Growing up in Arkansas, Patterson Clark spent many hours trekking through the woods—either bird-watching with a buddy or learning to identify plants with his farmer-turned-botanist father.
That appreciation for the natural world stuck, and Clark earned a degree in biology from Hendrix College. An MFA from the California Institute of the Arts helped shape an artistic approach to nature.
When Clark moved to Washington 15 years ago to write and illustrate the weekly natural-history column Urban Jungle for the Washington Post, he noticed aggressive, nonnative plants such as English ivy climbing trees at Whitehaven Park, an arm of Rock Creek Park just 50 feet from his home. Invasive, nonnative plants can crowd out native species that wildlife depend on for food.After obtaining a permit from the National Park Service to rip out invasives, he got to thinking. “Instead of seeing them as pestilence, I decided to see them as a harvest, an untapped resource,” says Clark, 55. About seven years ago, he began to experiment with making paper from the fibers of English ivy, rose of Sharon, and garlic mustard. Then he began formulating inks.
White mulberry, he discovered, yields a strong white paper, while bush honeysuckle makes aqua-hued pigment and wineberry offers a brownish-red ink.
“The fun is teasing out the unique qualities of each plant,” he says.
With papers, inks, brushes, and engraved printing-press blocks all derived from invasive plants, Clark creates prints inspired by postage stamps, feed sacks, and currency. His 14-Stalk Note print uses 14 stems of garlic mustard and inks from Norway maple soot, bittersweet roots, and white-mulberry leaves.
He launched Alienweeds (alienweeds.com) to sell his prints as well as share his philosophy about invasive plants as a resource. In by-request workshops, Clark teaches students how to craft their own paper or brushes.
His studio, on the lower level of a rowhouse he shares with wife Lenore Rubino in DC’s Burleith neighborhood, contains shelves loaded with planks from a Norway maple that he claimed from a tree service. Clark harvests his own material—most of it from Whitehaven Park—but occasionally he finds tree companies willing to let him haul away wood from an invasive tree.
For now, he has an inexhaustible resource for his art. Says Clark: “I’ll measure my success by the scarcity of my materials.”
This article appears in the June 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.