abaca is a cousin of the banana plant and works as a binder fiber to help hold the paper together.
 
“Next, I pour the pulp into a tub of water and form sheets using a mold and deckle,” she said. “A mold is a frame with a screen on it, and a deckle is a frame that gives the sheets of paper a pretty edge.”
 
Simcoe creates bright colors from fabric dyes that she adds to the tub of pulp and water. When she turns the mold upside down on a piece of felt, the paper pulp sticks to the felt in a process called couching.
 
Finally, she rolls the wet paper onto sheets of plastic to dry. This can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending on the temperature and humidity.
 
Once the papers are dry, she starts the quilting process.
 
“Sometimes, I cut the papers first and piece them together using acid-free adhesive and then stitch them on the sewing machine,” Simcoe said. “Other times, I stitch shapes onto individual pieces of paper and tear the papers to the edge of the stitching before piecing them together.”
 
Stitching the paper perforates it, which makes it easier to tear.
 
“This also means I can’t pull out the stitching and start over if I make a mistake,” she said.
 
Simcoe got started making paper as a West Virginia University student. In those days, she spent all of her free time making pottery in the school’s recreational ceramics studio. The studio also had some papermaking supplies, and she learned some very basic techniques there.
 
“Papermaking was something I could do at home,” she said. “I didn’t need expensive equipment, like a wheel or kiln to get started, and I could work with bright colors. So, I stuck with it.”
 
Simcoe grew up north of Pittsburgh, and sometime in her early teenage years, her family began taking summer vacations to Deep Creek Lake. This usually involved cousins, as well.
 
“We would spend a week in Cherry Creek water skiing and reading books on the dock,” she said. “I loved it here. When it was time to look at colleges, I chose WVU because it was close to Deep Creek Lake. Morgantown was great, but I always wanted to be here.”
 
During her sophomore year at WVU, Simcoe got a job at High Mountain Sports at the lake and commuted on weekends, staying with friends in the area. Eventually, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology and worked as a researcher at WVU.
 
“I was in Morgantown for almost 15 years, all the while spending as much time, skiing, cross-country skiing, hiking, biking and kayaking in Garrett County as possible,” she said.
 
Simcoe went to her first art festival with paper art in 2003. She left her job at WVU to be a full-time artist in 2009.
 
“I worked on my back porch, in my kitchen, and even took over the living room once in a while,” she said.
 
Simcoe moved to Garrett County in 2010 with her husband Jeff and two dogs Ruby and Grace. They chose a property with a large garage that she could use as her workspace, which she calls ABPH Studio.
 
“ABPH stands for ‘AnnaBellePetuniaHead,’” she said. “AnnaBellePetuniaHead is what my dad called me when I was little. I felt my childhood nickname was the perfect name to be associated with my whimsical artwork.”
 
She noted that keeping the mess separate from their living space is a huge improvement.
 
“A few times a year, I clean everything up and host open houses in the studio,” she said. “I post information about these on my website, www.abphart.com, and on Facebook at ABPHart.”
 
Simcoe primarily sells her work at art festivals in the Mid-Atlantic region. Most years, she travels to 15-to-20 juried events in areas like Alexandria, Arlington, Gaithersburg, Pittsburgh Philadelphia, central Virginia and Ohio.
 
Her work is also for sale in the White Room in Thomas, W.Va.; Blackwater Bicycles in Davis, W.Va.; and New River Bicycles in Fayetteville, W.Va.
 
Simcoe’s artwork reflects the world in which she has immersed herself.
 
“I love the mountains, rivers, lakes, rocks and open meadows,” she said. “If I am not working in my studio or riding my bike, I am working in the garden. I take inspiration from the natural world around me, life experiences, the maps I used to make as a geologist, and the adventure sports I love.”