When I was fresh out of art school in 2011, diving deep into the intersection of ecology and handmade paper was not in my ten-year plan. Yes, I loved making paper. And each series I made started with material and interdisciplinary research into specific places. As I looked, however, I found degraded waterways, polluted soils, and displaced plants. The problems facing the planet are obvious, and they are also the result of the dominant culture’s fractured view that humans are separate from and superior to nature. The reality is that humans, organisms, and the Earth’s living systems are interdependent, and all have intrinsic value.
The papermakers in this issue think of nature as more than a theme or backdrop, more than an art-and-science project, and more than using environmental materials. This work is about interconnectedness and context. A shift in thinking from parts to a whole, objects to relationships, quantity to quality, and contents to patterns. Handmade paper can go beyond creative self-expression to be a reminder of how to live respectfully, learn together, and be creative in a way that is ecologically and socially beneficial.
For this issue, I sought out papermakers who were doing ecological work that excited and inspired me. It is quite the range. Hannah Chalew’s work based on floating marshes graces the cover, and inside there is a “plasticane” paper sample made from south Louisiana agricultural and plastic waste. The back cover features work by Ugandan artist Sheila Nakitende, whose innovations embrace bark-cloth traditions and regenerative fibers. Next, Mikayla Patton repurposes outdated books about indigenous nations for compelling artworks that reconnect with Lakota cultural practices. Veronica Pham writes about the Dao Đỏ community in Việt Nam whose centuries-old papermaking traditions live on in a harmonious way. Meanwhile, Mary Hark describes her work with the nonprofit Krataa Foundation, an ecosocial enterprise in Ghana that nurtures new papermakers. The accompanying paper sample consists of paper mulberry, a displaced, troublesome plant in Ghanian forests. The same plant is central to Taiwan’s indigenous cultural revitalization; Yang Wei-Lin gives a sweeping overview of the island’s papermaking story of colonization to adaptation. In Germany, Katharina Grosch writes about Tanja Major’s remarkable resource-saving mushroom paper, recently featured in the Haus des Papiers museum. Human rights, the United Nations, and sustainability intersect in Brazilian artist Otávio Roth’s work, and his daughter Isabel Roth continues his legacy through the Otávio Roth Collection. And finally, an exhibition expands the definition of paper arts by reconnecting distinct bark-paper traditions in “Paper is People: Decolonizing Global Paper Cultures,” reviewed by Juleana Enright.
Hand papermaking is in a unique position to address the degradation of the planet and contribute to a future that values and re-integrates all of nature and humanity. Why? It is a cultural activity that connects with nature. Oftentimes the arts think that art has nothing to do with ecology, when in fact culture has far-reaching social power that can invite communities to live well with places. It is my hope that you, the reader, are also inspired by this issue’s papermakers.