Deborah Sharpe-Lunstead passed away shortly after this interview. Great thanks to her husband, Jeff Lunstead, for his assistance in completing it. When learning of her diagnosis, Sharpe-Lunstead, in her characteristic manner said, “This has happened. That’s the way it is. My life has been a wonderful adventure but not as long as I hoped and shorter than I thought.” Luckily, we have the gift and legacy of her unique vision transformed into exquisite art images.
“I am a gatherer. I gather images, and I gather plants. Paper begins with plants.”
When I walked into Deborah Sharpe-Lunstead’s studio, the first thing that struck me was the quality of pure, clear light. The space looked like a combination of studio, laboratory and kitchen, with its broad work surfaces, sinks, blenders and a variety of materials. As she explained the complexity of her art-making process, in which she combined handmade paper with pigmented pulp made from plant materials that she gathered, I began to understand something of her unique process.
Deborah Sharpe-Lunstead was first and foremost a gatherer of experiences and impressions. The penchant for travel was set in motion at an early age when she visited the Caribbean, Europe and Central America with her parents. Much of her adult life was lived in various places in the world as she accompanied her husband, Jeff Lunstead, a diplomat in the Foreign Service, to his various posts in Kuala Lumpur, Chennai (Madras), Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
She was always a serious student of music, studying the cello, viola da gamba and harpsichord, and frequently organizing musical groups wherever she found herself living. Despite the challenges of relocating every three years, her instruments and loom always traveled with her in cases made by her husband. Sharpe-Lunstead’s incredible organization and discipline was also the backbone of her artistic practice. Creating paintings out of paper pulp is not a simple process.
An innately innovative person, Sharpe-Lunstead also became a professional fiber artist and papermaker. Primarily self-taught, she studied advanced papermaking with Lynn Sures at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. It was there that she learned the basics of pulp painting. While at the Corcoran, one of her 3D paper sculptures was selected to tour the U.S. as part of the second annual Collegiate Handmade Paper Art Show. Her drawing studies in Sri Lanka with artist Anoma Wijewardene continued to inform her mature work.
Sharpe-Lunstead and her husband moved to Middlebury 10 years ago, and these years were the most continuous time in one community. The Washington Street Papermaking Studio was built in the summer of 2012, when a hole was cut in the roof of their barn-like garage, and a dormer added across the back. With skylights installed, the studio became flooded with light, providing Sharpe-Lunstead with a perfect place to work and teach.
Truthfully, prior to seeing Sharpe-Lunstead’s paintings in the Edgewater Gallery, I had never experienced art made in this particular manner. The paintings have an impressionistic look that belies the meticulous method used to bring them into being. It seems to me that her early training in music, the sense of constant practice and repetition, served her well as she has developed this singular mode of creating art.
Sharpe-Lunstead’s love of nature is palpably present, from her seaside paintings, to her earthbound ones, and to pieces portraying wetlands, streams and ponds. Some friends who took a canoe trip with her to Dead Creek spoke of the “gift of seeing Vermont through her eyes.” Viewing her paintings in the studio, I felt as if I were taking a trip through her favorite places, in a variety of seasons — Breadloaf Mountain in autumn, Middlebury Falls, Snowy Fields in Bristol, the Lake Champlain Causeway, Fern Lake in Salisbury, the Bennington Gap. These were complemented by images from her international travels — Inle Lake in Myanmar (Burma), Kathmandu, the Maldives and the Chianti Valley in Tuscany.
All of these paintings shine with color and light. Each one, like a unique gem, beckons to the eye and opens a window into the natural world. One of Sharpe-Lunstead’s central life tenets is to engage in acts of kindness, “Tikkun Olam,” in the Jewish tradition, meaning to act in a compassionate manner, to repair the hurt in the world. The world that Sharpe-Lunstead shared with us through her paintings is one that gives and inspires hope. She cared deeply for the exquisite beauty of this planet, and has honored it in her art. Her paintings are the enduring gift of her wide-ranging vision and expansive spirit.
I posed some questions to Sharpe-Lunstead during my studio visit, hoping to understand more of her art-making process. Here are some of her own words describing her process.
1. How do you create your unusual work?
I harvest locally grown plants. Each plant is a unique color and will reflect light differently in a painting. In the fall, I gather plant materials to make into paper. I then cook them, beat some into pulp, and leave some unbeaten. Some pulp I color with natural pigment; with others, I leave the natural color. When I start to paint, I use different natural fiber colors to get different effects and mix the pigmented colors, as one would do with paints. It is a very watery process, since the whole painting is made when all the elements are wet.
2. What inspires you to make art?
A sense of wonder and play energize my work — the play of light on the mountains, trees, meadows, fields; the magnificent cloud formations, reflections on the water, the colors and textures of nature. How do I capture the changing light in my paper?
3. I see work in different stages. It looks quite complicated. Can you describe more of your process?
Paper can be a flat surface for drawing or painting or printing, or it can hold an image inside it as a pulp painting. It can be shaped, or allowed to take its own shape. It can hold words or imagined worlds. Paper has a living quality, shaped by the plants from which it was made.
Once I collect the plants that will become the basis for the work, I beat them with a blender, so that they become paper pulp. The finely beaten, colored pulp becomes the “paint” for creating the images on a newly formed wet sheet of handmade paper. My “brushes” are turkey basters, syringes, dental tools and my hands. When the paper is pressed and dried, the painting is “within” the sheet of paper, since the pigmented pulp actually merges with the handmade paper.
4. Why use paper as your main medium. It’s usually the surface that artists draw or paint on.
I’m fascinated with plants. I’m intrigued with their intricate beauty and the ways we use them for food and shelter, for weaving, baskets and cloth, for making dyes and medicines. Everything about paper speaks to me as an artist. To start with a plant and end with a sheet of beautiful paper is magical. I am an artist. I paint with paper pulp.
A video of Deborah Sharpe-Lunstead in her studio is available at www.dsharpelunstead.com.