The Peace of Paper

Madeleine Nasch ’20

“Today we are at an opportune moment in the history of paper; with the decline of the tree pulp industry, the legalization of hemp products, and an environmental determination, there is a resurgence of interest in paper science and research,” says Drew Matott, cofounder of the Peace Paper Project, an organization with more than 40 programs across the globe to empower communities through collaborative art processes.

“They are like a rock concert or a United Nations summit, inspiring and igniting students to explore and make work toward social justice,” says Velma Bolyard, adjunct professor in art and art history, of Matott and his partner, John LaFalce. She believes the work they do through the Peace Paper Project is a call to action, inspiring students in her courses to use paper for activist art. She has seen firsthand how Matott and LaFalce inspire students through the medium of paper itself.

In its eighth year at St. Lawrence, Matott’s annual workshop has become a testing ground for new material. He finds himself energized by the students’ dedication to improving their communities by simply being honest with who they are, where they come from, and the local resources around them. 

“We love the inquisitive nature of St. Lawrence students,” explains Matott. “It’s always been a pleasure exploring the pursuit of integrating papermaking and contemporary issues with them.” 

The Peace Paper Project’s approach to sustainability begins by inviting students to participate in the historic tradition of papermaking. Matott points out that paper has not always been made from trees and says, “Once students become aware of the historic precedence for making paper from rags, it’s an easy step to talk about how the Peace Paper Project uses the personal story embedded in rags to use papermaking as a form of art therapy or social engagement.” In fact, the practice of papermaking using rags and other materials predates papermaking from trees by over 2,000 years, which also opens the discussion for alternative and more sustainable sources for papermaking globally. 

In working with St. Lawrence University students on the Sustainability Farm, five miles south of campus, and at the Griffiths Arts Center on campus, Matott hopes to cultivate an appreciation for the raw materials found on the farm and through other local sources. Students have transformed fibers from garlic tops, corn husks, and wheat straws into paper, which they can sell at the Canton Farmers Market. Converting paper waste from the print studio into paper used in most drawing classes affords students the opportunity to provide classmates with fine art paper, offsetting the cost of student supplies while instructing them about recycling and the practice of hand papermaking. Students have become comfortable in the workshop setting of the portable paper studio, Matott says, creating an accessible papermaking process designed to preserve traditional and sustainable papermaking practices. 

Aside from the economic benefits of Matott’s papermaking project, he points out that there are also social advantages that give students the chance to build emotional and intellectual connections to papermaking. He says that as old technologies fail, society finds ways to create more efficient processes through community collaboration. Educating students about the proper equipment and training for the papermaking process is important for the students’ own understanding of the agricultural and labor implications behind the mission’s operations. 

The University’s initiative to source materials such as mulberry bark, flax, and hemp build on a larger global issue related to sustainable methods to producing paper. This process directly affects students’ understanding of new ways to further the preservation of naturally made supplies while also consider how it contributes to local economies and communities. “The work that Peace Paper Project does, through educating communities about paper’s past and personal use, is helping a more global initiative to reconsider our currently declining paper practices,” says Matott. 

Bolyard believes the nature of the multidisciplinary studies at St. Lawrence blends well with the project’s mission to fuse humanitarian aspects of sociology, artistry, and communal outreach. The collaboration with Matott and his partners continues to be a good fit for students at St. Lawrence University, ultimately providing them with the opportunity to contribute beyond the campus as one of many sites fulfilling the Peace Paper Project’s mission.