The leaves of oak trees, green from a rainy spring, reflected and swayed against the surface of water in shallow trays at Seastone Papers papermaking studio on the last Monday in June. The studio’s founder and owner, Sandy Bernat, prepared tea to the sound of birds outside open doors as students trickled in for the Japanese Paper Marbling, or suminagashi, workshop. It was the first part of a three-day “Exploring Japanese Paper Art” series, one part of the cycle of Ms. Bernat’s summer classes.
The first inspirations for the suminagashi process exist in abundance around the Island. “It began with artists looking at clouds, and the way the wind moves them,” Ms. Bernat told the class after they arrived at the West Tisbury studio. “It came from white cloth hanging out to dry, or water in a pond and a ripple in the water. It is about artistry and life.”
Suminagashi, which translates to “floating ink,” is the art of paper marbling that originated in Japan, according to references made in literature, earlier than the 10th century. The process requires a tray of water a few inches deep, special suminagashi inks mixed with a surfactant like Photo-Flo, fine-tipped paintbrushes, and absorbent paper. Ms. Bernat demonstrated how a suminagashi artist holds an ink-tipped paintbrush in each hand and softly taps the surface of the water in the tray. The ink expands across the surface, and as the artist uses each hand in turn, the colors move and give way to each other, never mixing, to create bubble-like shapes or, when layered, a tree-ring effect. Wind sent natural ripples through Ms. Bernat’s pattern, and she guided the ink into desired swirls with the strand of a peacock feather and by blowing on the water. She then placed the paper lightly across the surface to absorb the ink from the water in its precise pattern, a mirror image.
“The colors are subtle,” Ms. Bernat explained. “Western tradition wants to control. Eastern tradition is about wanting to cooperate, especially with nature. It’s about going with the flow, so to speak,” she said as she distributed green, blue, red, black, and yellow ink-and-surfactant mixtures along with Japanese kozo calligraphy paper and cotton paper around the studio.
“Go with the flow” became a reassuring mantra for the first half of the class as brushes were dropped, papers folded, and ink splashed, but eventually the students mastered the care necessary to transfer just a drop of ink onto the water, and the delicate placement of the paper on the surface. As the class continued, students like mother and daughter Kristina Hook of Aquinnah and Jennifer Staples of Los Angeles, as well as Dom Scalpelli and his daughters, Amanda and Rebecca, of Myanmar, created more pronounced patterns and vibrant marbling: blues and greens like the ocean; imaginative reds, greens, and yellows; or minimalistic yet intricate swirls of black alone.
Ms. Bernat learned the art of suminagashi from paper artist Gail Herscher, and its history during her studies on paper arts from around the world. After the first class she took on the Island in the ’80s had her hooked on papermaking, Ms. Bernat purchased a paper press and opened Seastone Papers in 1988, which to this day is the only professional papermaking studio from the Cape to Boston. Through the ’90s she deepened her understanding of the history of paper with trips to China, Myanmar, and Tibet.
“I don’t do the kind of papermaking they do in those countries, but it helps my understanding of Eastern traditions, especially because that’s where paper originated,” Ms. Bernat said in an interview with The Times. “It’s very spiritual there. In China, there is a tradition of burning paper for the dead. In Tibet it gets used for [Buddhist] prayers,” she said.
Ms. Bernat incorporates East Asian paper art into her workshops about the many uses of paper, but not in the actual papermaking she does in her studio. “This is all Western paper, not Eastern, because depending on where you live you’ll get different fibers,” she told the Times.
For some of her works, Ms. Bernat uses inclusions like Martha’s Vineyard’s seeds and flowers in paper made from local daffodil leaves or corn husks cooked and turned into a pulp in her Hollander beater. Along with materials scavenged from the Island, Ms. Bernat uses her Island experience as a language arts teacher at the Oak Bluffs School to lead workshops for visiting teachers and artists, healing sessions for veterans, and classes for Islanders and visitors through the year. She is known for her year-round journaling workshops in which students cover handmade paper with language, from poetry and journal entries to visual language like mapping and drawing. “Basically, that’s what I am. I’m a teacher,” said Ms. Bernat.
The “Exploring Japanese Paper Art” series culminates with a class on Japanese bookbinding, and will repeat on July 31 to August 2. Co-sponsored by Featherstone Center of the Arts, other summer classes at Seastone Papers include “Seaweed in Paper,” “High-Shrinkage Sculptural Paper,” and “Monotype Bookmaking,” as well as weekly open studios for those with experience. A schedule of summer classes for children by Ms. Bernat’s daughter, Larissa Bernat, is forthcoming at seastonepapers.com.
Seastone Papers Studio, 53 Christiantown Road, West Tisbury. Paper art summer classes weekly through Sept. 12. $35 to $85. Registration online at seastonepapers.com. 508-693-5786.