When Algoma environmental artist and teacher Kirsten Christianson walks the shore of Lake Michigan, observing the ebb and flow of the water, the crisp color of the sky, the bright leaves of summer trees, she is noting nature’s structure as much as she is appreciating it.
When she returns home, she will bring those mental notes to a quaint horse barn-turned-art studio at the back of her cream city brick home in Algoma and apply it to her medium of choice, handmade paper.
The delicate woman embodies all things nature, from her soft-as-cotton laugh to her sea sparkle eyes. It’s a wonder she got a start to her art career by working with heavy marble structures (which she did on commission for the Milwaukee Marble Company), as there is no trace of weight in anything she does.
Her movements are breezy, her conversation light and she flits about random nooks and crannies in her studio to show me the many ways she has fused her training and background in sculpture (she has a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in the art form) with her passion for handmade paper.
There are the framed pieces of handmade paper embedded with pressed ferns, bluebells, hostas and Queen Anne’s lace, the shadow boxes of willow branches and handmade paper vessels, and canvases of monarch-shaped handmade paper. It quickly becomes clear that, if in some unfortunate twist of fate, Mother Nature were to reel her ugly head on Kirsten and her husband Carl’s little piece of earth in Algoma, cleanup wouldn’t be a problem. Everything would find its place in the natural world as it had before, no HAZMAT suits necessary.
Call it the benefit of an artist who so respects nature that little, if any, of the material she uses isn’t provided by the great outdoors.
“What I like to do is bring people’s attention to things in nature and hardly change them,” Kirsten said.
Kirsten’s introduction to the wonders of the natural world happened during childhood growing up on a farm in upstate New York. Though she didn’t recognize it at the time, it is also where the budding artist within began to bloom.
“I was in the woods all the time,” she recalled. “Along the water, we had a creek that ran through our farm. I was always outside making stuff. It was ongoing; it wasn’t like I thought of that as art. It was just what I did.”
Nearly four decades after life brought her from New York to Milwaukee and finally to Algoma, natural art is what she continues to create. Although her beginnings in sculpture started out with marble in Milwaukee, she was introduced to the art of handmade paper during a one-day adult education class at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay.
It wasn’t long before she fused her passion for sculpture with her newfound passion for paper. Her love for Mother Nature remained the foundation of her creations and she began learning how to make paper out of all sorts of things, from hemp to flax, cotton to irises, corn leaves to cattail leaves.
Artist Kirsten Christianson demonstrates her papermaking technique in her Algoma studio. Photo by Len Villano.
Christianson has a special affinity for monarchs. In 2014, she launched The Monarch Butterfly Project to coincide with The Ridges Sanctuary's annual monarch tagging workshop. Photo by Len Villano.
Pressed flowers and other natural items are often incorporated into Christianson's artwork. Photo by Len Villano.
Found natural objects are incorporated into frames and put on display in Christianson's studio. Photo by Len Villano.
“It’s natural made materials. It’s very malleable. It is very open,” Kirsten said. “You can see with my work how many different things you can do with it; you can work with it sculpturally, you can work with it flat, you can work with it painting. There is just so much you can do with it and it’s very teachable, too.”
Kirsten speaks from experience. Shortly after learning the basics of papermaking, she began teaching it at the college level for undergraduate and graduate students at UW – Green Bay and UW – Madison, as well as at the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago. She also began incorporating it into her artist-in-residencies in schools and communities throughout the state.
Margaret Lockwood, who co-owns Woodwalk Gallery with her husband Allin Walker, met Kirsten at the Peninsula School of Art in the late 1990s when Allin and Margaret co-directed the school. Kirsten was teaching clay sculpture and handmade paper at the school.
When Margaret and Allin moved onto their new venture at Woodwalk Gallery and had an opening at the shop below their gallery, they knew they wanted to offer it to a passionate artist with a knack for teaching. Naturally, Kirsten fit the bill.
“She’s meant to pass on what she knows,” Margaret said. “She’s a great teacher. She’s very patient but direct and she can relate to 2-year-olds and 85-year-olds; she can relate to any age. Men or women, doesn’t matter. She has a teacher’s touch.
“She’s so generous with her own talents,” Margaret added. “She’s full of grace and so her work is also. It’s homage to what she loves and what she loves is nature. She brings it out in this beautiful work she does. It doesn’t hit you in the face. It just feels like it was always there even though she just made it.”
As generous as she is with her own talents, Kirsten is also fiercely dedicated to maintaining a give-and-take relationship with Mother Nature. The great outdoors provides her with the sticks, leaves, flowers and wild fiber that she puts into her paper and in return, Kirsten uses her artistic abilities to draw attention to environmental concerns – most recently, the plight of the monarch butterfly.
“I heard how monarchs are in such a delicate state,” she said. “They go to Mexico and their habitat is now limited. They come here and the fields don’t have the plants that they need for food.”
Kirsten had heard about a monarch tagging workshop conducted by The Ridges Sanctuary’s naturalist Brian Forest and approached the sanctuary about the potential for collaboration. Kirsten’s idea was to hold a summer-long workshop at the Center for Handmade Paper during which families and individuals would come in to create monarch-shaped handmade paper.
Kirsten launched The Monarch Butterfly Project in early summer 2014 and at the end of August, when Forest hosted his monarch tagging workshop at The Ridges, it was accompanied with dozens of delicate handmade paper monarchs from Kirsten’s workshop.
“It turned out really nice,” Brian said of the project. “It was neat to have that personal touch with pieces she picked up at The Ridges. She collected ferns, sticks and anything that her students or her could incorporate into their piece.
“What she was doing with her shop and her studio really brought attention to the monarch project,” he added.
As the seasons change, the leaves fall, the monarchs come and go, there will remain one constant in Algoma: a selfless environmental artist intent on sharing her love of nature with the masses, one handful of pulp at a time.