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Detroit artist grows awareness of Michigan's invasive plants by making them into paper

Meg Heeres models phragmites paper near a stand of the invasive plant near Canfield and Grand River.

Visual installation artist Meg Heeres says she approaches "everything in life as an artist."  And while that may be true, it's clear that "artist" is just one of a few roles she assumes for The Invasive Paper Project.

The endeavor first began three years ago as both an artistic and environmental exploration for Heeres, who adds that it's "a lot of other things too."

Through utilizing invasive plant species, Heeres has created an ever-evolving, community-focused program dedicated to turning a challenging environmental issue into locally sourced, handmade paper. Along the way, she's been raising awareness within the community.

From a folder on her lap, Heeres pulls delicate sheets of her workpapers in shades of moss, olive and chartreuse. She notes the unique smell, texture and color of each piece, almost as if introducing old friends.

For example, paper made from Garlic Mustard is very grainy and its pulp smells like garlic soup. Paper made from phragmites, on the other hand, has an "evil" warmth to it despite the chill of her Hubbard Farms studio.

Heeres says she learned and fell in love with the process of papermaking while living in Portland, Oregon. A few years later, she moved to Detroit and earned an MFA in Fiber Arts from Cranbrook Academy of Art. Upon graduating in 2009, she decided to establish a papermaking studio in Detroit.

At the time, Heeres says Detroit seemed like it went from having no letterpresses to having an abundance. She recognized an emerging culture of print shops in the city and saw how a local papermaking studio could fit into the equation. So Heeres acquired a used Hollander beaterwhich converts plant fibers into paper pulp with a spinning metal wheel—and got to work. 

Prior to utilizing invasive plants, Heeres was using abaca, a banana plant native to the Philippines that is a common source of pulp for papermakers. However, she started to think about the environmental impacts of relying so heavily on this plant and realized it was time to start considering other, more local options. While she still uses a little abaca during her papermaking workshops, it's no longer her primary source of pulp.

The idea to engage with Detroit youth came to Heeres through a friend who was working to establish a local branch of the Student Conservation Association (SCA). Part of the program, which is aimed at teens, involves removing invasive plants from Belle Isle and other parks in Detroit.

"When I asked her what they did with the invasive species they removed," says Heeres, "I was shocked to find out that they were either being burned or discarded."

Heeres, who refers to herself as a materialist, says her "art brain" started to envision what could be done to responsibly and creatively use this material. She joined SCA to learn about the laborious removal process. Then the youth were able to transform the invasive plants through Heeres's papermaking workshop.

Heeres had already been involved in art education for years, but says something clicked when doing this workshop with SCA. While she's unsure if her workshops would have the same effect if she was teaching weaving or pottery, Heeres says she is certain that the Invasive Paper Project is empowering and educational for many of its participants.

"I think a lot of people get shut out of art making because they can't draw, and so they're told they're not good," she says. "But this is something to re-engage with that feeling of making. I'm not saying everybody is an artist, but I think everybody deserves the opportunity to make something."

Heeres notes there's something inherently communal in papermaking; it's accessible, immediate and visceral. "At its base, it's about paper," she says. "But in these workshops, it's much more about the conversations we have and what people share." 

Since the program's inception, Heeres has hosted several pop-up papermaking workshops and lengthier classes offered at community spaces, festivals and galleries throughout Detroit and Windsor. Next on her agenda is re-thinking the use of water in her papermaking through studying alternative fermentation methods.

Heeres will have more time and resources to work on new methods during an upcoming residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute next year. While she's there, she plans to work with environmental organizations in the area to learn how other invasive plants outside Michigan can be utilized and transformed.

"A lot of people don't realize paper comes from plants. I mean, you wipe your butt with it, you write on it, you blow your nose with it and it all comes from plants," she says with a laugh.

When asked about her role as an environmental advocate of sorts, Heeres says she's "not beating a drum about it," but feels good about raising awareness in a way that is approachable. "So many times when we talk about things like invasive species and waterways in and around Detroit, it's clear that there are so many other things people are stressed about that they don't really care," she says. 
 
But by exposing people to the plants that she transforms into paper, Heeres says participants start to think more about invasive plants, and even suggest their own ideas on how they can be dealt with and better used.

With several upcoming demonstrations and workshops already scheduled, Heeres doesn't anticipate the Invasive Paper Project ever coming to an end. Instead, she sees it as something that will always evolve.

"It ebbs and flows with my time as an artist and with the seasons. It"s an ongoing exploration—watching how things react and respond.”

This story is a part of a statewide Invasive Species Community Impact Series. Support is provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Read more articles by Annamarie Sysling.

Annamarie Sysling is a multimedia journalist based in Hamtramck.
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