"These plants are growing without any cultivation. They don't need fertilizer or pesticides. So why not tap into that abundance?" – Patterson Clark
Patterson Clark lives on a street where densely built homes give way to the brambly woods of Whitehaven Park, near the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. On an overcast winter day, the ground is muddy and the trees are bare; leafy English ivy vines climbing up a tree are the only spot of green on the landscape.
Clark has his eye on that ivy. "I'll take the vines, strip off the leaves, boil the vines, strip off the bark," he says. "I'll put them through a plant shredder, then in an alkaline cooking solution. Then I'll wash tem. Then I'll put them in a high-powered blender, then in a beater."
No, Clark isn't a gardener with a vindictive streak. He's an artist and naturalist who by day works as an artist for the Washington Post. A few years ago, he became concerned about invasive plants like English ivy, white mulberry and multiflora rose choking out species like American beech and tulip poplars that are native to his area around Rock Creek Park, of which Whitehaven Park is a part, and he got a license from the National Park Service to remove the invasive plants near his home. But ripping out the plants and throwing them away felt destructive and wasteful. And with an undergraduate degree in biology (later followed up by an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts), he knew that these plants had useful properties. He started bringing the plants he liked into his basement studio, and over the last several years, he's been perfecting the process for turning invaders into paper, ink, and, ultimately, art.
"They have so much to offer," Clark says. "They're growing without any cultivation. They don't need fertilizer or pesticides. So why not tap into the abundance?"
Clark's studio is a warren of three small rooms bursting with the equipment he uses to make paper and ink, as well as plants at various stages of production. Lumber from downed trees hangs from racks suspended from the ceiling, along with tools and homemade kites. The filing cabinets and shelves lining the walls are filled with homemade paper and dried ink on porcelain plates. A Hollander beater, a 20-ton shop press, an air-drying press, a Vandercook letterpress, and a clamshell press, all used in Clark's papermaking and printing process, line walls and corners. Yet the studio is astonishingly neat; Clark's detailed and methodical nature is evident in his warm but meticulously organized workspace.
It is here that Clark turns the English ivy climbing up a tulip poplar outside his window into ink, paper, and woodblocks. After he strips the leaves from the vines, he steams them in water and strips off the bark, he hooks the bark in an alkaline solution derived from the ash of other invasives he's burned, then neutralizes the resulting black liquor ink with white vinegar and further reduces the mixture by boiling it. This yields a brown ink. He also makes an English ivy black ink from soot derived from burning the thick wood the vine develops when it climbs trees. He pulps the stripped vine and puts it through his molds and presses to make a tan paper that takes well to letterpress printing. Woodblocks can only be made after he's let the thick arborized vine dry out for three years; he made his first English ivy woodblock in 2008. Each plant has its quirks: white mulberry gives Clark a creamy white paper, while the paper from multiflora rose in early spring is soft pink, and, in late summer, chocolate brown.
One of Clark's main projects is a series of weed "currency," where the face value of a print is determined by how many weeds went into making it. His one-weed note is a 5.5 inch square print made only with English ivy materials. The three-weed note uses English ivy paper, multiflora rose ink, and a white mulberry woodblock; he's also made golden ingots from tree-of-heaven, stained yellow from ink from the mahonia plant.
"I'm going more in this direction of making art talk more directly about its origin," Clark says. His prints are available for sale on his website in the "endless" edition, or as long as the plants are available. He never destroys the blocks and says he likes the idea of intentionally devaluing his own currency to make it more "weed-like." By conventional standards, "they're probably worthless," Clark says. "Rather than go through traditional rarified paths, I'll take the weedy path."
Drew Himmelstein is a journalist based in San Francisco who called Washington, DC, home for several years. She is currently an editor at Patch.com.