Maker City KC

Kansas City artist Kelsey Pike puts a modern twist on the ancient art of paper making

Kelsey Pike was studying art history at The Kansas City Art Institute when she took a class called Materials & Methods. It was there she learned the ancient art of paper making — and fell completely and totally in love. 

“I decided I needed to make paper for the rest of my life,” Pike says. And that is exactly what she’s doing, with close to 8,000 Etsy sales under her belt.

The process of paper making was first introduced in 105 BC by Ts’ai Lun in China. Historical documents state he broke the bark of a mulberry tree into fibers, then pounded them into a sheet. Later, he figured out how to combine hemp with shredded cloth rags and water, mash the mixture into a pulp, then press out the liquid and hang the sheets to dry in the sun.

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Paper can be made of any cellulose material that comes from plants. Most of Pike’s papers are made from recycled cotton fabric scraps. Pike separates the fibers with a Hollander beater, a specialized machine with a spinning roll of blades. 

When the pulp is finished beating for three to six hours, it is added to a vat with a large amount of water. A tool called a mould and deckle is used to scoop up the slurry. The water drains through the mould and deckle’s mesh, leaving a thin, fine layer of pulp on the screen. That pulp eventually becomes paper. 

Pike uses a motion called the Vatman’s Shake, which takes years to perfect, to make smooth, even paper by the sheet. The paper is then pressed and dried. Pike has a video on her website documenting the labor-intensive process.

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Pike grew up in Kansas City, Kansas until her family moved to Lawrence, where she had access to great art and music programs through the public schools. She has an art history degree and a printmaking minor from KCAI.

“I spent all of my junior and senior year working in the paper making studio there, which was my work-study job, and the beginning of my small business and my studio practice,” Pike says. 

Her Etsy shop, Sustainable Paper + Craft, was founded at the end of her senior year, and was originally conceived as a place to sell handmade paper sketchbooks. After the first batch of sketchbooks sold out, she says, “I did some math and decided that I would never be able to sell them at a price that made sense for the amount of time I spent on them.” 

“I moved toward selling loose papers,” she explains. “My senior year, I realized that after I graduated, when I would no longer have access to the school’s paper studio, I might never be able to make paper again.”

She applied for grants to buy her own equipment, but didn’t receive them. She saved all of her Etsy profits and graduation gifts in order to buy her own Hollander beater and paper making equipment.

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For years, her paper making studio lived in her parents’ garage in Lawrence. 

“This was great because it was free, and I love my parents, but it was a real barrier to growing my business,” she says. 

A few years ago, she happened to see an article in the paper about Maker Village and contacted them to see if they might have space. They had 10,000 square feet. Pike realized she could recreate the communal studio feel she loved from art school. 

“In late 2015, I started working with my best friend and fellow printmaking grad Adri Luna on a plan for the Cherry Pit Collective,” Pike says. “Throughout the spring and summer, we talked up the idea to everyone we met at craft shows, like The Strawberry Swing, and networking events, so that when we started, we already had 12 members.” 

“Our original mission was to fill our studio with awesome, hard-working artists and makers,” Pike says. “The first dozen happened to be female-identifying which worked so well that we decided to intentionally move forward as an all-women’s space. We’ve found our members feel comfortable and safe while working, as well as relaxed and free to be ourselves, which can be challenging in male-centric workplaces.”

The Cherry Pit currently has 25 members who make everything from jewelry to quilts, zines, hats and pots. The space at 31st and Cherry (next to Maker Village) also welcomes fine artists who work on painting, illustration, fiber arts and photography.

Pike also works part-time for the Art Institute’s Continuing Education department. She has had the job for around 10 years, and says it really complements her business because the hours are flexible, and it allows her to remain connected to the fine art community. 

She also sells one other product category in her Etsy shop: hand-carved, custom rubber stamps. Each stamp is custom-made for the client with their name, address or logo. 

“I sell a ton of library stamps around Christmas because they are a fun, custom gift for $20. Last year, one of my stamps was featured in Country Living Magazine in the gift guide and I sold over 100 of them between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Pike says. 

“At first, I listed each stamp as completely custom,” she explains. “Buyers could name anything they wanted an image of, and I’d draw it, scan (it) and send a proof, make revisions. The process took forever, and I spent a huge amount of time corresponding with buyers. So I streamlined the process by offering a few standard options they can choose from.”

Some of her stamps are so intricate, they take hours to make, like the one she created for California’s Barrett Farms, which features a mountainous landscape.

When asked what she loves most about the Maker Movement in Kansas City, Pike says, “I love that the modern interest in Makers has allowed traditional crafts like paper making to survive and thrive! Who would have thought that more than 100 years after the almost complete mechanization of paper making in America, traditional handmade paper would be in demand for trendy wedding invitations?” 

Pike’s advice to up-and-coming Makers is to start by honing your craft. 

“Spend hours, days, and months learning and becoming an expert,” she says. “Travel to learn from the masters, read the big books and never stop practicing.”

“Secondly, really track your business analytically. Make a regular habit of tracking your expenses and income. Define what success will mean to you. Set goals, then make a plan to achieve them step by step with daily habits.”

Cherry Pit Collective strives to build a sense of community with its classes. Kelsey herself teaches “Goal Setting for Makers” and “Etsy Incubator.” She also offers private tutoring.

You can find Sustainable Paper + Craft in 10 stores around the country, including The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and Souvenear locally. Kelsey will be live-carving custom rubber stamps at The Strawberry Swing’s 9th Annual Summer Swing, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. August 11 at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Customers can choose a design, then add their name or address, and she will carve it on the spot in five to 10 minutes.

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