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Art from invasive species creates conversations about conservation

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Colored paper pulp is used to make images on freshly made paper.
Colored paper pulp is used to make images on freshly made paper at the Paper Plains mobile studio in Detroit Lakes, Minn., last Saturday.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Amid the food trucks and the stands hawking arts and crafts at a street fair in Detroit Lakes last week, Anna Haglin had an unusual pitch.  

"Hi," she called to passersby. "Do you want to make paper?"

Haglin is standing next to a mobile paper making studio, a small trailer that supports a flat workspace. 

Haglin used her hands to mix a gelatinous gray pulp into a plastic tub half full of water. She's an experienced paper maker, turning fibers mixed with water into paper by collecting the fibers on a screen dipped in the mixture. 

But this paper is different: She's making it out of  an invasive plant, reed canary grass, a common invader in Minnesota wetlands.

"This stuff I picked in Moorhead near the Red River," explains Haglin. "It grows everywhere, hence the invasive part. It's really hard to get rid of."

MSUM professor Anna Haglin explains the papermaking process
Minnesota State University Moorhead professor Anna Haglin explains the papermaking process to a passerby during a demonstration at a street fair in Detroit Lakes, Minn., on Saturday.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The Department of Natural Resources says reed canary grass is a major threat to wetlands across the state because it can out-compete native species.

Haglin is an assistant professor of art at Minnesota State University Moorhead. She and Minneapolis paper maker James Kleiner were awarded a $10,000 grant to bring their paper-making project to life. Kleiner built the small trailer that houses the traveling studio. 

Their vision starts with paper-making and — ideally — ends with prairie restoration:  Kleiner and Haglin use invasive grasses to make paper, in which they also embed native prairie seeds. The idea is for people to bury the paper made from the invasive plant and sprout a native one in its place. It's called Paper Plains.

"It's sort of like a magic trick, where you take invasive grass and we put native prairie seeds in it," said Haglin. "And then the invasive grass leads to native prairie growing, so it's sort of like turning something bad on its head, making it [into] something good."

At the festival in Detroit Lakes, 7-year-old Violet Schiffner took Haglin up on her paper-making offer. She dipped a screen about 5 inches by 7 inches into Haglin's tub of water. When she lifted it out, it was covered by a thin layer of pulverized plant fibers and prairie plant seeds.

Artist James Kleiner lifts a new sheet of paper from the pulp tub.
Artist James Kleiner lifts a new sheet of paper from the pulp tub at the Paper Plains mobile studio. The pulp is made with invasive reed canary grass.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

To press out the water, Schiffner placed the sheet of paper-to-be between two pieces of plywood and applied pressure by jumping on the makeshift press — with a little help from MSU Mankato student Amanda Frost.

Then Haglin carefully peeled the paper from the press.

"There you go. That's for you," she said, as she handed it to Schiffner, who held the wet paper like a prized piece of china. 

"Don't worry, it's really strong, OK?" Haglin said.

"It was very wet. Like, my hands got very wet," she said. "It was very fun, and I'm going to plant it in the ground."

"I think we're excited to plant it so we can see what pops out of the ground," her mom added. She loved the idea behind the Paper Plains project. "It's art, but it's also nature, so it's great to have them here."  

Anna Haglin jumps on a makeshift press while Franklin Ugochukwu watches.
Artist Anna Haglin, left, jumps on a makeshift press to squeeze water from a newly made sheet of paper in Detroit Lakes while Minnesota State University Moorhead student Franklin Ugochukwu watches.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

That intersection of art and environment has always been an inspiration for Haglin, who said she can't remember a time she wasn't aware of climate change and its environmental effects — one of which is an increase in the spread of invasive species like the reed canary grass.

"I think the reason I became an artist was so that I can communicate about things that matter to me, and this is something that really matters to me," Haglin said.

She grew up in southern Minnesota and spent hours exploring a restored prairie at the Linnaeus Arboretum at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. School and work took her to California and eventually to New York, but home was always on the prairie.

"Every time I was away from the prairie, I missed it," she said. "The ocean reminds me of the prairie a little, but  it's not the same. The movement of the grass and the way it looks, it just has a calming effect for me."

So, by combining her love of making paper with her passion for the landscape of home, she's hoping to encourage people to think more deeply about overwhelming environmental issues like climate change.

Amanda Frost (right) helps Hattie Devries (left) make a sheet of paper.
Minnesota State University Moorhead student Amanda Frost helps Hattie Devries make a sheet of paper at the Paper Plains mobile studio on Saturday.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

"Instead of taking my message and scolding somebody, I want to tell them that we can make a change in a way that's fun and creative and enjoyable and beautiful," said Haglin.

The project is funded through a grant from the Fergus Falls-based West Central Initiative and Springboard for the Arts, an economic and community development organization with offices in St. Paul and Fergus Falls. The artists will own the mobile studio and run it as a business, charging a fee for paper-making events. 

West Central Initiative marketing director Rick Schara said part of the organization's goal is to enhance quality of life and spark community conversations in the region.

"Studies have shown art to be a nice, non-threatening way of people to interact with each other," he said. "They have this Ready Go Art [program] in the Twin Cities, but this is the first one  that'll be region-specific in rural Minnesota."

The mobile papermaking studio will visit several locations around west-central Minnesota this summer, and Haglin hopes it will continue to spark conversations for years to come.