The Paper Landscape

Paper making exploration and residency at the Banff Center, 2011

Handmade paper from 100% local fibres. Harvested and produced by hand. Each sheet is 28 x 22 cm.

This project was executed in the spring and summer of 2011, together with another artist, who wishes to remain anonymous. Below is a description of the process and thoughts.

We see the stories of the landscape in this paper.

Harvesting materials from the land where our studios are located, we proposed to create a variety of papers from local plants and trees, experimenting with native and introduced species, and to consider also, the invasive alien species that threaten what is true-local. Our parameters were to collect plant materials that contained large amounts of fibrous inner bark, to provide us with an abundant supply of plant fibres that we would process into paper.  We were drawn, too, to plants that interested us in other ways, for their early medicinal and practical uses or historical significance, though we realized that they might not yield particularly ‘good’ paper.  A residency at the Banff Centre, an integral part of this project, further emphasized the UNESCO World Heritage Site status of the Parks and protection of native plant species, meaning that only fibres from plants native to but collected outside of the Parks areas could be brought into our studios there.

We encountered many stories embedded in the fibres themselves, those of place, of history and of relationships within the ecosystem, all of which weave a profound influence into our cultural landscape.

We realized that the project itself was growing into something much more than providing us with interesting materials to use in our art practices. Stripping the inner bark of branches in early spring when the sap was running felt as though peeling flesh from bones, and these dead-wood structures themselves we found to be highly intriguing. We became aware of plant toxins, and we experienced pollen, both the negative effects for those of us who are susceptible and the awareness that without pollen or bees, this project and our food supply would not exist. Water is fundamental to the papermaking process, but we became acutely conscious of the tremendous quantities required.

And so, the materials of our own ‘backyards’ from which we created a variety of papers, have provided us with insight into both the history and current nature of our local environment.

Collecting & stripping

The source for our plants is a strip of undulating land, the Aspen parkland, stretching from the rolling foothills of the Rocky Mountains towards the flat prairie in the east. This undulating terrain is covered with fescue grass, interspersed by groves of aspen, and intersected by coulees or streams, which are hugged by stands of willow. Wetlands are also very common, and small lakes, marshes, and grassy wetlands, offer a place for marshy plants and a variety of birds, fish and insects.

Collecting in the spring is beneficial as the sap is running, making the branches very easy to peel. There is more cellulose production in the late summer or fall, though, meaning that there will be more fibre available, however, the branches may first require steaming.

From left to right, top to bottom: Yarrow, Silverberry, Cattail fluff, Thistle, Chokecherry, Grey Willow bast, Cattail stems and leaves, Prairie Crocus.
  • Herbaceous bast fibre is obtained from the inner stems of non-woody herbaceous plants and is easier to harvest as it merely requires drying.
  • Leaf Fibres are generally shorter and more opaque than bast fibre, producing rougher textured paper. The leaves are collected in spring or fall and need only to be dried.
  • Seed Fibres, are found in the seed heads of plants.
  • Grass Fibres are the shortest of papermaking fibres, producing a brittle paper, although they can be combined with other fibres.

Making the paper

The preparation of plant material before cooking depends on the type of fibre.For bast fibres, the outer bark is first removed while the branch is fresh, and the inner bark is peeled away from the heartwood. The material is cut into one-inch pieces to break down evenly in the cooking liquid. Leaf, grass, and seed fibres can be merely dried and used whole.

The importance of the cooking process is not only to break down the harvested fibres so that they can be processed into pulp but to release the organic components such as lignins, saponins and other matter, from the cellulose fibre desired for the paper.

Fibres may be hand-beaten, beaten in a blender or processed in a Hollander beater.

A vat is filled with water, the pulp is added along with formation aid, and then a deckle and mould are dipped into the vat to evenly capture the suspended plant fibres. The formation aid allows the water to quickly drain away, leaving a thin, even coating of fibres on the mould, which were then couched onto water-soaked felts, eventually forming a large and heavy stack called a post.

The heavy, dripping post was wheeled onto a hydraulic press, imparting several tonnes of pressure to remove the water. The fragile and still wet sheets are then carefully transferred one by one onto dry felts and placed in a drying machine overnight.

“For two weeks, we worked non-stop, full days into the evenings to process our harvest into paper. We discovered that we both had lost two pounds at the end of our residency! Intrigued, we weighed our stacks of paper, and discovered that they were exactly two pounds each as well! This weight transfer is a perfect example of the law of Conservation of Energy!”


The Latin root in the word library, derives from liber , which means “the inner bark of trees”, “paper”, “parchment”, “book”, and is probably derived from a Proto-Indo-European base * (leub(h), “to strip”, “to peel”).

List of Papers

Each approximately 8 ½” x 11”Harvested and produced by hand, April – August 2011

All the resulting papers from the projectand their plant origin

What remains

Having executed each step of the papermaking process ourselves, we have acquired an intimate knowledge of the “history” of our product. Unfortunately, we have concluded that our foraging and cottage-style of papermaking were not particularly sustainable. The amount of fibre that needs to be collected from Alberta’s fragile Aspen Parkland landscape is not sustainable on a larger scale. The process of cooking required large amounts of water, which was then rinsed down the drain, without an efficient process to re-use the water. Although we kept most “black liquor” and reduced them to inks, we still released much of it with our rinsing water.


We saved and reduced the first batches of cooking liquor to a more concentrated liquid. This way, we created a beautiful range of green and brown inks. Traditional vegetable-based inks were made from oak galls. We suspect that our inks will not be lightfast and fade under UV.


Unused Cattail and thistle pulps were put onto a linocut and pressed with an etching press. The result were delicate, thin, embossings.


At the end of the harvest, we were left with a forest of bare, denuded branches, which looked like the bare bones of a tree. They triggered a body of work that I named Prayer Sticks and Totems.

Antropocene branch
Anthropocene Branch, carved with X-acto knife, 2011

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