Karen Kempf pursues a rare craft — papermaking. "Paper came to me," she says. Kempf relies on a holistic approach to papermaking. Her mission statement ("Paper-NOLA is dedicated to creating beautiful, high-quality work that is made by the most environmentally friendly means.") means she uses no dyes, no chemicals and only recycled paper and rainwater to make her final products. With no additives, her paper products are raw and maintain the character and color of the material used to make them. "It's luck of the draw," she says. Kempf sells her greeting cards, stationery, magnets and other paper-based items and offers workshops through her Web site, www.paper-nola.com.
How did you get started working with paper?
I decided for Christmas in 2004 that I wanted a papermaking kit, just a generic kit, and I started with recycling the wrapping paper from Christmas. Prior to that, I was making paper from leftover sheets and old journals and giving them to friends. My mom suggested I get my LLC, and I became KK-NOLA LLC. With KK-NOLA, I can do anything and everything as far as arts and crafts go, but over time, I just started doing more and more with paper. Before I knew it, people were coming to me to see if I can do wedding invitations, Father's Day cards, things like that. That's how it started, from just playing around with kits.
What is your papermaking process?
It's very simple. You use any kind of paper — ideally, paper that's not too thick or has a wax coating on it. You can still recycle that, but it'll be chunky when you make new paper from it. Take any paper — office paper, newspaper, brown paper bags — and shred it. Sometimes I use a shredder, most of the time I take a handful of paper and shred it with my hands. I use a smoothie blender — I've killed at least 10 blenders since 2004 — and add paper and water, and that's how you make new pulp.
It's the same principles used on a large scale to make paper and recycled paper, except on a larger scale, there's more filtering and chemicals added. But it's the same idea: taking old paper, shredding it, adding water, blending it and making new pulp, then setting it out to dry. It's really that simple.
My biggest hurdle is figuring out what additives — flower petals, leaves and natural elements — work in the paper, and I finally kind of figured out what works, what doesn't work and what I can offer my clients. There are certain chemicals you can add which keep the colors of the botanicals and keep them from rotting. I don't want to add any chemicals to my process. I use rainwater to make the paper. I have a big 65-gallon drum with a spigot that collects rainwater. As conservative as I am about using water, the amount of water I use to make paper, it just made no sense to use tap water. Here, there's water everywhere you turn. Too much water. The process of getting that clean tap water means pumping it out of the river, over the levees, cleaning it, bleaching it and bringing it to the faucet, then it goes down the drain, cleaned and back into the river. There's no reason to use that much water when it rains every other day here. It goes back to my mission statement. I want to be as pure as possible.
How can someone start making his or her own paper?
I've done so much research to find how I can do this better, and there's just nothing for papermaking on this scale. It's either set up for kids ('Let's do this as a class.') or at home or just one time in your life, or there's the large scale. But anything in between, especially with recycled paper alone with no other fibers, there's no information, so it's been a learning experience.
It's taken me a long time to know what to use. Using a smoothie blender as opposed to a $20 blender. I'm really quick with flipping out the paper. I make about 30 sheets an hour. That's making the pulp and the sheets.
I also teach workshops. I teach exactly what I'm doing. There's no trade secrets that will come back to haunt me. If someone wants to do it, God bless 'em. It's hard. It's not likely we're going to be competing, and if we are, it's probably a good thing.