Film Review – Water Paper Time – Helen Hiebert’s Explorations in Paper

Film Review – Water Paper Time – Helen Hiebert’s Explorations in Paper

Film by Gretchen Hogue
Music by Kell Black

Snowy mountain air, bold, strong coffee, bright red poppies, chocolate pudding, and unexpected kindness. Also, spaghetti marinara. These are just a few of the great and tiny pleasures of life. I would add to that list the exquisite sensation of utterly new thoughts finding their way into my mind. Helen Hiebert’s work, in her film Water Paper Time, is for me is one of those experiences.

I had no idea paper could do these things – could be this way.

While it would be technically correct to say that Helen, a paper artist for the last 16 years, creates handmade paper sheets and sculptures from smashed plant bits, what is more true is that she is a paper midwife. She is the Pulp Whisperer. In her film Water Paper Time, Helen creates sentient, papery living beings with her bare hands. Into her freshly handmade sheets she embeds copper wires, string, nails, or other materials which introduce tension as the paper dries, and as it does, it arches, curls, twists, balloons, folds, unfurls, pauses, lurches, and splits apart. From what she says, the magical part happens after she leaves the paper babies alone in the womb of her studio and when she comes back, poof! Amazement awaits! It’s as if she’s found a whole new tooth fairy most of us have never heard of.

I have secretly suspected for years that inanimate objects have private lives and relationships. Chairs and couches talk about us when we’re gone. Forks and lamps – what do they do when no one is eating or reading? Do they wait? Do they covertly meet in the bathroom while we are at work? It could happen in the world of magic, and their experiences with each other could be hidden from us largely because we are not so observant. Helen’s work has pushed me over that cliff. She has convinced me that objects that seem static and ‘devoid of life’ may simply be hiding their potential; perhaps they are shy and speak softly. But this wonderful artist seems to hear perfectly the conversations between the materials she uses, even if they themselves have never met. Lucky for us, the hidden world is made plain in her care, and it is a sensuous world of curves, wrinkles, grooves, valleys, and, don’t ask me how, longing. Paper feels longing, you say? Well. I didn’t know either, but evidently it’s been there all along. Each piece is its own person – surprising, unpredictable, and with its own secrets.

Helen opens Water Paper Time with a story of children who have never seen, touched, or written on paper. What? Really? I had never thought of that either. All my life, I’ve had the privilege of having paper in my life. I’ve printed my photographs on paper, and my writing on paper; I’ve drawn on it, painted it, inked, glued, crumpled, torn, kept, discarded it, folded it up around gifts, and made my own. I’ve cried over pieces of paper and laughed over others. But I had no idea paper could be alive, could do what Helen so lovingly coaxes it to do. Now I know. This film introduced me to the secret life of paper.

The visual aesthetic of the film contributes to the magic and wonder in her work. At first, as a photographer and book artist, I wasn’t sure I’d like the visual style of the film: when the paper is doing its thing, the film is an old-fashioned home movie, shot on my dad’s ancient, whirring movie camera. I could almost feel my brother poke my little kid leg while we watch the family swimming clips again. As the paper protagonist grows up, passing from plant to pulp to sheet to sculpture, the images become dreamy, filmy, moody, grainy, and blurry, adorned with a light leak here and there. This stylistic choice makes perfect sense, and I am a child again watching a sweet, private family moment on screen. The filmy style is beautifully imperfect, nostalgic, playful, and wondrous.

At 16 minutes long, the sounds of Water Paper Time are also deeply pleasurable, a real human being touching real things with real hands. She plucks plants from water, her hands squeezing and pounding stringy pulp, water dripping or gushing, spinning or falling. We hear every drop. We are there with her. I found my hands squeezing when she did, squishing and stirring right along with her, laying wire on wet paper, watching it dry in its magical way, pinning it in draped white sheets to a clothesline, enjoying the little breeze on the back porch with her.

Helen Hiebert’s shares with us the earthy, natural and sensuous experience of life on our exquisite earth as expressed through paper, water, and time, and where she goes with them is pure beauty and charm. Her work with paper is truly inspired.

– Anjani Millet, ©2015


Paper Artist Helen Hiebert and Water Paper Time can be purchased and downloaded here:

Download Water Paper Time

Website: Helen Hiebert Studio






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