Flat River Gallery and Framing Paper Artist Shares Experiences Influencing Her Art

Photo courtesy of Sandra Hansen.

Sandra Hansen has been part of Flat River Gallery and Framing for three years.  Her medium is papermaking which she found an interest in after thousands of fish died in Lake Erie.  She has had residencies in Australia and China and gives talks on environmental art and workshops on paper making.

Environmental Influence

Hansen has loved art for decades.  In spite of being told by her second grade teacher that she wasn’t any good at art, the Holland, Michigan resident drew princesses with a friend and took art classes at the Toledo Museum of Art as a child.  “Those art classes gave me an excellent understanding of different artists, time periods, color theory, and composition.” she says. “Even after undergraduate and graduate painting classes, I still feel uncomfortable with mediums a little bit.  Nonetheless I won the Excellence in Painting Award at Kendall at my undergraduate graduation.”

At 50 she took up painting using acrylic.  Hansen took up painting as she viewed it “the highest form of art” due to seeing so many paintings in art museums around the country.  

Now Hansen looks to the environment for inspiration and hopes that her work will also inspire others to think about the environment.  After thousands of fish died in Lake Erie in 2014, she began to think about how everything is connected. “If the lake died what else would it take down with it?  Would the people die as well? I needed to let people know what was happening.” she comments on how the event touched her personally. She began painting dead fish in water and in algae bloom.  She studied different types of pollution in lakes including chemical, surface pollution like plastics in the water, and global warming. “Over the next year I realized that I needed to examine all of my life choices that were polluting the earth.  I worried about the chemicals that I used as a painter.”      

During the year following the incident in Lake Erie, Hansen had the opportunity to take a paper making class at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids where she realized the materials used to make paper were all natural.  “I have always loved art that I could dig my hands into and I became enamored with paper making.” she remarks. There are chemicals that can be used in the process but she has found ways to avoid using them or use such small amounts that they do no environmental harm.  Hansen makes large pieces of paper because “the problems of pollution are enormous so my paper needed to be enormous”.

Hansen’s studio is as close to a zero waste zone as she can manage.  Everything that has been created in her space was done so in a sustainable approach and anything left over after the creation process can be returned to the earth without environmental impact.  However, she has made paper that has contained recycled clothing and plastic bags. “The plastic bags were a method for me to talk about the dichotomy of the natural and the unnatural materials in the world mixing together and the danger that is inherent in this mixture.  Some of my papers will return to the earth but have plastics that are mixed in that will not disintegrate.” she says of using this art to illustrate a message.  

Part of Hansen’s studio where her paper is made. Photo courtesy of Sandra Hansen.

The Paper Making Process

Paper can be made from a variety of things including leaves, cotton, silk, flax or bast (the part of the wood between the bark and the core) as long as cellulose is present.  Whatever material is being used is collected and cut into small pieces. These pieces are soaked overnight and then cooked for at least an hour, sometimes much more. After this process the material is beaten by hand, blender or a machine called a beater.  Hansen says the end result is a pulp similar to thin applesauce. This pulp can then be poured, molded or dipped into with a screen. Hansen has a large vat of water that is four inches deep. She pours her pulp onto a fine screen and adds things like leaves, strings, flower petals.  Pulleys are used to take the screen out of the water, however, for smaller papers the pulp with additives is pressed and put in a dryer. Larger papers dry in the sun or with help from a fan and heater pointed at it.  

Much of the paper Hansen makes is stored in her basement.  At one time eight of her paper works were on display at the Inner Mongolia Art Museum in Hohhot, China.  The large papers are 82 inches tall and often too large for entering exhibitions. Hansen has hung these pieces around her house, including use as curtains.  

All of Hansen’s work deals with plastics in the water or about the beauty of water.  This art is frequently used when she gives talks on environmental art and when giving workshops on paper making.  

World Travels

Hansen has been to 30 countries.  She has also had residencies and exhibitions in Australia and China.  In Australia, her residency proposal included submitting an application to Mt. Tomah Botanical Gardens to get leaves from the Wollemi Pine tree.  This type of tree was thought to be extinct for 93 million years according to Hansen. However, in 1994 David Noble and a friend were repelling into caverns through the Wollemi National Park to map out canyons and they came across a small forest of odd-looking trees.  He took leaf samples and with extensive research it was determined that Wollemi Pines still existed. There are said to be fewer than 100 of these trees growing in the wild.  

Hansen, through a proposal to the Bilpin International Ground for Creative Initiatives for four pounds of leaves was able to make paper from the leaves of these rare trees.  She was the first to do such a task. The Wollemi Pines were recently threatened by the Australian bushfires, but were saved by fighting the fires from air and ground even though the Wollemi National Park and Mt. Tomah Botanical were both burned to the ground.  

Some of the journals made by Hansen, available at Flat River Gallery and Framing.

Life In and Out of Art

Hansen and her husband Ed, who is a geology professor at Hope College live in Holland.  She has two adult sons and two grandchildren. In addition to being an artist, she ran for state representative in 1992.  After that loss she started her own business, Women’s History ALIVE! giving one woman plays about famous women in history at schools, libraries, and museums across the country for 18 years.  

Hansen is currently the president of her local Rotary club and over the years has enjoyed having foreign exchange students stay with her over the years.  

After visiting Flat River Gallery and Framing before becoming a member of the group, Hansen thought the quality of art was a great representation and better than most galleries in the area.  “I was impressed with the conceptual art and the feeling that I could put any type of art in the gallery that I wanted.” 

Some of her art, including journals she has put together with paper she has made, can be seen at Flat River Gallery and Framing located at 219 W. Main.  They are open Tuesday through Friday 11am – 6pm and Saturday 10am – 4pm.

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