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Chi Lives: Aiko Nakane's passion for paper



When the U.S. government decided to round up Japanese Americans at the start of World War II, Aiko Nakane and her husband, a minister, were living in Palm Springs. "They came for the leaders first," Seattle-born Nakane says. "My husband was taken right away." Soon they wanted everyone. The order, on as little as a week's notice, was to leave everything and go. "Take only what you can carry."

Nakane's husband was sent to a camp in California; she went to one in the Arizona desert. They were released months later on condition they relocate far from the coast. "We couldn't go back to California, we had to pick someplace else," Nakane says. They came to Chicago.

It wasn't Nakane's intention to bring this up, and she's not going to dwell on it, but it's clear that a half century of history hasn't erased her indignation at the "concentration camps of the United States." She leans hard on the last two words, drums her fingers on the table in front of her. The anger is there, just under the surface, like a trace of sinewy fiber in a sheet of the fine, handmade paper she sells.

After the war Nakane raised her son and studied painting and pottery making part-time at the School of the Art Institute. During a visit to Japan, where she had lived as a child, she looked with newly appreciative eyes at the handmade papers pervasively used there and almost totally unavailable in the United States. There were papers that wed superbly with paint or ink; others that looked and felt like lace, or insect wings, or sand at the edge of the sea. She gathered as many varieties as she could to bring back as gifts for her art school friends. When they demanded more, she found herself in the import business. Aiko's Art Materials Import, Inc. opened in 1957 in a tiny third-floor space on the corner of Wabash and Huron.

Even then, Nakane says, hand papermaking was a dying industry. These deceptively fragile-looking organic papers are the product of a process developed 2,000 years ago in China. Traditionally involving entire farming families, it is laborious and begins with the cultivation of a plant, often kozo (mulberry). New shoots of kozo, snipped at exactly the right time, are steamed and stripped of their outer bark. The remaining fibers are soaked, bleached by the sun, cooked, rinsed for 24 hours in running river water, and pounded until they separate. (The wife's evening job, Nakane says.) The resulting pulp is mixed in a vat with cold water and plant-root mucilage. To make each sheet of paper, a rectangular frame and screen contraption is scooped into the vat. The pulp-mucilage mixture is rolled back and forth across the surface of the screen. When the water has drained off, the frame is inverted and the screen peeled away. What's left is a sheet of dripping paper, usually measuring about 24 inches by 36 inches. New sheets are piled up, drained overnight, pressed gently for 12 hours, then hung individually on a board and brushed. Finally they are taken to the sunny side of the farmhouse to dry.

In the old days, Japanese farmers dedicated their lives to this work. The best of them could look at a new mulberry shoot and see the sheet of paper it would become. They were "a living treasure," Nakane says. But after the war, things changed. As the old papermakers died off, fewer and fewer youngsters came along to replace them. "Such a cheap labor and such hard work--it doesn't give them enough to live on," Nakane says. She has worried about their shrinking numbers and the resulting decline in the variety of paper available since she opened the store.

At first, however, her main concern was making a go of it. At that time the Huron and Wabash area was a hub for commercial artists. "During lunchtime they would come to see what I have," Nakane says. "Of course, they liked, but they never knew how to use it. Because commercial artists are in a hurry all the time, they cannot experiment." They would buy a few of her papers and put them in a drawer, pulling them out once in a while just for a look. She saw that in order to sell, she would have to educate her customers--like the artist who thought a deckle-edged paper was dog-eared. She also needed to reach more of them. In her spare time she began putting snippets of paper into sample books for mail-order customers, but it was years before she turned a profit. "I used to tell my husband, you know, I don't have money for the rent this month," she says, "and rent was only $35 a month. That's the way it was: three years, five years, seven years."

The mail-order business eventually grew into the tail that wagged the dog. Aiko's fat sample books are now a hot item at $25 each for a national and international clientele who know they won't find this selection anywhere else. Because the papers are acid-free and will last "forever," they are increasingly in demand for restoration work, as well as for bookbinding, kite making, model airplanes, printing, painting, collage, and what have you.

The store, which moved to North Clark Street in 1989, stocks more than 400 papers and includes a gallery. It has been a resource and inspiration for local artists, including Marilyn Sward, director of the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, where a fellowship has been established in honor of Nakane's influence on three decades of artists. In the city she came to by default, under the worst of circumstances, Nakane has become something of an institution.

Nakane is 86 years old now. Her husband and son are both dead. Chuck Izui, who has worked with her for a decade, will carry on the business when she retires--something she's thinking about. Meanwhile she'll go on doing what she can to prevent Japanese papermakers from disappearing, taking all the fragrant gasen and soft-veined taiten and fly's wing ganpi with them.

Aiko's Art Materials Import, Inc., 3347 N. Clark, is open 10 AM to 5 PM Tuesday through Saturday. Call 404-5600 for information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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