Regina St. John and her husband Dan own and operate Chena River Marblers. Specializing in paper and silk marbling, they also teach a variety of workshops on their craft. Find their teaching schedule on their website at http://www.chenarivermarblers.com.
How did you find yourself in the magical field of paper marbling— or should I say cloud painting?
Like many, I’d seen beautiful old edge-marbled books, with highly polished marbled end- sheets and decorative covers. It had never occurred to me that this was something I could learn to do. Then in the early 1980’s, I happened to go into a craft co-op in Fairbanks, Alaska where they were selling greeting cards beautifully decorated with fresh marbled papers. I knew then that marbling was still alive and that someday I would learn to make those beautiful papers.
It was some years later after we moved from Alaska to the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts that we found ourselves surrounded by book artists and among them, Faith Harrison, a production marbler. When she offered a workshop in 1986, I jumped at the opportunity. The class was life changing and marked the beginning of my 28-year marbling journey.
You regularly hold workshops at Snow Farm Craft Program and the North Bennet Street School, and they are incredible! Students come away with magnificent marbled papers after working with you. Do you also learn from your students?
When you teach anything long enough, it’s easy to get stuck in the, “This is how you do it” mode. Students never let you stay there for long. Given the basics, they bring all their unhampered enthusiasm and creative energies to the medium, stumbling on new patterns and finding extraordinary color combinations that wow their instructors and fellow students alike. Our students keep us fresh and with them we fall in love with marbling all over again.
Does the teaching aspect of your career influence your marbling? If so, how?
Teaching challenges us to be more conscious of exactly what we are doing, to read more deeply into the existing literature, to find answers to the many questions we are asked, to develop new tools and to improve the effectiveness of our classes and demonstrations. There is no doubt that teaching strengthens us. Additionally, the great camaraderie in a workshop is a welcome change to the solitude of a marbling studio.
Marbling is an art that encompasses many eras and traditions. In your time as marblers, have you seen changes in how marbling is approached?
In this country, there is no school for marblers, no time honored tradition of knowledge passed from generation to generation. Most marblers struggle to learn in isolation with benefit only of an occasional workshop given by other marblers who have struggled and/or by reading some of the out- of- print manuals. As a result, you may watch 10 different marblers and see 10 different styles and hear 10 different stories about the how and why of the process.
In the 1980’s there was an explosion of interest in marbling in this country. There emerged some outstanding American marblers who with great difficulty learned their trade. They taught, wrote books, sold materials, produced a great journal, energized each other and organized several national marbler’s gatherings. The last gathering was in 2002. Sadly, the books are all out of print, the journal no longer exists and the communication has been reduced to an on-line marbler’s group and the opportunity to see marblers in action on YouTube. Things have changed.
How has your work progressed throughout your career?
Our marbling has gone full circle from the traditional watercolor marbling, to the Japanese style of ink on water (Suminagashi), to Turkish Flower Marbling, to marbling with oil, to working with acrylics and back once again to a serious study of the traditional watercolor marbling. Initially, I set aside the watercolor marbling because the paints rubbed off without being sprayed with a fixative or waxed. Marbling with oil paints was next. That was a short love affair as the fumes were deadly and the paint uncontrollable. Then I ventured into marbling with acrylic paints though there was little, “how-to” information available. The colors were intense and inviting so I settled there learning how to work with them successfully on paper as well as on silks.
All this time Dan had been making excellent marbling equipment and using my marbled papers in his bindings. But a chance encounter with Garrett Dixon, a master of old style watercolor marbling, opened up the way for a very important return to water color marbling. Under Garret’s tutelage, Dan caught the marbling bug and began his quest for the perfect tiger’s eye. Nurturing his inner chemist, he has learned to hand grind pigments, make his own binder and mull them together with a beeswax soap which allows for burnishing the finished paper. Turpentine, walnut oil, potash and potassium hydroxide all become necessary additives for achieving the most beautiful of the old style papers; shell, glouster, stormont and the illusive tiger eye. These patterns are impossible to achieve with acrylics.
We’re grateful for Garret’s generosity in sharing his expertise and helping us truly appreciate exactly how those historical polished end-sheets (that still look like new) came to be. Our students learn to marble with acrylics, but we always let them know that acrylic paint is the new kid on the block.
Your papers are used by book workers and artists across the world and I’m curious— what are some of the creative ways in which your papers are used?
It would be good to have photographs of all the wonderful one-of-a-kind books, limited additions and boxes in which our papers have been used. It’s always exciting to work with a binder on a particular project or a bride who needs just the right paper for the wedding invitations and to make the paper they have imagined. Less obvious uses of the papers have been for beads, wall hangings, collages, wall paper, basket weaving, framing, origami, scrap booking and yes, once a gentleman bought one of our silk scarves to polish his show duck.
What are some unique works that feature your designs?
In 1997 Jiang Zemin, the president of China, visited the Unite States and wrote a poem to commemorate the occasion. The White House commissioned David Bourbeau to bind the poem. David chose one of our reddest papers for the end-sheets. It was beautiful.
In an effort to replicate 17th, 18th & 19th century books, Barnes and Noble published a collection of classic literature using marbled end-sheets. The rights to one of our papers were bought for use in their addition of Wuthering Heights.
How has the Guild of Book Workers helped you as paper marblers?
The Guild of Book Workers has given us countless opportunities to meet fine bookbinders with whom we have later collaborated on projects. Whenever possible we love being vendors at the Standards Conference where we get to visit with other paper artists, book arts vendors and binders from across the country.
-Interview conducted by Olivia Rose Muzzy, January 2014