From Plant to Page: ArtFarm & Homegrown Papermaking

July 29, 2016 by

Standing in the kenaf patch.

Behind the Women’s Studio Workshop, up a small hill and tucked just out of sight, is the ArtFarm.  A morning breeze rustles through the rye and the towering kenaf, which has grown a couple feet in just the last few days.  Above the rows of flax, a cohort of bumblebees make their breakfast out of its bright purple flowers.  The ground is soft from a light rain the night before, and through a creaking fence in walks Toby Meyer, a rising sophomore from Wesleyan University and the farm’s caretaker for the last three months.

Over the years, stewards of the ArtFarm have grown traditional papermaking fibers alongside non-traditional, experimental, and downright unexpected plants to discover new dimensions of the craft. The active hand papermaking studio at Women’s Studio Workshop was among the first of its kind when it started in 1979. In 1996, the Workshop partnered with a community supported agriculture project, and after ten years of making paper with traditional fibers the ArtFarm began to take root. Over the years the ArtFarm has hosted over a hundred plant varieties, provided the material inspiration for a number of artists-in-residence, and lent shape to countless sheets of locally sourced paper.

DSC_4404Today, the ArtFarm is thriving under Toby’s watch. Toby arrived at the ArtFarm at the end of May, and she considers her summer with us to be “the best thing I could ever do.” Though officially undeclared, she plans to double major in Art and Environmental Studies. Growing up, Toby knew she wanted to be “an ecologist/geologist/farmer/artist/scientist.” And paper? As she puts it, “Paper is sort of smack dab in the middle of everything that I like.”

In her first year at Wesleyan, Toby wrote and received a grant from her school’s Green Fund so she and her classmates could start a papermaking studio from scratch in a student-run art space on campus. Two or three times a week, she and as many as ten other students got together to make paper from materials that would otherwise have gone to waste: “People came in with different projects and different materials,” she says. “We went scavenging, found flowers, and I saved all my compost, like dried banana and orange peels.”

Her days at the farm have been a rotating schedule of watering, weeding, harvesting, and fortifying the farm’s defenses against woodland creatures hoping to make a snack out of the papermaking plants. Groundhogs are frequent visitors to the farm, hard as she works to keep them out, and she’s even had a run in with a wild turkey and its family. “It didn’t really like my presence there,” she says with a laugh, “so I got kicked out of the farm for an afternoon.”

Benefiting from years of experimentation, the ArtFarm now grows a mixture of papermaking fibers, plants for natural dyeing, and a few vegetables for recreational use. Fibers like kenaf, flax, rye, indigo, marigold, rose madder, tororo, iris, and yucca mingle with tomatoes and basil; garlic is a doubly useful harvest, both for its flavorful roots and its leafy stalks, which make for a strong, textural sheet.

A sheet of Toby's cotton/kenaf paper, embedded with a match and dyed using black tea and indigo.

A sheet of Toby’s cotton/kenaf paper, embedded with a match and dyed using black tea and indigo.

Toby has been particularly drawn to making paper with kenaf, a fast growing, herbaceous annual related to cotton and hemp. Compared with other fibers, kenaf transforms from fiber to pulp with relative ease and requires less time, heat, and chemical processing. The paper yielded from kenaf is stiff, strong, and fibrous. Toby has been experimenting with embedding material inside paper made from a blend of kenaf and cotton.

“It’s cool to be making paper out of the kenaf,” she says, “and also planting the kenaf, and seeing the kenaf grow, and seeing it at all these different stages.” True to the founding ideals of the ArtFarm, there’s no disconnect between the final sheet of paper and the growing, living plant it used to be. Getting her hands dirty in the farm grants Toby a dynamic experience with the paper. At the farm, surrounded by plants with paper destinies, Toby says, “It’s cool to just look at them and imagine what they could be.”

At this point in the season, those destinies are in sight: it’s almost harvesting time for many ArtFarm fibers. The farm’s rye is in the process of being cultivated now, first its seeded tops for eating and cooking, then its stalks for papermaking.  In the fall, students will be introduced to the science of hand papermaking by helping in the harvest and pulling their own sheets of paper in our Art-in-Education program, which invites younger students to work as artists with artists. Papermaking students in our Summer Art Institute have used the ArtFarm as an extension of their learning in the studio, visiting the farm to contextualize the pulp they work with throughout the week. Any artist working in our studios, whether school-aged or above, renting for the day or staying for a month-long residency, has the opportunity to experiment with ArtFarm fibers in their work. Handmade paper has a certain unmistakable vitality to it, and there is a special kind of joy in working the fiber from the ground to the page.

For Toby, the magic is in all of this. Plus, she says, “I just love being in the dirt.”