Pioneer in Paper

Handmade paper kimono by Marie Sturken, on view at the Nassau Club.

Great artists have a history of flourishing in groups: Think Paris in the 1920s, or New York’s Algonquin Round Table. Princeton, too, has had its share of artist collectives.

In the 1960s, a group of women formed an art circle around Judith K. Brodsky, then working toward her master’s of fine art at Tyler School of Art. Joan Needham, Margaret “Maggi” Johnson, Clare Romano, Dorothea Greenbaum, Jane Teller, Lonni Sue Johnson, Trudy Glucksberg, Helen Schwartz, Mayumi Oda, Naomi Savage, Ophelia Garcia, Linda White and Marie Sturken were all part of a women’s printmaking group.

They worked out of a former bank building at Nassau and Bank streets, making etchings, collographs, lithographs, and photographs. By the 1970s, when the women’s movement was taking shape, they had published three portfolios. The first was on the theme of Princeton, the second, the bicentennial, and the third, women.

Sturken still savors her copy of that portfolio, carefully stored in her basement studio. Her own picture incorporates a photo of her wedding reception. She is wearing a navy suit — no white frills for this pioneering feminist — and her facial features have been blurred out. “I felt like I was losing my identity,” says Sturken, 90. Brodsky, who went on to found the Institute for Women and Art at Rutgers, “fought to get women into shows and galleries,” recounts Sturken.

Looking over the work of her colleagues, Sturken says it feels like traveling back through time. “We were special,” she reflects.

The group ultimately melded with the Princeton Art Association, then morphed into Artworks and branched off into the Princeton Artists Alliance, started by Charles McVicker in 1989, adding new artists each step of the way. All of these artists remained connected to the Arts Council of Princeton, where they have taught, exhibited, given lectures, served on the board, and volunteered.

“We still all get together and still like each other and still share an interest in art,” Sturken says. They go to exhibits and openings and dine together.

Beginning about 12 years ago, Sturken began curating art shows at the Nassau Club, exhibiting many of the artists from the above-named groups. She had been a member of the club, along with her husband, Bob, for 25 years, and the former curator, who wasn’t an artist, asked if she would like to take over.

Sturken will be exhibiting her own work in “Kimono Mania,” at the Nassau Club July 1 through September 4, with a reception July 15.

Just before she was about to take off on a trip to Buenos Aires and Patagonia, Sturken met with me in her Queenston Commons home in Princeton, where most of the art for the show was taped up in bubble wrap. A few works still hung on the walls.

Sturken began her “Kimono Mania” about 10 years ago. Because of her background in fashion illustration, “I thought the kimono could be a vehicle for creative expression.” Sturken had focused on printmaking since arriving in Princeton in the 1960s, but in the 1980s she became concerned about the health hazards of having a printing press in her home studio.

Her friend and colleague Joan Needham studied papermaking in Barcelona and introduced it to Sturken, who become fascinated with this new way of working.

“Artists today no longer define paper as a sheet on which one places an image, but instead, use paper as a flexible, pliable medium in which the image is part of the paper itself,” Sturken writes in an artist statement. “Many images in my work are recycled, and have evolved over time. Tearing things, distressing them, and sending them through a series of processes, gives them new life and new meaning.”

Sturken seems to collect paper from everywhere. She opens one drawer to reveal a stash of “gossamer” paper brought back from Japan by Maggi Johnson.

She embeds other material into her handmade paper such as gingko leaves, thread, tarlatan (from wiping print plates), paper butterflies, green tea wrappers, a kind of yarn that looks like red, purple, and yellow railroad tracks, bank notes, and silk organza. When I interviewed her a few years ago she was incorporating an old silk blouse from Paris, with colors like stained glass, and color rubber bands run through a scanner.

In some instances she will burn the edges with incense, or burn a diamond-shape pattern, or stitch the paper by machine, creating a batik-like effect. A lace-like pattern is created with incense, and jewel colors come through the openings. In another kimono, linen thread dances throughout, as do arcs of silk organza.

She has reorganized her studio since the death of her husband in 2008 — he had used part of the space for his workshop in this home Sturken has lived in for 15 years.

Papermaking is a messy project — there’s pulp and colored inks and hoses, drains, and vats — but Sturken keeps everything fastidious. For large works, she goes to Dieu Donne Papermill in New York City, taking the train to Penn Station and then walking with all her artmaking supplies. She often goes with fellow artist Joan Needham, and they don rubber boots and aprons for the messy work, but Needham has been working in steel sculpture lately, and the cost for a single artist can be prohibitive.

In her own studio, Sturken can work up to 24-by-18 inches, the size of her mold and deckle. She has even led papermaking workshops for up to six people there. “But it’s months of work to do what you can at Dieu Donne in a day,” she says.

The two works she has at the new University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro are larger, and were made at Dieu Donne. Her prints at the new Capital Health Center in Hopewell were made at the Brodsky Center, as part of a project with Princeton Artists Alliance.

She recently received a commission through her son to create a larger work, and she is happy that the commission will pay for a day at Dieu Donne.

One doesn’t have to be a member of the Nassau Club to see art shows or attend art openings there, Sturken says. She is happy to be working with Alison Lahnston, the first female president of the club, who has extended the club’s generosity to artists with wine receptions.

“Most galleries will give an artist two or three weeks, but here we give an artist eight weeks,” Sturken says. “And the reception is a great way for artists to have private party for friends. Summer is a lively time, and a lot of people will come to see the work.”

Sturken’s daughter, Marita, a professor at NYU, is teaching a course on politics and memory in Buenos Aires. Sturken is sightseeing with her son-in-law and 6-year-old grandson. Then they will take the four-hour plane ride to the tip of South America, where they expect to see glaciers and ships taking off for Antarctica. “I am interested in the crafts and colors of indigenous designs,” she says. “It’s nice to get away from life and go to something totally different.”

Sturken was born in Danbury, Connecticut, and raised in Stamford. Her father was a commercial artist and master printer for Conde Nast, influencing Sturken, who went on to study fashion illustration at the New York School of Design and the Grand Central School of Art in the 1940s.

Her first job was drawing patterns for McCall’s, then she worked in the art department of Abraham & Strauss, drawing newspaper ads.

With Bob, an engineer, she moved to Delaware, continuing her career as fashion artist at John Wanakaker & Co., until the family moved to Westchester, New York, where she raised three children: the NYU professor, a travel writer, and a music professor. The family moved to New Brunswick, and finally to Princeton in 1962, where Sturken landed a show at Gallery 100 on Nassau Street.

Art is not her only passion. These days, when not making art, curating exhibits, traveling, or enjoying her social network of artists, Sturken — at age 90 — can be found taking Pilates classes.

Kimono Mania: Handmade Paperworks by Marie Sturken, Nassau Club, 6 Mercer Street, Princeton. July 1 through September 4. Reception: July 15, 3 to 5 p.m. www.nassauclub.org or 609-924-0580.

This story originally appeared in U.S. 1 Newspaper.

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