Materializing the Wisconsin Idea with Papermaking

Mary Hark poses with some of her walnut dyed papers


Mary with some of her students
Mary Hark with students in her ‘Building a Sustainable Creative Practice’ class, part of the Design Studies Department in SoHE.

What initially drew you to papermaking? I was introduced to the fine craft of hand papermaking during my MA degree at the University of Iowa, studying Textile Design. Tim Barrett (who was awarded a MacArthur Award for his work as both a practitioner and teacher of hand papermaking in 2009) joined the faculty as the founding director of The Iowa Center for the Book during my second year. I was lucky enough to be in his inaugural class, and was invited to become one of his assistants as he set up a professional papermaking studio space for both teaching and production hand papermaking. Tim was a profoundly informed and generous teacher with an uncommon commitment to fine craft. With this deep exposure, I came to understand that handmade paper offered a compelling extension to the palette of processes and materials I was engaged with in my MA studio research, extending the physical properties of cloth — and, I just fell in love with the process of making paper and the beauty of the surfaces I was able to find.

You traveled along with the Wisconsin Idea Seminar back in 2008. What was most memorable about that experience? I am not one to choose a group tour experience! My chair at the time strongly encouraged me to join the Wisconsin Idea Seminar at the end of my first year on campus, and so I reluctantly did. She was wise! That week was so engaging. I learned so much, had so many interesting conversations, nurtured a growing pride in Wisconsin and the vital role UW research contributes to the life of our state. Not least of all, I developed a deep respect for colleagues who I traveled with on that trip. All these years later I vividly remember so many of the conversations. I remember just being awed learning about the work of each new colleague I sat with on the bus, most of whom were also assistant professors new to Wisconsin.  I began to understand what the Wisconsin Idea can mean through the lens of all of our varied disciplines. It remains one of the most affecting professional development experiences of my decade on campus.

Mary with her research assistant Henry in Ghana
Mary Hark with Henry Obeng, her research assistant in Ghana (and incoming UW Madison graduate student). This was in her paper making workshop in Kumasi, Ghana last summer.

How does the Wisconsin Idea influence you and your work? First of all as a professional value, the Wisconsin Idea is very meaningful to me. I fully endorse the concept and find it inspiring. I am currently leading a project in Ghana, West Africa, that is using the results of my research using an invasive, non-indigenous plant to make high quality handmade paper. Grounded in my own creative practice, the project is supported by colleagues in Agronomy, Horticulture, Art and Design, the Business School and African Cultural Studies. I think the idea that I could reach across disciplines was planted during the Wisconsin Idea Seminar tour where I sat with a colleague from a different discipline every time I boarded the bus. With each new conversation some kind of common ground was often identified; it was so collegial and exciting. Then, knowing that the Wisconsin Idea embraces and encourages the dissemination of research in ways that affect people’s lives, affirmed my impulse to taking the results of my creative practice and share it in a way that not only creates artful objects, but might help employ people and support sustainable stewardship of public lands in Ghana. Knowing that the Wisconsin Idea is a guiding value on campus encouraged me to take this project on. (

Henry holds some handmade papers
Henry Obeng holding handmade papers that were made with Mary Hark last summer in Ghana.

We understand that you spend time each year in Ghana. Tell us more. This project is central to my current creative research and makes use of local bio-waste. With the goal of nurturing international artistic collaboration, the research is currently focused on the design and fabrication of objects that are infused with an aesthetic particular to this place (Kumasi, Ghana) through the use the handmade papers that I have developed using botanical and textile waste from local sources in Kumasi, Ghana. Lighting, containers, and ways of managing interior space has been the focus of my initial investigation. Attention to functionality as well as the beauty of the form drives the work. These objects make use of the particular material language of handmade paper: using the tactile surface alongside translucency, air, and space. Additionally, other functional items are being prototyped including the humble paper gift bag. Currently in Ghana this research is being conducted in partnership with the Forestry Commission of Ghana, local craftsmen and artists in the Ashanti Region, and faculty from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Department of Painting and Sculpture. More detailed information at

Not only do you teach here in Madison, but you also have a studio in St. Paul, Minnesota. What kind of projects are you working on in your Frogtown neighborhood? My creative practice includes community engaged collaborative projects as well as personal studio work. I have a deep commitment to fine craft, designing and producing editions of handmade paper for my own artist book projects and in collaboration with colleagues in the book arts, as well as constructed paintings – paper and textile works made to hang on the wall. A recent collaborative project was titled, “2000 Places / 2000 Pages: Handmade paper placemats for CREATE: the Community Meal”. Leading a diverse group of neighbors from the inner-city neighborhood of Frogtown in St. Paul, MN, I trained this group of neighbors to become skillful papermakers who worked beside me to produce in excess of 2400 beautiful, high-quality sheets of handmade paper made exclusively from urban bio and textile waste collected in the neighborhood. These papers were used as placemats for CREATE ~ the Community Meal in which 2000 Frogtown neighbors sat down to share a meal at a half-mile long table running down the middle of a street in the heart of the neighborhood (Seitu Jones). The project shined a light on the pleasures of fine craft, invited a group of participants who had not had access to this kind of activity to work together with the highest standards, produced a beautiful product out of waste material, added to the beauty of the table, and were an artful, material take-away for participants in the meal. 2014 – 15.

Mary helps a neighbor in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Mary Hark works with a neighbor on the CREATE Community Meal paper making project in St. Paul, Minnesota (Frogtown neighborhood).

Are there any other current or future projects that you are excited to share? I am just beginning a new body of work titled,”Inside Out / Outside In.” I intend to create a series of 6’ x 6’ mix-media textile and paper “constructed paintings” during 2019/20. These large mixed media artworks will use the handmade papers I have developed in Ghana, along with found textiles and other materials. This artistic investigation will be conceptually informed by the environments in which I live and work: the physical topography of South Central Wisconsin and the built environment of Kumasi, Ghana, where I have spent significant time each year researching textile traditions and developing a portfolio of handmade papers using an invasive plant. This new work will consider the physical, material and cultural experiences that have influenced my understanding of the world, my place within it, and my aesthetic values. The work will be intended for exhibition in Ghana and in the U.S. 

Papermaking is intertwined with water. Has papermaking influenced your way of thinking about water? Yes, water is an essential part of papermaking and I am keenly aware of how we as papermakers should be trying to be more efficient with brown water, and water consumption during the process generally. I would very much love to partner with a civil engineer, or other expert on campus to try and reimagine our processes regarding water. It is an area that is critical, and I just haven’t had the time to pursue it yet.

Originally from St. Paul, Minnesota, Mary Hark received her Bachelor of Arts from the College of St. Benedict, her Master of Arts from the University of Iowa, and her Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


Hello, Wisconsin! Stories of the Wisconsin Idea is a profile series that highlights the remarkable ways Wisconsin Idea Seminar alumni, collaborators, and others are animated by the Wisconsin Idea on and off campus.