What does paper-making have to do with design beyond the obvious? When the whole process is done thoughtfully, it can have a profound impact on all those involved. At this year’s A Better World by Design conference, Mary Hark, professor at the Design Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founder of HARK! Handmade Paper Studio, presented her latest paper-making venture. She has implemented a program in Ghana that promises to bring amazing change to the Asante region. With the help of the bicycle-powered Oracle Beater, designed by Lee McDonald, fine art papers are produced from an invasive plant species making the process ecologically sound and allowing production to be unaffected by regular power outages.
Mary Hark’s interest in Kumasi, Ghana began with a year-long Fulbright fellowship that allowed her to get to know the local community. She and a team of students, artists and faculty from the Kumasi Center for Book and Paper Arts, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and the Ghanaian artists’ collective, SaNsA, began collecting and documenting various natural fibers from the region. They noticed a huge amount of the invasive Paper Mulberry plant which had been introduced to Ghana in 1969 and decided to experiment. The kozo fiber commonly used in Japanese paper making is derived from the same plant and gives the paper excellent strength. The experiments proved highly successful and Hark and her team began producing handmade paper.
Given the booming textile industry, they also decided to incorporate recycled textile scraps into the process. Native plants such as avocado, plantain, cashew and papyrus were also processed and added to papers allowing for a wider range of options.
Currently, Ghana imports its fine art papers from Europe which are very expensive. With the help of Lee McDonald’s bicycle powered pulp refining machine, fine papers can now be produced locally. The Oracle Beater was developed in 2009 and consists of a bike connected to the beater. What sets the beater apart from a conventional blender is that it is much more powerful and has a controllable gap between the roll and blades that makes the pulp much more uniform allowing for the production of very fine papers. The contraption can be dismounted and transported to wherever paper production is taking place.
Noting the success of the process, farmers have begun raising and harvesting Paper Mulberry. By selling the raw materials they are able to gain an income and the paper studio is able to sell its products to other countries within Africa that have for so long relied on European imports. For instance, The Artists’ Press in Johannesburg could be a potentially large client. It is largely responsible for developing the culture of printmaking in Africa and relies on fine art papers as a base for its operations.
With acres of raw material ready to be transformed into handmade papers, the next step will be for Hark and her team to develop an economic plan for the project. It has the potential to attract ecotourism, spark international exchanges, provide numerous jobs for the local population and make use of a long overlooked plant species. Hark has already initiated a number of youth workshops. With the establishment of Take Time Press, Hark, Atta Kwami and Pamela Clarkson have produced the book Listen, Listen that can be found in the library collections of the Metropolitan Museum, Brooklyn Museum and Smithsonian among others.
Images © Amanda Silvana Coen for Inhabitat