The inaugural Paper Genome Project, Oasis in the Desert was a five week long residency in Bluff, Utah. We set up our Airstream studio and began collecting plants. Russian Olive and Tamarisk were our primary focus. They are invasive, non-native plants originally brought to the Southwest for erosion control and now span the lengths of river corridors throughout the region. These plants had a very different consistency than Japanese mulberry in traditional papermaking.
We added Coyote Willow, a native plant that grows in riparian regions along the San Juan River, and Utah Mulberry, brought to Utah by the Mormons in order to raise silkworms to produce silk. The Utah Mulberry operated most closely to the paper mulberry plants used in Japan and the Coyote Willow became soft and hairlike--unlike any other fiber we had worked with previously. We also explored found fibers, namely abandoned jeans at the local Laundromat. We blended these jeans into cotton pulp, a traditional papermaking material.
Because we were in the desert, we worked mainly outdoors, relying on the sunlight for many of our processes. Processing fibers for papermaking requires a lot of water. Water scarcity was a major focus. Originally, we intended to use river water as our primary water source. Ultimately, we mainly used rainwater that was collected on the property, using approximately 150 gallons of rainwater to process the plants. In forming sheets, we used the river water to fill our vats and suspend the fibers to make paper, returning the strained water to the river after each use.
We were continually reminded of the complicated relationship between non-native, and native plants. On a species collecting and papermaking river trip, we talked to researchers from the US Division of Fish and Wildlife. Though the plants are a non-native species that suck up a lot of water, many animals have come to rely on their fruit as a food source. Birds and coyotes eat them and now they are testing to see if fish eat them as well. While invasives are often seen as detrimental, their longevity in ecosystems allows for adaptations to begin and the line between “good” and “bad” plants becomes blurred.
As part of our residency, we also taught a workshop at the Bluff Arts Festival, a three-day festival with workshops in arts, crafts, and cooking. Our class learned how to pull sheets of each fiber, as well as the relationship of that plant to the local environment. We created our own paper and artwork using these fibers. By the end, Kate was using the pulp to create landscapes and abstract pieces inspired by the desert-scape and Laura was creating portraits by mixing different colors of pulps together, like paint.
Most importantly, this project and the paper we created encouraged us to continue creating paper from different plants around the country and world in order to have our artwork connect more deeply with the places and people from there.