Those acid-washed jeans that you’ve finally decided to part with could become the next series of greeting cards from Paperworks Studio.
The social enterprise in Traverse City, Michigan, produces beautifully handmade paper with ethereal whirls and swirls, tints and textures. You’d never guess that it all began as a squishy soup of discarded pants and shirts, sheets and curtains, or even dried flowers and coffee grounds.
But you’d be delighted to learn that each colorful, fanciful card that results is lovingly handcrafted by individuals with physical, cognitive, behavioral and socioeconomic challenges.
Paperworks began in 1991 as a work-skills training program at the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District Adult Work Center. After several reorganizations, Paperworks caught the attention of the Utopia Foundation, which purchased the studio in October 2014 and made it a division of its 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The operation has blossomed quickly, with a new production facility and retail presence inside Great Lakes Bath and Body Works (next to our beloved Brew) in downtown Traverse City, as well as a fresh marketing program.
Today individuals with mental handicaps blend the raw materials with water, press the mixture into sheets, dry each piece, cut, fold and decorate, handcrafting gorgeous greeting cards and journals with brilliant iridescent sheens and crisp laser-cut scenes.
Community involvement is an integral part of the Paperworks fabric. Those laser-cut pieces are designed by Andy Rink, a local architect. Incredibly, he makes the tiny, intricate cuts for the original design with an X-Acto knife. His wife, Myra, handcrafts beautiful giant flowers for the store’s windows made from—what else—paper.
Paperworks’ new Citizen Artists’ Series includes works by local artists who have donated their original art for sets of cards. Their designs are rendered by local reproduction studio Vada Color into images so detailed that you can make out the brush strokes, then printed with archival inks, making them frameable keepsakes.
“Traverse City loves, loves, loves Paperworks,” says Lynn Rodenroth, director.
And for so many good reasons. Not only are the greeting cards breathtaking miniature masterpieces, but they’re also a means for the individuals who make them to achieve a level of independence, improved self-esteem and satisfying work.
It’s not just busywork either. They’re adding the inks to create the marbleized papers. They’re monitoring the pulp and hanging it to dry. From concept to design, assembly, packaging and shipping, at least 20 hands touch each piece. You can meet the artisans through their profiles on the Paperworks site.
The handmade cards are crafted using a papermaking technique based on Egyptian, Chinese and Turkish principles. And there’s always something new in the works, such as the “What Love Looks Like” line. Paperworks is also exploring ways to use garlic mustard, a Midwest environmental scourge, into material for paper pulp. All cards are blank inside so that, as Lynn says, you can write something from the heart.
Paperworks says their cards are “an investment in a social mission that helps people, the community and the Earth.” With their ability to turn rags into the richness of hope for individuals with disabilities and into art that brings joy and love to its recipients, it’s easy to agree. The only difficult decision: Which to mail, which to gift and which to frame?