For the past 17 years, handmade paper light company HiiH Lights has gained a national reputation for its work. Founded by Lâm Quảng with the HiiH Gallery in Portland, it grew in the mid-2000s to include his wife, Kestrel Gates.
The couple has called the RoseMint Ranch in Lewis and Clark-area home for two years, running the gallery from a distance, with much of their business online and through commissions.
Quảng and Gates recently pulled up stakes in Portland and are in the process of setting up their barn as a portal to their art.
“We want a space where people can come and connect with the process,” said Gates, during a Monday tour of the barn, where they hope to hold workshops, studio sales, art openings and demonstrations.
The grand opening is Feb. 21 at RoseMint Ranch, 89120 Lewis and Clark Road.
Quảng starts the light-making process with processed sheets of cotton and abaca fiber.
“We usually beat it for about an hour,” said Quảng, who sends the sheets through a Hollander beater used to turn the fiber into paper pulp.
After mixing the abaca and cotton pulp, he places the mixture on a mold and deckle, the frame used to form pulp into paper sheets.
The wet sheets of newly made paper are carefully removed from the mold and deckle and placed between nylon couching (pronounced “cooshing”) sheets to dry. Quảng also uses an 8-ton press to compress the fibers of the sheets.
Meanwhile, he makes armatures of wire and bamboo that represent the skeleton of HiiH Lights’ sconces, ceiling fixtures, table lamps, standing lamps, pendants, chandeliers and large lighting installation pieces. Using no glue, he carefully applies sheets of damp paper to the armatures, using a soft brush to fold the sheets around the frame and back around each other to bond the fibers.
Gates then takes over the decoration of the light fixtures, using acrylic airbrush paint, walnut dye, indigo dye and other paints to decorate the pieces.
Quảng finally covers the light fixture in a thin layer of damar resin and beeswax.
“It adds another layer of strength and makes the lamps translucent,” said Quảng, who finishes by installing the electrical components of the pieces.
“The form allows us to create pieces that really come out of our client’s imaginations,” said Gates of HiiH (pronounced “hi hi”) Lights, which gets more than half its daily business through commissions.
The armature for the lights can be any form, shape or size. Often inspiration comes from flowers, sea creatures, insects or an Asian aesthetic.
“Sometimes people don’t have a clear idea,” added Gates, “and we go into their space and help figure out what works well.”
Their lights illuminate restaurants, bars, offices, studios, spas and private homes throughout Portland and as far away as the Nobu Japanese Restaurant inside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. They’re found in galleries from Seattle and Portland to Berkley, Calif., and Reno, Nev. They’ve even done set pieces for the revamp of “Madame Butterfly” by the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
Locally, HiiH Lights has been commissioned to create lighting fixtures for The Blue Scorcher Bakery Cafe and Clemente’s new location at the 14th Street Pilot Station. Their pieces are shown at the RiverSea Gallery, and they’re readying lights for Fort George Brewery’s Festival of the Dark Arts on Valentine’s Day, a week before their own grand opening.
Paper lights work for such a diverse clientele, said Quảng, because they can be customized for any space, event or bit of imagination. And through its Internet presence, Gates added, their physical location isn’t as important.
Although the lights he creates remind him of the Moon Festivals of his native Vietnam, Quảng had a roundabout journey to the art.
He left South Vietnam on a plane with his mother and two siblings in 1975, as the Vietnam War was winding down, to live with his American stepfather in Michigan. Out of high school, he studied computers, eventually traveling to Texas, where he got burned out with office work. He moved to Portland with a friend and worked in the restaurant industry, until he saw someone making some crude paper.
“I had no goals other than wanting to experiment with it,” said Quảng, who quickly found a space in the Alberta Arts District and quit his restaurant job four months into his new career track.
Gates said she and Quảng met at a New Year’s Eve Party in 2004. “He asked me if I wanted to make lamps.”
The two had been looking toward the country life for some time. They liked the natural beauty of the North Coast, along with the close-knit community.
The Lewis and Clark property included a barn, rebuilt on its original footing seven years ago, the right work and living space for Quảng, Gates and their two children, Xanh, 7, and Mai Linh, 3.
Many big events in their lives center on the new year, be it their 2004 meeting or the opening of the original HiiH Gallery in Portland a day after the Lunar New Year in 1998. Opening the barn in Astoria Feb. 21, two days after the coming Lunar New Year, fits the cycle.
The couple is available by appointment and online at http://hiihlights.com