Papermaking moves beyond mere art

Janet Schaaf

Writing down thoughts on a piece of paper is often a cathartic process. But what if those thoughts were written on paper made from items of clothing with emotional associations? Now, those thoughts become tangible and intangible at the same time – the paper has a story to tell that is just as important as the story itself.

The department of art and art history welcomed artists Drew Matott and Margaret Mahan to campus last week to talk about their organization, Peace Paper Project. They were introduced by Hye Young Shin, assistant professor of print media.

Matott’s interest in papermaking began as a required course during his undergraduate work at the State University College at Buffalo in New York. The course piqued his interest in the history of papermaking, namely that the first paper was made from old cloth. He began experimenting with different types of cloth to make paper and would match his printmaking projects with the appropriate paper. For instance, if he was doing a piece about blue collar workers, he would use old blue jeans to make the paper.

His academic work sparked an idea which ultimately led to the founding of Peace Paper Project. Matott’s father died at a young age. Physical keepsakes of his father were contained in a box that was stashed on a shelf in Matott’s family home. He sorted through the items and spoke to his family about making a book from them so that they could have a memoir of their father to carry with them instead of having them hidden away. When the book was finished, he delivered a copy to each of his siblings and his father’s siblings. It was an emotional process.

“Papermaking has the ability to bring communities together and embark on a process of healing and maybe understanding the loss,” Matott said.

After finishing his B.F.A. Matott began holding weekend paper-making workshops at The Green Door Studio, which he co-founded with fellow artists who were looking for art space. A friend who had recently finished a military active duty tour brought his old uniforms in and wanted to make paper from them. The 300 sheets of paper made from the uniforms were shared with military members still on active duty, and generated interested in what would become the Combat Paper Project in 2007.

Mahan and Matott met while working on the Combat Paper Project. They began receiving requests from art therapists to incorporate papermaking into recreational or art therapy with different populations. These requests enabled them as artists to step away from the successful Combat Paper Project and embark on a new venture. They co-founded Peace Paper Project in 2011 as a way to address these therapeutic needs.

Mahan’s interest in the project lies in the book-making and writing process. She received her B.A. in English from Saint Michaels College in Vermont.

According to Mahan’s profile on the Peace Paper Project website, she “is passionate about perpetuating and re-imagining the Book Arts by rooting the processes in the context of human experience.”

They now collaborate heavily with art therapists, who find the process cathartic and empowering for their patients.

“When you’re working with material that has personal significance [to a person] and it might even be related to an experience of trauma,” Mahan said, “that object has a lot of emotion embedded in it.

The process of cutting the material to prepare it for the papermaking process allows the participant to reflect on its meaning to them. Many workshop participants have experienced a traumatic event and asked themselves questions such as “What is my relationship to this material?” and “What power does this material hold over me?” The next two steps in the process, pulping the material (undoing the weave) and pulling (or forming) the sheets of paper, act as a release and reforming of emotion for participants.

As a result of her own sexual assault experience, Mahan began making paper from undergarments to cope with her grief.  She was able to use the undergarments to address a situation and her relationship to it. As a result, Panty Pulping was born. She was asked to bring this workshop onto college campuses and Panty Pulping has become a vehicle to promote non-violence and reinforce consent culture on college campuses today.

Matott and Mahan have travelled internationally, giving paper-making workshops and teaching others the process to revive the craft of hand paper-making in other cultures. More about Peace Paper Project can be found at

Combat Paper Project is now run independently from Peace Paper Project. More information can be found at