Once reluctant papermaker now wants to master the craft

Gordon Koh wanted to quit on his first day, but stayed on because of a promise he made.
Gordon Koh wanted to quit on his first day, but stayed on because of a promise he made.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

GORDON KOH, 40

Senior papermaker at STPI

Gordon Koh was not impressed with papermaking when he was introduced to it. "In school, all we did was tear toilet paper and pour glue over it," he says.

Neither was he thrilled about being a papermaker when he began working at STPI in 2002.

He says: "The paper room needs to be 100 per cent clean for papermaking, so I had to wash the floor three times a day, wipe the place with alcohol four times a day and wash my hands about 20 times a day.

"It felt like I was a better paid cleaner. I wanted to give up on my first day."

But he stayed because of his promise to the late Brother Joseph McNally, his mentor at Lasalle College of the Arts, who encouraged him to join STPI.

The Lasalle graduate, who holds a master's in fine arts, says: "Brother McNally's vision was for Singapore to be immersed in the arts and he wanted a new batch of papermakers and printers to come from Singapore.

"I didn't care about being a pioneer papermaker in Singapore, but the vision was important to him."

The weight of his promise grew when Brother McNally died shortly after he joined STPI.

He says: "I felt that all the more I had to keep my promise and make something out of myself here."

Working as a papermaker means toiling in a constantly wet and cold environment - the paper room is kept at 17 deg C to ensure the organic paper pulp does not spoil - and losing his fingerprints frequently because of persistent contact with water. But his sense of purpose as a papermaker helped him press on.

"I used to think, 'We can buy paper, why make paper?' But working with the artists, I came to understand the need for custom-made paper and my responsibility as a papermaker."

More than a passive surface, the paper - which can be made from various materials with fibrous content although cotton is typically used - interacts with the ink and critically affects the way the work looks.

The challenge of customising paper to meet the diverse needs of the artists whom STPI works with has also been rewarding. He cites a request made last year by wellknown South Korean artist Do Ho Suh for paper that was much larger than the maximum industry size.

To overcome the physical limitations of the equipment, Koh, who is married with a young child, and STPI's four other papermakers came up with new methods and devices for making paper.

The once reluctant papermaker now has his sights set on becoming a master papermaker.

He says: "It is a title that comes from the industry's acknowledgement. All I can do is to keep on producing good work and offering innovative techniques to artists."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2016, with the headline 'Once reluctant papermaker now wants to master the craft'. Print Edition | Subscribe