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Duluth woman turns vintage books, maps and more into handmade artwork

Sara Mars Curwin of Duluth started her business Grace Press Design about 25 years ago, when she bought her own etching press. She loves the feel of paper and how ink sits in it, and she's always collecting quotes or old children's books to use in her handmade cards. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 5
Some of the plates for Sara Mars Curwin’s etching press. Curwin creates the artwork and has it turned into a zinc or plastic plate to be used later on her cards. Steve Kuchera / 2 / 5
Sara Mars Curwin of Duluth creates batches of homemade cards for her business Grace Press Design. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 5
Sara Mars Curwin holds an old atlas. In her card designs, she uses maps and illustrations from old children's books, along with wax seals, layered paper and glitter. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 5
One of Sara Mars Curwin’s greeting cards with a section of map on the front. Curwin was a big fan of the typewriter font, she said. Now, she's moving toward big Montana typeface. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com5 / 5

Sara Mars Curwin appreciates all things paper.

"I love the heaviness of it, if it's dry to the hand or smooth... I like finishes on the paper.

If it's light and translucent. ... how ink sits in it, or how it doesn't sit in it," she said.

The Duluth artist has an etching press in her basement, along with metal drawers that hold large sheets of embossing paper, wire bins filled with dyes, glues and glitters. This is where she makes homemade wedding programs, birth announcements and gala invitations for her business Grace Press Design.

Curwin focuses on "building up" her cards with different layers and textures. She creates original artwork with watercolors and pens, and she uses pages from old children's books from the '40s and '50s.

"There was a real richness to the print quality and the paper quality," she said.

A lot of people have childhood memories associated with vintage books, said Heidi Weiberg, who is happy to see those images repurposed. Weiberg carries Curwin's cards in her store Liliana, and the magic is in the personal touches, she noted.

On one card: a red hat covers the eyes of a kid kneeling on a stool. She's washing dishes with a tiny smirk on her face. The page is pasted to the card, its edges torn and artfully uneven. Under two stamps in red ink is the Ralph W. Emerson quote: "A child is a curly, dimpled lunatic."

On another card, a young girl on rollerskates lifts her arms high. There's a pillow tied around her waist and resting on her bottom, above her head is the word "play" in all caps.

"She's not afraid to take that vintage charm and utilize it," Weiberg said.

Curwin is always on the hunt at used book stores or other people's basements for pages she can put to good use. She also knows where to find the prime pictures in these relics.

"On page 12 of 'Frosty the Snowman,' it's always that illustration of the kids looking at the cakes, or always the one with him melting," Curwin said. In her living room, a couple of cards lean against one another, each with an illustration of "The Little Prince," who looks slightly different on each card. You can see through the translucent page to the words on the back.

How many "The Little Prince" books has Curwin worked with?

"Dozens," she said.

Another card has a splat of gold with fish-like turquoise swooshes; under it the word "Ham-sa (I am that)," attributed to a Sanskrit mantra. Curwin has a list of quotes, lyrics and salutations she works from, and she loves to experiment.

"I get my paper wet, I sand it, I rip it, I tear it. Those are where the pleasant surprises happen," she said.

Curwin launched Grace Press Design (named after her daughter) more than 20 years ago in the Twin Cities. In the early days, "I was really good at the art part but not the business," she said.

As her business grew, she learned a lot by sitting at a dining table with clients and gauging their needs. She learned to value her work, and she also learned who her clients were not. (If they're looking for a more commercial look, she would counsel them out, she said.)

She found her niche in elegant, expensive-looking cards, she said, and she learned to do that rather than do everything.

The best advice she got early on was "failure is your biggest teacher," she said, noting how she's changed since she started the business.

"When I'm in something that's failing, the younger me was in a bit of a panic of how to remedy it. Now, I've grown calmer because I know there's a remedy. I know I can fix it," she said.

Curwin started making more cards when she moved to Duluth from the Twin Cities in 2000, and her work has evolved over the years. She uses her own zinc and plastic plates for embossing — all from her original art works. She uses scriptural quotes, she has some with Sanskrit — and she makes her own paper.

For that, she combines letterpress printer scraps with warm water in a blender. This makes an oatmeal-like slurry, and from there, she can add inclusions like confetti or flowers.

"I typically make them with peony petals in the spring," she said.

She'll strain it through a screen, place it on a pad called a couch, and after two days, she has a sheet of paper. "It's a very naive process, but in the mills, they do big, big rolls," she said.

Curwin is mindful of an increasingly digital world, and how long it takes to create and reproduce each of her handmade cards.

"Everything you handle, that little piece of artwork, takes time," she said.

So she's finding ways to streamline the process for efficiency. She recently started to scan her art, but in that, she said, there's an internal struggle.

She wants each card to continue to be an original. She likes the idea that she's touched each and every one — and that when they're gone, they're gone.

"I know I'm not going to be Hallmark. ...I still have value to people," Curwin said.

And she's breathing new life into pages from the past.

A friend gave her old letters handwritten in Swedish. From these, she ripped and cut a rectangular piece and placed it on a cream colored card. Next to it are George Sand's words: "There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved." She dotted her card with a gold seal that makes you want to touch it.

Of the letters, Curwin said: "Could I Xerox that, yes, I absolutely could, but I like having a box of somebody's letters — and using them."

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Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

(218) 723-5346