Interview with Sarah Amatt
Sarah Amatt is a suminagashi artist and maker who creates original monoprints using the ancient craft of Japanese marbling, also known as suminagashi, or the art of floating ink on water. We spoke to her about how she started with this incredibly satisfying practice, where she sources materials from, what we can expect from her in the future and more.
How did you get into your craft?
As a young bookbinder, I became intrigued by the marbled papers on the old books I was repairing. I began to research the subject in various libraries; The Rosamond B Loring Collection at Harvard Library in Cambridge, Mass. was one where I spent many hours poring over specimens and books. The British Library housing the Olga Hirsch Collection and St Bride’s printing library in Fleet Street were two other favourites. I experimented to see if I could re-create the papers, especially the finely combed patterns. After a lot of practice I started making and selling Turkish marbled papers, mainly to binders but also to publishers and retail brands for copyright designs.
More recently, after another career as a therapist, I returned to marbling but this time I was drawn to the pared-back, elegant patterns achieved with suminagashi; their simplicity often concealing a depth not always obvious on first glance. The nature of creating a piece of suminagashi is the opposite from making a piece of Turkish marbling, the latter being a fairly controlled process whereby the same pattern can be repeated many times. Suminagashi is more aligned with allowing the materials to do what they do with a little shaping on my part if it feels right.
How do you source your materials and decide on your designs?
In the early days, there was a lot of trial and error to find inks that performed – i.e. didn’t sink! – on the water. My experience as a Turkish paper marbler helped me work with the rather mercurial nature of floating a water-based ink on water. I found bottled Japanese calligraphy ink worked well. I also discovered that ink ground from Japanese ink sticks on a suzuri (grinding stone) gave subtle variations too. The paper needs to absorb the ink so western printing paper is suitable but washi – Japanese paper – is the best. The materials for creating suminagashi, unsurprisingly, mostly come from Japan.
The beauty of suminagashi is the degree of control that you don’t have when you create a pattern. The process is led by allowing the ink to reveal a design as it floats on the water so my approach is to work intuitively with the ink and sometimes that might be with some small interventions such as gently fanning the air above the water. Other variations might involve moving the water by stirring it with a stick or blowing across the surface resulting in eddies and ripples that shift the ink into new designs. Sometimes I use a ground, black ink that has a beautiful, brown, warm hue to it alongside another ink which has a blueish tone to give a subtle pattern.
What is your favourite project that you have worked on to date?
A collaboration with Art Light Design Studio on the Isle of Mull. I was staying there last summer and discovered their studio full of beautiful light panels using mokuhanga prints (a type of Japanese wood engraving). They hand build each light panel using oak and LED lighting. The studio came up with a floor lamp design using my suminagashi in a hand-made oak frame which is just stunning. I enjoyed the experience of producing a suminagashi piece to fit a brief and then see the end product materialise! https://www.artlightdesignstudios.com/collection
What’s in the works for you?
I’m beginning to plan some workshops, now that I can, which I’m looking forward to. Previous courses that I’ve taught have been practical and enjoyable. Students are quick to pick up the techniques and try out their own ideas on a small trough, moving on to a larger scale if they want to. I’ve taught other craftspeople, such as jewellers and basket makers, as well as folk who simply enjoy learning a new craft.
As is often the case when people get into ‘the flow’, they experience a mindful activity, focusing on what’s in front of them and finding that this absorption takes them away from their everyday concerns. Years ago, I taught Turkish marbling at summer school and the feedback often reflected the enjoyment that the (adult) students found at leaving their cares at the door to spend a day or three discovering their creative selves. Informed by my 12 years working as a counsellor, I’d like to offer these workshops as an invitation to re-discover a place of stillness within, a treasure house to create from. In the words of Anni Albers, ‘I want to make things for the contemplative mind, for those moments when you sink back into yourself’.
Who or what inspires you?
Nature, art and music. I like to walk in the countryside near my cottage in the Borderlands here in South Shropshire. Noticing the passing seasons, especially in the trees, which are transformed from their muscular, wintry silhouettes to fully clothed, leafy glory. Autumn is a particular favourite time of the year when the leaves change into myriad colours. We are lucky to have plenty of wildlife here such as buzzards, kestrels, muntjac, hares, foxes and roe deer. The landscape is shaped by previous generations who have left iron age hillforts, standing stones, drovers’ routes and whetstones to intrigue us. In Japan, Suminagashi patterns often reflected nature such as maple leaves floating on a pool, woodgrain or a river flowing through a valley. I guess this relationship between nature and art is one of the compelling qualities I am drawn to in this art.
I love to see exhibitions too; Waqas Khan, Barbara Hepworth, Howard Hodgkin, William Scott and a visit to Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge is always satisfying! The decorated papers of Tirzah Garwood (in the MMU Library) have long been an inspiration to me – she was a unique artist. Composers that I like to listen to, not necessarily when I’m making, include Arvo Part and Eric Whitacre and pretty much anything acoustic on spotify.