Papering the walls |

Papering the walls

Wren Wertin
Susan Mackin Dolan uses kozo from the Phillipines which she pounds and cooks before she uses it for her hand made paper.

An etching starts with a blank piece of metal, something to scratch it with and a vision. From such humble beginnings Mackin Dolan can produce intricately detailed prints, full of symbolism, ideas and colors. But etchings are only one of the many things she creates in her Singletree studio. Perusing even a small portion of her work could be overwhelming. Large-scale installations, tiny etchings, linocuts, woodcuts, monotypes, handmade paper, collaborations with other artists – she seems to be interested in everything.

It’s her surroundings, both immediate and global, that push Mackin Dolan to create. Philosophical and political issues, the natural world and her own consciousness help drive her art.

“Somehow it has to be a distillation of your life and the world you live in,” she said. “It’s how you make meaning in your life.”

And yet the artist doesn’t like to talk about her prints in specific terms, encouraging people to find their own meaning. When pushed to describe her art, she simply brings examples forth, open to scrutiny. It seems as if the doing, the making, is not for her alone, but for everyone who comes into contact with her work.

And there is much work to bring forth. A prolific artist – as well as a mother and wife – Mackin Dolan began drawing at a young age on weekend visits with her grandmother. A stylish woman perpetually adorned in a linen skirt and shirt, she had her family only after she’d graduated from college in 1918. All the women in her family were educated.

Mackin Dolan herself went to graduate school on her quest to broaden her abilities and knowledge. Upon graduating from U.C. Boulder with a masters of fine art in printmaking and papermaking, she went to San Antonio’s Southwest College of Art and Craft where she was the director of the paper program. It was there that she unwittingly made history by being the first woman to ever build a pulp beater for paper making.

“I just did it and didn’t think about it,” she said.

That simple statement offers loads of insight into Mackin Dolan, firm in her resolve to make what she needs to make. Too hard has nothing to do with it. She started out as a printmaker, but soon began making paper because she needed her own shapes and colors.

Her paper begins with clumps of organic material, reminiscent of straw or rattan. She cooks it down and beats it up into pulp. She may or may not dye some of it, and then she puts it in a water bath. She uses two wooden frames with a screen between them. The top piece holds the water and pulp in; the water drains through the screen and leaves the pulp in a sheet. Mackin Dolan makes it look deceptively easy, able to flick the forms so the sheet is an even thickness. She transfers it to a drying screen with deft movement. The wet pulp somehow stays in a sheet for her.

Papermaking is probably what she’s best known for, and has created several installations around her artist-made creations.

One of her favorites was “La Casita del Norte,” little house of the north in Spanish. She made large sheets of paper and attached them to bamboo sticks. She then created an enclosed room, a bit like a pagoda, edged with neon lights that blinked from one bulb to another in succession, never stopping. Inside were feather-covered eggs within a paper nest perched atop a pedestal. Fake snow covered the ground. It was a surreal, meditative work.

The same artist created prints of a magpie that appeared with the blue moon one month and a series about the four basic requirements for life. “We Are in the World” is another series bound by a thought. It has one print that incorporates many images – a world on a ladder, a baby held fetal-style within an apple. Then she broke it down into more detailed, close-up pieces.

“It’s about that crazy idea people have of living in the world but not as part of it,” she said. “Well… you are what the world is.”

Her favorite experience, though, is working with others.

“I like collaborating with other artists, it opens up the possibilities,” she said. “Other people get involved and it changes slightly.”

She’s worked with photographers William Wegman and Judy Dater and folk artist Howard Finister. Painters and potters, too, have worked alongside her.

Mackin Dolan taught artist Eric Avery how to make paper from three-dimensional wood forms, enabling him to make woodcut prints from bowls.

“She opened up a new world of printmaking by helping me learn how to work with paper pulp,” he said. “(She approaches a project) as if it was the most important thing in the world to do.”

Mackin Dolan knew she was going to make art for the rest of her life when she visited Italy at 18. When she was an undergrad she had the opportunity to study with different feminist visiting artists each month.

“Really well known national and international artists – Judy Chicago, May Stevens, Marisol, Yvonne Jacquette – and my eyes were blown wide open,” she exclaimed. “Their commitment to their work and their ideas was very inspiring to an impressionable young woman.”

She almost left to work with Chicago on the “Dinner Party,” a project which turned into one of the most important feminist art pieces of that time. But she stayed and graduated, then went on to work with more visiting artists during grad school.

“(I was especially) influenced by Howard Finister, a folk artist, and the fact that he was out there doing what he had to do and didn’t care much for the “real world,'” she said.

When Mackin Dolan first moved to Eagle County, she kept leaving – teaching classes, attending seminars. She described herself as a bit reclusive.

“But you can’t isolate yourself,” she said. “Well, you can. But you’ll be miserable. So I was on the board of the Art Council, joined the Plaza Gallery and did the Studio Tour. And all that is community service – I don’t do that part for the art.”

Which is why she’s a familiar face in town. She volunteers her time to organize the Plaza Gallery, the closest thing to an artists’ cooperative Vail has. But Mackin Dolan is happier working away in her studio. She was caught off guard by one question.

“Do I do commissions?” she echoed. “Hmmm….. I might. But I’m so used to just going into my studio and doing what I want to do.”

Some of what she’s done recently can be seen at Plaza Gallery in Vail. Today marks the last day to bid on the silent auction items, one of which was donated by Mackin Dolan. Proceeds go to the Vail Symposium’s Artist Series. For more information call the gallery at 476-4477.

Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at or phone at 949-0555 ext. 618.

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