An Unwritten Creed
Barrett, Cranbrook Senior (top) spring, 1968 and as an Antioch Freshman, summer, 1968
Like you younger folks here today, I was going through the difficult task of deciding which of a number of colleges was right for me. It wasn‘t easy. I was looking at Antioch, Earlham, and Beloit – maybe the University of Michigan – but none of them clicked. I was intrigued by Antioch, and I was especially drawn to the idea that Antioch considered the off-campus co-op work experience equal in value to classroom learning. That made sense to me. So I was curious when my father said to me, “Well, I don’t think I‘d go to Antioch.”
Now it is important to point out that my father taught English and American literature at Kalamazoo College, that he was involved in the administration of the Great Lakes College Association that included Antioch, and that he and I had a relationship of mutual respect, or at least more so compared to the relationship some of my peers had with their fathers. Most important, he rarely, if ever, tried to suggest what I should or should not do. So when he said, “I don’t think I‘d go to Antioch,” I said, “Why do you say that?”
“Well, at Antioch everything is always done to excess.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “I was down there for a meeting a few months ago and walking across the quad. This student came toward me with nothing on but a pair of blue jean cut-offs. He had a big head of hair, a black beard, and a big glass diamond stuck in his navel.”
That did it for me. I decided I wanted to go to Antioch. And it wasn’t the glass diamond but the fact that my father felt the place was somehow unique, odd, and special and that he felt compelled to try to talk me out of it. About a month after leaving Cranbrook, I came here.
I hit the ground running and I never looked back. I did papermaking in a workshop I set up myself in the Art Building. I tried my hand at watermarks and printed lithographs on my own paper. I did stained glass and ceramics, but also film and video and photography. I tried anything that interested me, including leatherwork and deerskin clothing.
All the rest of us, regardless of discipline, were doing essentially the same thing: trying what interested us most next, taking classes that sounded intriguing, following our noses one way or another most of our waking hours. Some of my peers started modern dance groups, or conjured up magic shows, or put together other initiatives like the traveling theater group that called itself Otrabanda. They floated down the Mississippi on a raft, going from town to town doing performances for free and out of the blue.
Watermark in handmade paper
The co-op job aspect of Antioch turned out to be even more stimulating than I‘d expected. I worked as a messenger boy in Manhattan, mainly because I wanted to live in and spend time on the streets of Manhattan. I taught at a free school in Sausalito, California, joined an educational teaching aid, design and film studio in Aspen, Colorado, worked in a leather goods fabrication shop, and with a fellow Antiochian designed a special project, the goal of which was to live off the land for six months in northern Maine. That last one didn’t work, but I can tell you we learned a lot trying.
I focused on arts and communications specialties, and a group of us in the art department found ourselves interested in large-scale public murals. Problem was, none of us and none of our professors had ever painted one. But that didn’t bother us. We decided to paint a mural anyway. For our first mural, we wanted to try to make a building disappear by painting what was behind it. Not an easy thing to do.
The other problem was we were afraid the College administration would say no if we asked permission to paint a campus building. So we decided not to ask. We got all our supplies together, scaffolding, paints, and chalk lines, and on a Friday at 5 p.m. when all the administrative and grounds staff went home, we set up our scaffolding, got a sky-blue background coat up, and snapped one-foot chalk lines everywhere. Saturday morning, about 20 volunteers showed up. By late in the day, it was really starting to take shape. By noon the next day, we were more or less done.
We were amazed at what we‘d accomplished and so was everyone else. Cars were stopping and people started gathering. An administrator came by at one point, the provost, I think. His mouth was hanging open. “I‘m sorry we didn’t ask permission,” I said. “We were afraid you were going to say no.”
“No, no,” he said, “This is fantastic. This is great.”
Well, we were off and running. We painted barns. We applied for and got NEA grants to paint murals on buildings and then later on semi-truck trailers.
We were all in the arts and humanities but I‘m certain similar activities and plans were hatched in the sciences and social sciences. And just like us in the arts, our fellow students in other disciplines also went out into the world and took co-op jobs relevant to their stories.
First Public Works mural painted in 1972 on the Communications Studies Center
All of the events I am describing were happening at the height of the Vietnam War and awareness of the world‘s problems drove some of the intense energy and the sense we all needed to do something, something creative, something to help others, or something directly political to respond to the moment.
During my last year at Antioch, in 1973, we had a major strike on campus. The issue was mainly the level of College support for poor and minority students. The strikers felt the school‘s commitments were not enough, and eventually many campus buildings were closed and chained shut by the strikers. Classes stopped and the College switchboard was taken over. If you called Antioch, you got a person who answered, “Antioch College Liberated Switchboard.” Things became really demoralizing. For the strikers, this was Antioch‘s own Vietnam in a way, a home-grown struggle they could throw themselves into. A group calling itself Central Committee took over all strike and building shutdown logistics.
Some of us sympathized. Some of us were strikers. But some of us felt it was not right for a third of the student body to close the whole school down. Being restricted by them from going into the Art Building just to get supplies, for instance, seemed wrong-headed to us.
