Hand in hand with the final stages of the renovation project, commissioned works of art are being incorporated into the new spaces—among them, a large, floating light sculpture next to the stairs that lead from the entrance and exhibition halls to the theater above.
On August 23, Folger staff members gathered, champagne at the ready, in the Adams Pavilion—the new public wing under the original building that extends below the front lawn. They were there to celebrate a unique event: the moment when a newly installed light sculpture, Cloud of Imagination, was turned on for the first time. Hanging in midair beside the stairs from the new lobby to the theater and Great Hall, this work by German artist Anke Neumann is a large, glowing form of 250 hand-made individual paper components, which extends 15 feet from top to bottom. More than a hundred bundles of optical fibers support and illuminate the paper shapes. Collectively, the fibers add up to 21,000 feet in length or about four miles.
Before the event, Neumann spent six days installing her artwork at the Folger; afterwards, she would need another day to finish the work. Since the installation process is often still underway when a light sculpture is first set aglow, that moment may come and go without fanfare, but not this time. “How many chances do you get to witness a ‘let there be light’ moment?” says Folger Director Michael Witmore. “We do theater. We know that great art is often experienced alone, but it’s also experienced in crowds.” As the staff came together, Witmore spoke about the piece and asked Neumann to turn on the power. The sculpture lit up, everyone gasped simultaneously and broke into applause—and Neumann was left with tears in her eyes.
A Well-Lit Welcome
Cloud of Imagination will welcome theatergoers and other visitors en route from the exhibition halls to the historic floor above; some may walk up the stairs, which wrap around the hanging sculpture, while others may take the new, nearby elevator. But the well-lit cloud of paper is also “a metaphor for how art and ideas and paper and books draw us in. It’s visible from the far end, from the Capitol side. It’s a visual attraction,” says Witmore. “I think it will become a beloved feature of this project and a highlight for a visit to the Folger, especially in the evening.”
Neumann, who is based in Flensburg, a German city just below the Danish border, has developed her own form of light and paper sculpture, LichtPapier (Light Paper), in which optical fibers are embedded in paper, lighting it from within. Her works are in homes and hotels in multiple countries. Born in Chemnitz, which was then Karl-Marx-Stadt, East Germany, Neumann grew up studying drawing and fine arts as well as textiles and spinning. She became a student at Weissensee Academy of Art Berlin, where she took Gangolf Ulbricht’s papermaking course and worked as an assistant in his studio.
Ulbricht, who is the subject of a five-minute documentary, Der Papiermacher (The Papermaker), has worked with the Folger’s Werner Gundersheimer Conservation Laboratory and supplies hand-made papers that the staff uses in their work. In 2019, Neumann flew to Washington, DC, to install Riverflow, a commissioned work at the AC Hotel by Marriott near the White House; from Germany, Ulbricht introduced her to Renate Mesmer, head of conservation and preservation at the Folger. On a trip in 2022 to install another commission—The Fizz and The Fizz Tree for the AC Hotel in Bethesda—Neumann met additional Folger staff, including Witmore. This ultimately led to a plan for a new work for the stairs, a location where architect Stephen Kieran had suggested the Folger should add a light element.
“What we would like is to experience the feeling of enlightenment, of lift, of elevation, and we want it to happen with the material that means the most to us as an institution—and that is paper.”
Just before the light sculpture was illuminated for the first time this August, Witmore described the process of commissioning her work in a nutshell. “I said, ‘What we would like is to experience the feeling of enlightenment, of lift, of elevation, and we want it to happen with the material that matters to us as an institution—and that is paper. Can you put together this poetic cloud of paper and light and lift?’ And she said, ‘Yes, I can do that.’” For the project, Neumann chose a traditional type of papermaking, in which she cast sheets of paper in rectangular molds that were about 16 x 10 inches, but with rounded, rather than sharp, corners. The sculpture would be a “cloud” of these relatively small pieces.
Building a Cloud
Neumann says that paper appeals to her as an artist because “it’s very simple. You just need natural fibers and water.” For Cloud of Imagination, she chose flax, a robust, durable fiber that is used in linen. She made it by putting cut-up pieces of linen into water and working them into pulp, creating “rag paper.”
To produce a piece of the sculpture, Neumann made a bundle of optical fibers, used the mold to produce a sheet of wet rag paper, and laid the bundle across it, separating the fibers so that each had a parallel path. Then she laid a second sheet on top of the first, sandwiching the optical fibers between the sheets, which formed a single paper element. For most of the bundles, she added a second paper component a few feet away. She then dried all the paper elements on a given bundle at once, using heat and fan-driven air. When it dries, wet paper always shrinks, but flax paper shrinks more than paper made from other fibers. Meanwhile, the rigid optical fibers inside the paper do not shrink at all. As the piece dries, “there is a fight between the materials,” Neumann says, which produces three-dimensional paper forms.
In the finished sculpture, the section of each optical fiber that is embedded in paper glows with light. To create this effect, Neumann determines which parts of each optical fiber will be embedded and lightly sands the surface of that portion, but not too much; otherwise, after sanding the first section, there might not be enough remaining light for the next paper component. Between preparing the optical fibers and creating the paper, it took her six months to produce Cloud of Imagination.
How Anke Neumann creates her paper and light scuptures
The Glory of Paper
Rag paper based on flax was also used in the First Folio of Shakespeare and many of the 16th- and 17th-century books in the Folger collection, although the paper could vary depending on which materials were available. As Mesmer explains, however, the rag paper in the light sculpture was processed differently than the paper intended to be printed in those books. For example, the pulping process in the past used wooden stampers, but today, it usually includes powered machines. Neumann also created sturdier, thicker pieces of paper, and, of course, she embedded optical fibers in the paper and gave it a three-dimensional form, very different from the flat sheets of paper, folded after printing, that were used in early modern books.
The cloud of paper, however, remains a perfect fit for the Folger. “Why is paper so important to the Folger?” says Mesmer. “I would love to be able to tell you the amount of paper that is stored at the Folger. Paper is so important—history has been hand-written and printed on paper.” Paper comprises the very essence of the Folger collection, which includes some 277,000 books, both old and new, more than 60,000 manuscripts, 250,000 playbills, and thousands of works on paper, among other items.
Cloud of Imagination is just one of three major contemporary works commissioned as part of the renovation project. Others include a new installation by Fred Wilson for the Shakespeare Exhibition Hall and a new poem by Rita Dove that welcomes visitors arriving at the west entrance.
Commissioning new artworks, says Witmore, leads to a wealth of insights and surprising connections between Shakespeare’s works and our own time. “It is a powerful thing to have a contemporary artist pose questions about Shakespeare and the Renaissance from a different angle,” he says. Each work offers us a new way to “restate the value of Shakespeare and the humanities.”