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Sustainability in Papermaking, Part 2

March 16, 2021

This information is reprinted from the For Beginners column of Hand Papermaking Newsletter #98 (April, 2012).

Three years ago, in Hand Papermaking Newsletter #85 (January 2009), this column featured an introduction to thinking about sustainability in the paper studio. I’d like to provide an update to that column as my thinking on this topic has developed over the past several years. Treating sustainability as a fundamental aspect of studio practice from the beginning, from the ground up, is crucial in a responsible art practice—responsible to the community as well as to oneself.

In January 2012, I sat on a panel about Sustainability at the College Book Art Association conference. The panel was moderated by Cynthia Thompson, featured a talk by John Risseeuw, who has been working to develop the conversation within the book, print, and paper arts surrounding sustainability issues, and included printer and book arts studio manager Lara Durback as well as Susan Moore of the commercial Inkworks Press. A few fundamental principles of John’s research include: how do we define the term “sustainable,” and how do we assess the sustainability of a material or practice?

John’s survey of printers and printmaking educators suggests that too often we conflate “good for my health” with “sustainable,” a term that takes into account both long and short-term ecological impact, the complete carbon footprint of a practice, as well as social, economic, cultural, and political impacts. We should be concerned not only with the impact a material may have in the studio, but also with what the effects are of its production and disposal. What are the impacts of its packaging, storage, and shipping? The survey also suggests that too often we, as artists, make decisions based on hearsay, instituting the use of a particular material in the studio because someone told us it was the best option, without investigating and verifying the rationale (for example, and as mentioned in the January 2009 column, using citrus-based cleaners as better for our health when their use can be harmful to the human body).

Key considerations in a sustainable paper studio practice raised previously include: fiber sources; water and energy use; and sources of pigments and other additives. I would like to add a few considerations to the list. In a time of increasing reliance on digital aspects of production, what is the impact of the energy and materials used in digital planning and output? Can digital output of stencil and watermark materials be more wasteful than hand cutting or use of wire?

How do we balance environmental concerns with aesthetic decisions, and with demands on our time? Two key points that came out of the panel discussion at the College Book Art Association conference were: time (the need to slow down to make a more sustainable art practice), and an integration of these considerations with our art and education practices, rather than making them an afterthought, the bonus round of art practice.

by Mary Tasillo