Throughout my time as a student here at Northern Arizona University, I have often heard guest speakers and alumni challenge students to take risks during their time in school, such as to try new experiences and to have fun with them. And so for my last semester at NAU, I decided to take ART 143: Introduction to Handmade Books. I’ve been a writer for ten years, creating the content of what I hope to someday be published books. Why not take a class about physically making a book?
Walking into the first art studio of my collegiate career, I found myself in a room full of sunlight and the clean scent of paper. Two large metal workstations sat in the middle of the room with barstools encircling them. Scattered around the room were a plethora of artistic supplies. A printing press, a station with a hooded vent for potent printing assignments, a shrine
dedicated to chickens (I’m still trying to figure that one out), and drawers filled with papers of all kinds, from translucent rice paper to bright construction paper. Once class began, the instructor, Barbara Ryan-Gartin (just Barbara to the students), showed us around the room, giving us a tour of all these areas as well as a list of all the supplies we would need throughout the year. Needless to say, I was intimidated. I struggled to keep the same enthusiasm I had when I first signed up for the class. Creating books had moved from language and imagery to three-dimensional forms. It was a challenge for my brain, but I was determined not to give up. I had to stay calm and power through this. (which sounds like a motivational cliche, but so be it). On the first official day of bookmaking, Barbara asked for help preparing some brushes for the demonstration. These were Chinese brushes, designed to come to a narrow tip at the end. The students gathered around the teacher, and I felt reassured by how still everyone else was. Maybe I wasn’t the only one nervous. Before us on the table was a white, rectangular tray filled halfway with cool tap water and three plastic containers, one for rinsing the brush of ink, one containing a mixture of water and a dispersant called ox gall (used to disperse ink), and one for the ink we would be using called sumi-e ink.
What we would be doing is a form of printing called Suminagashi. Pronounced soo-me-nah-gashy, this way of printing came from Japan and has been in practice since the twelfth century. It is a technique used for marbling paper. Marbling is an artistic term which means making marbled patterns on paper, fabric, or whatever canvas is desired by the artist.
Depending on how big or small the artist wants the patterns to be, they would use more or less of the diluent with the ink, or by diluting the water with something else other than ox gall, such as dish soap. It requires still water, a steady hand, and precise movements, as well as an understanding that the ultimate design is not under your control.
All of us stood silent as Barbra used a scrap of newspaper on the surface of the water in order to clear it of any dust, curving the scrap until it grazed the water and picked up the dust like a magnet. Then, once everything was still, the teacher hovered her brush of dark sumi-e ink over the water and gently dipped the tip into the surface, then out. At first it looked like nothing had worked, since the water was still clear. As the teacher repeated the action a few more times, a dark gray circle of ink began to appear. We all were enraptured as the teacher switched brushes and added some of the diluent to the inky water. Though it was just a tap, the ink shot out in a ring as if it had been hit with an electric current. When she decided she was done, she picked up some thin paper from Germany. She chose this paper because it would show us how the paper easily picks up the ink from the water. Slowly, so as not to create any air bubbles, she laid the paper down on the water. When she lifted the paper up for us to see, it had a new design of marbled gray rings like that of a tree. I was amazed by the simplicity of it all.
Then it was our turn. Everyone from the Art majors to Environment Science majors were having a blast creating fun and intricate designs on different kinds of paper. We experimented with red and brown ink in addition to black, seeing what the effect would be if we let the air bubbles in, making gaps in the print. My first attempts were challenging. My movements were too quick, and the ink would often sink to the bottom. I was frustrated, but determined to get one print right. On my third attempt, I finally made a print that turned out, though not as well as I was hoping. Although the pattern was different than what I had planned for the print, I liked the wispy and bold lines of gray curling around the white space like mysterious tendrils. Just recently, I used the print as a cover for a miniature accordion book I made in class. The dark, choking swirls were a perfect match for the poem I wrote inside about having an asthma attack.
The ancient art form of Suminagashi has taught me some important lessons: Be still when the things surrounding you are not. Stay steady and be as precise as you can. And know that the most beautiful things in life are out of your control. Valuable encouragement for the rest of my semester in bookmaking as well as in everyday life.
Suminagashi. “History of Suminagashi and Marbling.” Suminagashi, 1 Nov. 2012,