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Surprises in the sheets

For years, Robert Thompson has kept a journal of his life at his cottage on Aquilla Street.

It is not a booklet of pages with words, but a record nonetheless of the natural cycles and rhythms shaping his days.

His journal, he says, is his profession. Study his work and you'll see his passion for living.

Thompson is a papermaker.

He finds the inspiration and the ingredients for his work outside his back door. By heart he names what grows in the tropical, city garden there: black bamboo, Buddha belly bamboo, sea grapes, ginger, horsetail, Christmas palm, bird of paradise.

"In an abstract way, I'm telling a story without language," he explains. "The paper's texture and color is a record of the place it comes from, a particular harvest."

He teaches his craft at workshops at the University of South Florida's Botanical Garden in Tampa and infuses his students with the same philosophy. They need not venture beyond their back yards to find plants to create something not always practical, but visceral, he tells them.

Each sheet can be beautiful, decorative, unique. The textures are sometimes rough, sometimes crackly. The paper may be thin as onion skin, but still begs to be touched.

"It is my passion," he explains, "something I just love."

Thompson began making paper 16 years ago in the tiny kitchen of his Hyde Park apartment. Now he works from a studio in a detached garage adjacent to his 1946 house.

Sorry about the mosquitoes, he says.

And the lack of air-conditioning.

Devotion to his art often outweighs comfort.

"Feel this." He offers a stalk of elephant ear leaves. They will make beautiful paper, he says.

"I use only my own fibers, things I harvest myself _ nothing recycled."

At midafternoon, the studio ceiling glows with plump paper lamps and strings of delicate outdoor box lights that Thompson makes and sells.

Stacks of thick paper wait to be bundled and placed into collages. Some he will use for shadow boxes. Others will become covers for books or note cards.

Dried plant materials inside plastic freezer bags hang from the ceiling. Fistfuls of horsetail and papyrus are heaped in buckets and aluminum pots. Thompson makes paper in batches to save time.

By profession, he oversees printing and mailing for a large company in Tampa. But somehow he always makes room in his day for his art.

Papermaking is an intricate process. First he cuts plant material into 2-inch pieces and cooks them in a solution of lye or soda ash and water. Then he rinses the fibers, sometimes bleaching them for a lighter color. He mixes the material with water in a blender, then mixes it again with more water in a shallow vat. Ultimately, the plant fibers are "captured" on a screen and frame known as a mold and deckle.

Thompson pins his paper to a fence to dry.

Finally, he's done.

His workshop students are usually teachers, artists and regular folks who just want to make something beautiful, he says. Often they show up for class with bits of twig, colorful thread or flower petals in the hopes of turning scraps of their own stories into art.

Thompson is a man of few words, softspoken, somewhere in his 40s _ he won't say where. The easiest way to learn about him may be to pick up a sheet of his paper, light as air, the color of earth and light, speckled with the things that grow in his little yard.

Yes, he says, the paper tells his story.