Artist will explore death and grief by making paper from clothing of the deceased

Jun 5, 2019

Desiree Hagen stands behind a box that she uses to make paper.
Credit Renee Gross, KBBI News

It can be difficult to know what to do with people’s belongings once they’ve died. But there’s an artist near Homer who plans to convert the clothing of dead loved ones into paper that can serve as a canvass for their portraits.  A grant from the Rasmuson Foundation will allow Desiree Hagen to make her idea a reality.

Hagen lives on a farm in Fritz Creek outside of Homer. As she walks into a small old barn, she opens a hatch in the floor and inside is a roughly 15-gallon tank filling up with water. 

It's underneath here and you would just like, you open it and then you can see it fill it up in there,” she said.

Hagen uses this water to craft paper for a variety of art projects. Hagen needs the water to mix with her ground up source material, grass or other plants. In short, she puts the material into a wooden box with a screen at the bottom. The water seeps through the screen, leaving a sheet of paper.

Her next project won’t be done just by hand, and Hagen plans to use her grant money from Rasmuson Foundation to buy a machine that can turn clothing fibers into the pulp she needs.

She says it will be an evolution of her work.

“I find that thing that I want to explore more or delve deeper into,” she said.  

She was inspired by a group of veterans who were turning their old uniforms into paper, a process that helped them work through their war experiences. She adopted the idea with the thought of using that paper as a backdrop for various portraits.

She’s still deciding whether to use paint, paper cuttings or even other fiber from the her subject’s clothing to craft their image, and she wants her work to get people thinking about what we leave behind when we pass away. For Hagen, it helps keep the memories of her subjects alive.

“It allows me to think about what that person meant to me and to relive experiences that I had with them in my life,” she said. “I also have this belief that all of the thoughts that I put into a piece make it that much more potent or more powerful.”

Hagen wants to complete five portraits before she displays her work publically, but she hasn’t decided on all of her subject quite yet.  

“With every person, it's a different process of how to approach somebody to ask them for these articles because everybody grieves in a different way,” she said. “And I don't know what those items mean to somebody or how they will react to it. It's a very odd thing to ask somebody if [I] can have their dead relatives clothing for a project.”

But Hagen has settled on her first two portraits: her grandmother and a friend who committed suicide about two years ago. And she knows exactly the picture she’s going to recreate.

“His friend who I am receiving the clothing from, she has said this was his favorite picture of himself. This is the one picture that he liked of himself. So I would like to use that one,” she said, tearing up. “Sometimes it is hard, you start thinking about the people and it hits me at weird times. But I'm hoping that the process will help.”

She adds that facing things head on is sometimes the best way to cope.

In the interest of full disclosure: Desiree Hagen is an on-air host at KBBI.