Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
January 28, 2014
Universities everywhere are searching for the secrets that drive innovation.
At the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, the entrepreneurial spark didn't come from either of the two departments that are virtually synonymous with the economy of northern Wisconsin: the Paper Science & Engineering program and the nationally recognized Forestry school.
It came from the Art department. For years, art students have scrimped on meals in order to pay for fine-arts paper, the thick, textured variety for prints, water colors and drawings?the kind that typically costs at least $5 a sheet. The paper prized by artists is almost universally imported from France and made from 100% cotton fiber, not tree cellulose.
And at that price, students hardly can afford to experiment, much less make mistakes. "It's like drawing on a $5 bill," said art major Tarin Baldauf.
So three years ago, printmaking instructor Bob Erickson grabbed a sheet of pricey French paper and charged across campus to the paper-making school.
"Can you make this?" Erickson implored. "We use paper. You make paper. There should be collaboration."
After three years of trial and error, UW-Stevens Point developed its own version of professional grade, acid-free, 100% linen arts paper. The university, located on a bend of the Wisconsin River, christened it the RiverPoint brand.
Art students at Stevens Point can have it at no cost, allowing free-flowing ideas to emerge from their etchings, plates, presses and silk screens. "Free paper is an enormous benefit," said Caren Heft, a fine arts instructor at Stevens Point. Heft regularly donates to the local food bank because she's knows art students who go there for groceries. For its part, the university figured out that it can produce RiverPoint at a cost that undercuts the European imports.
And while marketing efforts are still in the early stages?and other grades of paper for artists are in development?Stevens Point sees potential for its made-in-Wisconsin paper to encroach on elite European brands that are built on centuries of market incumbency and endorsements by European masters going back to the Renaissance.
Renewing a state industry
During the past century, paper mills became the state's leading industry, thanks to Wisconsin's abundant hardwood timberland and easy supply of high-grade pulp. To this day, Wisconsin remains the nation's leading paper-making state, even after the proliferation of digital media has forced the closure of several mills that make publishing grade paper.
The state's vast cellulose economy, which experts say lost its penchant for innovation years ago, potentially gives UW-Stevens Point a pivotal role.
The school has the largest undergraduate College of Natural Resources in the U.S. and one of the nation's largest forestry programs. Of the 10 U.S. colleges for paper engineering, Stevens Point is one of the top three, based on its enrollment of 70 students.
And the heart of the paper school is its pilot papermaking machine. It's bigger and longer than a semitrailer truck, although it's a toy compared to its leviathan counterparts in commercial paper mills. Based on information from a paper industry trade group, the school calls it the "world's largest student-run paper machine." It does everything a commercial paper machine does?from the "wet end" with a slurry of watery pulp all the way to the spool of dry, uniform paper at the other.
"We were looking for opportunities to be entrepreneurial," said Paul Fowler, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology, the research and technology arm of the College of Natural Resources.
Entrepreneurial thinking is becoming a survival imperative for key programs, not an idle pastime, said Erickson in the art school. As state and federal budgets come under pressure, public universities across the nation tighten their belts just like the Bohemian art students they enroll.
The share of state funding at UW-Stevens Point plunged to 15.8% in 2012-'13 from 36% a decade earlier, mirroring a similar decline statewide across the UW System of 26 two-year and four-year universities. Wearying of endless tuition hikes, state schools increasingly look for new income.
Erickson sees a silver lining in the new fiscal realities: "In raising funds, you can educate students." Since 2008, his department has hosted a biennial fundraising event called "Monoprint," inviting artists from around the world to produce prints in campus studios. Those artworks are donated to the school, framed, displayed and put on sale for $300 each.
"We have sold out every year," with funds earmarked for the printmaking program, Erickson said.
Finding a market
RiverPoint presents a more daunting challenge but a bigger opportunity. It's nothing like standard office copier paper. It's "fully archival," Erickson said, meaning it is acid free and won't yellow. It is thick, durable and able to withstand multiple soakings, washings, high-pressure presses and other rigors in the embossing process.
What's more, Europeans produce artist paper in flat 22-inch by 30-inch molds, one sheet per mold. That's an entirely different process than a continuously rolling paper machine. And that means the Wisconsinites aren't merely "reverse engineering" the Europeans and ripping off their brand identity, Fowler insists.
"We did set out to emulate the French paper," Fowler said. But paper school faculty and students, working in their spare time, had to fine tune the process and pulp until the paper machine could produce something "almost equivalent," he said.
"Each time the paper school did a trial run, it was sent back for adjustments," Erickson said. Another team of art students came up with a brand logo with wavy river-like lettering.
The school found a Wisconsin- based supplier for the cotton fiber. And in a point of particular pride, Stevens Point makes its paper with frayed, unfinished edges on two sides, similar to the deckle edges of the French paper.
Stevens Point seized its first marketing opportunity last year when one of the nation's leading graphics and printmaking associations, the Southern Graphics Council International, held its annual convention by pure coincidence at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. Stevens Point set up an exhibition booth at the event, handing out free samples to artists.
"What caught their attention was that it's made by students, for students," said Baldauf, the art major who helped staff the booth in Milwaukee.
Baldauf still winces at the memory of spending $30 on three sheets of particularly expensive French printmaking paper, only to have it rip as she walked home.
Stevens Point will send another delegation this year when Southern Graphics Council International holds this year's gathering in San Francisco. It's also selling paper off an e-commerce site. It donates samples to other art schools and so far has put RiverPoint in the hands of artists and art schools in a dozen states.
One appeal is the affordability: a single sheet comes to $2.75, not counting taxes or shipping, with discounts on purchases over 100 sheets. The school is using a portion of a $1.4 million grant from the UW System to develop two more grades of campus-produced artist paper.
The entrenched European brands may cost more, but they have a head start going back to the Renaissance. One of the most popular, the Arches paper mill in Lorraine, began in 1492. France's Canson mills, founded in 1557, boast a name that the paper maker says is "mythical for artists and lovers of beautiful papers."
The Italian town of Fabriano has Europe's oldest mill, dating to 1283 and?if marketing materials are to be believed?used by masters like Michelangelo, Albrecht D?rer and Raphael. RiverPoint is used by Stacey Strupp.
The Stevens Point senior, an art major who hails from West Bend, transfers her photographic images onto printing plates and then uses a press to imprint them on RiverPoint. "Free paper," Strupp said, "helps artistic freedom."
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