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From Plant to Page, a Conservatory Grows Trees to Turn into Handmade Paper

Cleveland’s Morgan Conservatory is one of the few places in the US dedicated to conserving paper-making traditions and considering the material’s artistic and functional future.

The studio at the Morgan Conservatory, with natural light coming through the garage doors (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

By day I care for trees and teach people how to care for trees. Nights and weekends, I think and write about art. Nothing makes me happier than when these worlds intersect, like they did on my first visit to the Morgan Conservatory on Cleveland’s east side. The 15,000-square-foot book art, letterpress, and paper-making center was hosting a community event with leaders from all over the city discussing initiatives being done to create a more resilient and thriving city with the Morgan discussing its green infrastructure and sustainability features. The Morgan’s special grove of Kozo, or Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) particularly called my attention. Planted ten years ago with the help of paper artist and MacArthur Fellow Tim Barrett, who provided the kozo cuttings from the University of Iowa’s Center for the Book, it is the largest cultivated kozo grove in the U.S. Kozo trees, which are native to Asia, and considered to be an invasive species in most of the US because of their highly opportunistic growing strategies that are successful in colonizing patches of disturbed fields; it is also a tree highly prized for over two thousand years in ancient Asian paper-making techniques. For the Morgan, the polymorphic and slightly hairy lobed- and unlobed-leaved trees promise sheets of valuable archival-grade artist paper, and they are the only non-profit organization in the US remaining that still produces a large volume of handmade paper for sale.

Finished sheets of handmade kozo paper in the conservatory’s store

At the Morgan I was first introduced to kozo through my nose. Paper artist-in-residence Hong Hong sat quietly amongst the flurry of a touring crowd as she stirred a pot of kozo whose aroma recalled the sweet aroma of a maple sugar shack.  She had recently harvested the kozo from the grove, and was processing the fibers to create beautiful large-scale paper pours characterized by her painterly, colorfully-saturated, abstract expressionist style. In an email interview, Hong described how the garden attracted her to the Morgan: “The idea of a secret kozo garden, tucked away in the Rust Belt, had this legendary ring to it. I immediately knew that I wanted to make paper there.”  

The Kozo grove and garden

The Morgan is unique in being one of the largest book arts center in the country to incorporate multiple disciplines of paper-making, book arts, and letterpress, in addition to extensive programming. The founder, artist Tom Balbo, described how early on he and a board member had contemplated how “to keep something vibrant in the arts, you know, you’ve gotta have these community places where people can have some kind of studio space to at least be able to do things or have access to equipment to do things.” The paper studio is a papermaker’s dream. They have an extensive inventory of both Western and Eastern styles of industrial grade paper-making equipment, including beaters, a hydraulic press, piles of paper moulds and hand-crafted deckle boxes, and paper-making vats. Among these is the first ever Hanji studio in the US built by Fullbright Scholar Aimee Lee. Archived catalogues around the studio show examples of exquisite oversize paper kimonos, and intricate Korean style water holding paper vessels that require handmade paper that is then corded and woven into a sculptural figure; all had been produced in the studio on-site.

A view of the print studio

There’s a comprehensive bindery that takes one through every stage of the book making process, and a print studio with the capacity to support print production for individual and collaborative artist’s projects, books and workshops, and a dedication to hand printed intaglio, relief, and screen prints, with letterpress production. (The presses are special enough to warrant attention from local historians, and the Conservatory can provide ample details of their provenance.) The studios are neat, tidy, and bright with open sunlit rooms making for a welcoming space. Throughout the studios are displays of the Morgan’s connection to the community found in the form of details like hand-printed posters, upcycled movie theater doors as studio doors, and a cabinet filled with a donated collection of antique watermarks.

Studio and Community Arts Education Coordinator Michaelle Marschall demonstrating the Japanese process of paper-making using a suketa and kozo fibers

The Morgan is one of the few places in the US that works to preserve Asian paper-making traditions, and is dedicated to considering the future of paper in general, Tom insisted that “paper is something we aren’t getting rid of even in the digital age. We are still producing a lot.” This weekend community members will gather for the annual Kozo Harvest Festival, keeping an ancient tradition alive as they plan for future tree plantings and a continued vision of a community-driven plant to paper process.

The Annual Kozo Harvest takes place on Saturday and Sunday, November 11-12 from 10 am – 4 pm at the Morgan Conservatory (1754 East 47th Street, Cleveland, Ohio)

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