Barrett making paper in the Art Building, circa 1972
The strike dragged on and on. Eventually it was February, cold and gray, and that only made it worse. We mural folks – we called ourselves Public Works – decided something had to be done to lift people‘s spirits. So we made a giant six-foot red heart of painting canvas stuffed with balled up newspaper. Then we had 1,000 red hearts printed up on eight-and-a-half by eleven inch paper and we waited until the evening before Valentines Day. In the wee hours of the morning, we went to the main entrance of Antioch Hall with a ladder, determined to hang the heart up high on the front of the building. As soon as we showed up, student strike guards came running around the corner and asked us what the hell we were doing. We said, “We got permission from Central Committee to hang this up.” That was good enough for them. So we wasted no time and went right to work. While some of us were doing that, another group went out and put the red hearts under every dorm room and office door on campus, and on a lot of the porches downtown in Yellow Springs. The next morning, Antioch and Yellow Springs got Valentines, and no one had any idea where they had come from.
It was just what everyone needed at that moment in time.
After Antioch I made handmade paper with colleagues at Twinrocker Handmade Paper in Indiana. They were making primarily Western-style papers for use by fine art print studios and graphic artists. All of us making handmade paper in America at the time were more or less self taught. We were learning a lot, but it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to work with people who had grown up in the tradition. So while at Twinrocker I got very interested in the possibility of studying papermaking in Japan. Eventually I applied for and received a Fulbright Fellowship that, along with a renewal, allowed me to spend two years in Japan completely immersed in the craft.
Much of my suspicions about papermaking being a career path were confirmed as I traveled around the country visiting centers of papermaking and meeting and working with the crafts people whose work I admired. I studied tools and equipment and fiber cultivation. I listened as they told me about the history of the craft and taught me how to make their paper using traditional materials and methods.
I came back to America when I was twenty-seven and convinced that one way or another I was going to pursue hand papermaking. I set up some living and workspace in my parent‘s barn in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and began making Japanese-style papers. I produced Western papers and sold them both to book and paper conservators. To help with what amounted to a very meager income, I outfitted a van with fold-up papermaking equipment and did workshops all across the country. I wrote two books on Japanese papermaking, took classes part time at Western Michigan University‘s School of Paper Science and Engineering, and did research on early European handmade papers.
In 1985, at the age of thirty-five, I was very lucky to be given my first full-time job at the University of Iowa‘s Center for the Book. It was, and still is, a dream job for me. I teach papermaking but I also oversee paper research and production at a separate facility. One of our biggest accomplishments at this facility was making paper that now sits beneath the Charters of Freedom – the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights – at the newly renovated National Archives rotunda in Washington, D.C. The lighting inside the Rotunda is slightly darkened. A soft, cool, white light reflects up from the surface of the documents in their new encasements. The atmosphere is quiet and filled with reverence and a sense of grace.
Anyone can wait their turn to see the Charters, including those in wheelchairs. When you arrive at each document, you can get your face down close and have an amazing degree of intimacy with American history. Just under the parchment lays paper made by a team headed by a guy who came from this College. It is a moment for quiet, but genuine pride.
Soon after my return from Japan, my interest in traditional papermaking materials and techniques shifted to early European methods. In particular, I was fascinated with 15th century Italian papers. They were not only very light in color but still supple and strong in spite of being 500 years old. They had a quality and character about them, an aesthetic integrity I didn’t see in modern handmade paper. I wanted to understand the reasons for the difference. I undertook a number of research projects that eventually allowed me to get funding for a major, career-dream research project that I just recently completed.
Using specially adapted nondestructive x-ray fluorescence and near-infrared instrumentation, we’ve found these papers made in Italy during the 15th century contained more calcium and more gelatin. In addition, the pre-1500 paper was thicker, lighter in color, and stronger than paper made in subsequent centuries. Why would that be the case? Well, our theory is that early printers were, by their type designs, and with hand-rubricated letters, endeavoring to print and sell imitation hand-copied manuscript the papermakers were attempting to make not paper but a form of imitation parchment – the tough, smooth competing material of the time, made from animal skins. These research results have been a revelation to me and my colleagues in the fields of paper history and paper conservation.
All of this work, including one-of-a-kind artists‘ books, all contributed, I‘m sure, to the MacArthur Fellowship I received in 2009. I can tell you that far more important than the MacArthur money was the national recognition of the unusual career path I chose.
Barrett (far left) teaching at the University of Iowa, circa 1992
I ended up doing what I did with my life in part because of my liberal arts upbringing, my parents, and the events underway in American culture when I grew up. But I am convinced it was more than anything else because of this place. When I was at Antioch between 1968 and 1973, there was a creed that pervaded the campus. No one ever talked about it, no one preached it to me, and I never read it in a piece of Antioch literature or history. But somehow we all sensed it and it was behind everything we did. It felt like this: “Never ever commit to something for money or the promise of position or power. Do so instead because it feeds your curiosity, because you care desperately about it, or because you are convinced it will improve the lives of others.”
I don’t know where it came from. Maybe it was the enduring presence of Horace Mann and the students and faculty who came before us. I really don’t know. I would wager, however, that Antiochians have been feeling the same thing here for generations. And I‘d bet money that they will feel it when they arrive here for their first year, and long, long into the future.
Antioch has always been a place that has insisted you take on a deep and sincere faith in your own ideas and suspicions. It boils down to a gritty but proud “think-outside-of-the-box” sense of community that I don’t believe you will find at other colleges and that Antioch has always been known for. If this sounds like you, if this resonates with what goes on inside your heart and soul, then I say choose Antioch. If you do, the chances are good that you will not be disappointed, and as your time here goes by you’ll find yourself transformed. I further predict that after Antioch, in due course, you too will find a righteous rewarding career path and will help change for the better the way we humans treat each other and this incredible planet we share.
Timothy Barrett is the director of paper facilities and adjunct professor at the University of Iowa Center for the Book. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2009.