Local artist wins Rasmuson award, seeks public's help with plant papermaking project

May 24, 2016

Desiree Hagen stands in front of her cut paper installation with handmade and salvaged paper during an artists residency she did this winter at Bunnell Street Arts Center in Homer.
Credit Photo by Rose Grech/KBBI

Earlier this month, local artist and KBBI volunteer Desiree Hagen received an individual artist award from the Rasmuson Foundation. She plans to use the grant on a community art project making paper out of invasive plants in the Homer area. She hopes to both help remove the species from native plant areas and create awareness of their effects on the ecosystem. KBBI’s Shady Grove Oliver spoke with Hagen about her art.

  SGO: First of all, can you describe the scope of your project so people can have an idea of what you’re hoping to create with this?

DH: So, my hope and goal is to be able to engage a lot of people both in the 

Desiree Hagen.
Credit Photo Courtesy of Desiree Hagen.

papermaking process and in plant identification and learning about what is growing all around us. I had this idea for the project because I thought it would be a good way to merge science and art together and have  people who don’t consider themselves creative, being able to do this craft project, and people that are creative and don’t know a lot about plants, being able to teach and educate them about what’s around us.

SGO: In terms of the physical part of your project, I see you’ve got some stuff on the table. Can you tell me what that is and then physically what you will be doing?

DH: I have a couple of different examples of paper I’ve made from local plants. I have a nettle paper. Nettle paper is interesting because it will change color and consistency throughout the season. So, right now what you’re looking at is a piece of green paper but it will actually change brown if I harvest the nettles later in the season when the fiber is more straw-like. This is made from seaweed. This is all pushki. This is from an invasive plant I really think is beautiful and want to find more of. [It's] hemp nettle which is an invasive plant that grows in pretty much every garden. I also wanted to add that with this project, another aspect of it is by engaging a lot of people, it’s my hope that we can find these places where these invasive plants exist and as a group can harvest them together in one swoop so that we’ll be able to have the necessary biomass to create a lot of paper.

SGO: Something that I’m noticing looking at your paper is that each type of paper made from different plants have very distinctive qualities. Some of them seem chunkier, other ones seem like they have strands going through them. The seaweed really stands out to me because it’s the only light color paper. How do you notice those coming out during your process and what are some other differences you’ve noticed?

DH: Yeah, well, there’s all different variables. The thing about making paper, for me, is that each one can be kind of an experiment. I have my model of what I know works but then I can cook things for longer periods of time or add certain things. The seaweed paper that you see looks white because it has cotton added to it. I did this because I had heard that seaweed is kind of difficult to make paper out of so this was my first attempt at it so I wanted to add another fiber that would bind with it.

Paper made by Desiree Hagen.
Credit Photo Courtesy of Desiree Hagen.

  SGO: You know, the other thing I was noticing is that one of the darker ones smells.

DH: When I show my paper off to people, I’ve noticed a lot of people smelling it. I notice it too when I’m cooking the fibers. They all have distinct smells when you cook them with the soda ash. It’s interesting. I don’t think it’s a bad smell at all.

SGO: They smell like the plants that they came from. It kind of smells to me like when you open up a tea cabinet and there’s loose leaf tea with the variations. For the public, what will this project need for community engagement and what’s the timeline you’re looking at?

DH: For this project, I have until September. What I’m hoping is that there’s a way that it could be organized where we find people who, for example, are maybe farmers and they say, ‘Oh, I have an entire field of hemp nettle and I just need help with having it eradicated. I just want it off my property.’ Then, I have people who will come in with me and help me harvest it and then we’ll process the fiber, make it into pulp, and make it into paper. It kind of works a lot with this place-making idea of exploring places around town where, for example, they want to put in trails or have existing trail systems that need work. Well, why don’t we as a group go and explore these areas and see what’s growing there and be able to identify all these native plants? One part of identifying invasive plants and what doesn’t belong here is also being able to identify what are native plants? What are they good for? What do we use them for? What are they and what do they do?

SGO: Finally, is there anything you want to add that I didn’t ask you about?

DH: Just to encourage people to get involved in the project. There’s a Facebook page: Alaskan Invasive and Native Paper Project. Hopefully, we’ll be posting things about where we’ll be harvesting. I guess I just hope that people resonate with the project and if they need help weeding that there are some people out there that are really enthusiastic about doing it.