Book artist draws on her neighbors’ talents in turning out public art.

During the past year of social unrest across the U.S., Saint Paul book artist Mary Hark was reminded of something author Toni Morrison said four decades ago as a guest speaker at the Walker Art Center: “One of the strongest political statements you can make in America is where you choose to live.”

Hark was just out of graduate school at the time. Years later, “I found myself living in Frogtown,” she said, “but I understand now what Morrison meant. Given the opportunity to build my creative practice in a diverse area with many immigrant families, I’ve learned much from my neighbors. And in a most unexpected and organic way, I’ve been able to share the things that I know. I hope I’ve made a small contribution living and working and making art together here at my paper studio.”

Hark’s life as an artist has been a work in progress from the time she moved to Frogtown into a home that also serves as her Hark! Handmade Paper Studio. “Our home is the result of a project organized by Art Space 20 some years ago,” she said. “It helped low-income artists purchase homes in emerging neighborhoods with a commitment to being there for at least 10 years. Now, adjacent to my own papermaking studio, is Hark-Weber Studio, my daughter’s shoemaking workshop.”

Mary Hark
Artist Mary Hark poses in her Saint Paul studio with some of her handmade paper. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Hark was recently named a 2021 McKnight Book Artist Fellow. A partnership between the McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, the $25,000 fellowship “will allow me time and space to reflect on the knowledge I’ve accrued and to respond with a new body of work,” Hark said. “The McKnight funding will support the production of a limited-edition fine press artist book that reflects on the practice of hand papermaking and presents the palette of papers that my practice has developed. Accompanying the book will be a series of constructed paintings, rich in color and texture, complementing and extending the text, materials and form of the book.”

Hark has produced limited edition flax and linen handmade papers in collaboration with book designers and artists, as well as wall-size and smaller paper works that have been exhibited locally, nationally and internationally. Her work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Smithsonian Museum of African Art and the Ginsberg Book Arts Collection in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Hark’s studio has trained local residents in becoming excellent papermakers. “There’ve been times when three different languages were being spoken in my driveway, with neighborhood kids bringing their folks over to explain the papermaking process,” she said.

A professor of design in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Hark taught a class in fiber art at Macalester College for 18 years. She spearheaded the effort to build the first hand paper mill in West Africa, a facility in Ghana that produces high-quality paper using local plants and textile waste. And as an artist committed to “sustainable practice and community,” she said, she has collaborated with her Saint Paul neighbors to produce and install public art at Rondo Library just a quarter-mile from her home.

Hark said it took years for her to build her studio. “Accruing my equipment over a couple of decades, I was supported by colleagues, teachers, students and friends who helped me locate, refurbish and fabricate what I needed,” she said. “I discovered by luck a Hollander paper beater, the machine used to turn raw material into paper pulp. And with the help of Macalester colleagues, I was able to refurbish it.”

Hark worked in her driveway, her basement and in distant studio spaces initially. “Then, several years ago, I decided it was time to invest in a permanent space,” she said. “With the help of friends, I transformed my garage into a professional papermaking studio.”

Collaboration in public art

Being a local papermaker has been exceptionally rewarding, Hark said. “Neighborhood kids and adults have worked in my shop and assisted on large projects,” she said. “I’ve had two works installed at Rondo Library. The first was a collaboration many years ago with my neighbor, artist Seitu Jones. We created a series of kite forms that were covered in handmade paper. Kids from the neighborhood came regularly to work with me in the shop to produce the decorative papers that covered the kite forms. These were installed in what was then the children’s area of the library.”

Hark also collaborated with Jones in 2014 on his Create: The Community Meal project. She led neighbors in making more than 2,000 paper placemats from biological and textile waste collected in the neighborhood. “The project shined a light on the pleasures of fine craft for people who hadn’t had access to this kind of activity,” she said. “They worked together with the highest standards to create a product that added to the beauty of the table.”

For a second Rondo Library project, Hark collaborated with artist Tony Santoyo. “Together we filled a large corner shelf above the current children’s area with several hundred book forms covered in handmade papers,” she said. “The work was inspired by the community gardens in Frogtown and the wonderful diversity of our neighbors. The book forms burst with color and beautiful patterns influenced by Tony’s Mexican heritage. The piece was installed in February 2020, just before everything closed down because of COVID.”

A mentor to her neighbors

Hark’s studio has trained local residents in becoming excellent papermakers, she said. “There’ve been times when three different languages were being spoken in my driveway, with neighborhood kids bringing their folks over to explain the papermaking process,” she said. “Tony began helping out here when he was 8 years old. He eventually completed his BFA at the University of Minnesota and now holds a prestigious Core Fellow position at Penland School of Craft in North Carolina.

“My work teaching formally and informally through community activities is driven by the fundamental values that drive my teaching in art schools and professional settings,” Hark said. “Working with neighbors or in local public schools, I bring the same commitment and love of the materials. I try to share the same belief in the possibilities each person has to discover beauty and personal poetry.”

—Anne Murphy

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