Michigan artists use invasive plants to make paper


Traverse City — Katie Grzesiak could toss all the ugly garlic mustard weeds her volunteers pull into the landfill to biodegrade. Instead, she dries some to make beautiful handcrafted paper with a spring green tint.

“We definitely encourage people to pull it, so it’s a great way to deal with it,” said Grzesiak, Invasive Species Network coordinator with the Grand Traverse Conservation District.

“You can’t compost it because the seeds live through composting unless you have an industrial composter. So you have to take it to the landfill.”

Garlic mustard is one of the few plants that retains its green color when used in papermaking. The fast-spreading weed is one of several invasive species artists are increasingly discovering in their work.

“You can use a lot of it if you want a darker green and you want to see the bits of leaves in the paper, or you can use a little if you want lighter results and more uniform texture,” said Lynn Rodenroth, executive director of Paperworks Studio, a nonprofit that connects people with disabilities and disadvantages with artists, engineers and designers to create handmade recycled paper products for sale.

“The important thing is to experiment.”

The studio began working with garlic mustard after receiving a load of dried plants from the Invasive Species Network. Now it uses the material to make a full line of products, from deckle-edge paper and notecards to bookmarks and journals.

“It’s a little tricky,” Rodenroth said. “It’s kind of smelly and we have found that the leaves themselves render the best paper. The stems are a little stalky so they’re harder to work with. They don’t add a lot to the paper and they don’t add a lot of color to the paper. The leaves are really ideal.”

The studio uses other botanicals and raw materials like coffee, recycled denim and wool. But Rodenroth said staff members have talked about expanding their line using other invasive species.

“We’re always looking for new and creative raw materials,” she said.

Fine art photographer Jane Kramer takes her art further by printing the shadows of endangered plants on paper handcrafted from the invasive plants that threaten them — and not just garlic mustard. She’s also made pulp from phragmites australis, common buckthorn, narrow-leaf cattail, black swallow-wort, dame’s rocket, spotted knapweed, reed canarygrass and purple loosestrife, each with its own properties.

“Because I transfer images on the paper I like (it) to be lighter or they won’t show up,” said Kramer, an East Lansing artist who has exhibited as far north as Empire and Boyne Falls. “My favorite to use is garlic mustard because it’s easy to process and it’s lighter. But it’s only available in the spring.

“Reed canarygrass is another one I like because it comes out light tan. Purple loosestrife I would have loved to be able to use, but that one came out a dark purplish red.”

Kramer, who entered her pieces in 2016’s ArtPrize, said some paper made with invasive species won’t take her images. Others differ in quality, strength and texture. She often uses phragmites australis, a plant she can find all year long. Though it makes light brown paper perfect for her images, it’s one of the hardest to work with, she said.

“It’s the most labor intensive plant. It’s a tough plant so it takes a lot of soaking before I boil it, and then I have to chop and blend it several times because it’s so hard to break down,” she said.

When pulling garlic mustard and other invasive species to make paper, the most important thing is to carefully cut off, bag and throw away the roots and flowering head so the seeds don’t spread, Grzesiak said. Better yet, pull the plant before it has a chance to flower.

“One of the cool things about paper is that you can try it for the first time and get pretty good results,” said Rodenroth. “It is also one of those arts you can study for a lifetime.”

While artist Jane Kramer uses pure plant materials and a more involved process, invasive species papermaking can be as easy as ripping up office paper or newspaper from your recycling bin, soaking it in water overnight, pulsing the mixture in the kitchen blender until pulpy, adding dried leaves and stems, and pulsing again until well mixed.

“It should be kind of a spring green color,” said Grzesiak, who uses a 30 percent garlic mustard mix to 70 percent recycled paper.

Pour the pulp into a shallow tub, add more water if necessary, and scoop up and strain some of the pulp between a “mould” and “deckle” — two same-size frames, one with screening tacked over the opening (the mould), the other with an empty opening (the deckle). When the deckle is laid on top of the mould, it forms the edges of a piece of paper.

Flip the paper out onto several layers of paper towels, blot it, then let it dry on the paper towels, or flatten it between two books or against a window or other piece of glass.

Once the paper is formed but still wet, you can embellish it by pressing into it rose petals, flowers or leaves. You can even add native seeds, like bergamot or bee balm, milkweed or columbine, to make “plantable paper” you can plant outdoors.

“The one caution is that some seeds are invasive, so you want to use native seeds,” Grzesiak said.