A faculty member’s meticulous study of papermaking earns a MacArthur “genius grant.”
Timothy Barrett followed his heart and chose a professional path without many prospects.
"I've spent most of my career focused on the history, technique, science, and aesthetics of hand papermaking," he explains. "I've been lucky to be a part of the University of Iowa Center for the Book for the last 23 years because, in general, career tracks in my specialty are few and far between."
He found a home in the UI Center for the Book as its paper specialist in 1986—after studying Japanese papermaking on a Fulbright Fellowship—and served as its director between 1996 and 2002. He continues to teach courses on hand papermaking, and he oversees the Oakdale Paper Production and Research Facility.
Barrett's specialty is one that most people probably don't even know exists, and it's not a field that normally grabs headlines. But within his obscure field he has developed an international reputation for his research and his visionary work preserving Western and Japanese traditional papermaking techniques.
"He's kind of a linchpin, a link to keeping these practices alive," says Matthew Brown, an associate professor of English who directs the Center for the Book.
Barrett never imagined that anyone in the wider world was paying attention. Then his cellphone phone rang on Sept. 14, in the midst of meeting. "Are you sitting down?" asked the voice at the other end.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation—which awards fellowships commonly know as "genius grants" —was paying attention, and the purpose of the call was to inform Barrett that he had been chosen to receive a half-million dollars, no strings attached, over the next five years in recognition of his creativity and unique achievements.
The Foundation explained its selection: "Timothy Barrett is an internationally recognized master craftsman and paper historian who is preserving and enhancing the art of hand-papermaking through his work as a practitioner, scholar, and teacher. Combining the skills of artist, ethnographer, scientist, and historian, he documents and demonstrates centuries-old hand-papermaking practices that may otherwise be lost.”
The Foundation pointed to Barrett’s 1983 book Japanese Papermaking: Traditions, Tools, and Techniques, which grew from his research in Japan and his own work as a papermaker. Handmade Japanese papers are a basic part of the conservator’s toolkit, used to repair and protect precious documents.
In 2002, Barrett and colleagues crafted archival paper to house the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution of the United States. His current research focuses on analyzing European papers from the 14th through 19th centuries using non-destructive methods he and others have developed.
"People have asked me how it feels to receive this award," Barrett says. "More than the money, I have to say I've been moved by the recognition. It is very much to the MacArthur Foundation's credit that they acknowledge creativity in new fields of study, as well as in established disciplines.
“I think the important thing is that it's not just a recognition of me. It's also very much about the University of Iowa and the State of Iowa."
Story by Winston Barclay; photos courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation
The Des Moines Register profiled Barrett and his work in October. Read that story here.
November 23, 2009