From tissue boxes to high-profile exhibits, Lawrence artist’s marbled works have popped up in all sorts of places

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Susan Pogány in her paper marbling studio along with some of the materials she used to create her art on Feb. 22, 2023, at her Lawrence home.

You might have seen Lawrence resident Susan Pogány’s marbled paper art many times without even realizing it — on tissue boxes, book covers, wrapping paper and greeting cards — and now you can see it in a book that chronicles the history of the art form over the last half century.

The book, “Pattern and Flow: A Golden Age of American Decorated Paper, 1960s to 2000s,” is associated with an exhibition running at New York’s Grolier Club in conjunction with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it includes decorated paper works from dozens of artists. And while they might not be as well-known as modern painters or sculptors, Pogány knows firsthand that paper artists’ work is every bit as delicate and complex.

Making the feathery, swirling, hypnotic patterns requires lots of dexterity, precision and patience. It also takes some knowledge of chemistry, and in Pogány’s case, it even required some construction and carpentry skills to build a special studio in her basement.

But when she first became interested in marbled paper in the 1970s, Pogány had no idea she’d one day be tracking down unusual substances and remodeling her home to pursue her obsession. In fact, she had little idea where to even start learning about it at first.

Back in the ’70s, Pogány had moved from Kansas to Portland, Oregon, with her husband so he could pursue his doctorate in organic chemistry, and she worked as a writer and editor. She remembers going to a bookstore in the city’s downtown and falling in love with the “really complicated, feathery repeating patterns” on some of the old books there. And in 1977, she noticed those same kinds of designs on a big sheet on a colleague’s wall.

“And I said, you know, ‘Where did you get that? What is that?'” Pogány said.

She learned that it was a piece by a marbler named Peggy Skycraft, one of the best-known practitioners of the art in the country and “one of the earliest to be reviving the ancient technique,” she said. The renowned artist happened to be teaching a class in Portland, and Pogány wanted to give it a try. She went to one of the workshops, “and that’s where I fell in love with it.”

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

One of many marbled paper works that Susan Pogány keeps in her Lawrence home.

Creating a marbled paper, Pogány said, starts with mixing paints with special chemicals and making a design on a bath of seaweed-infused water, dripping color onto it using long glass rods. Then, the marbler takes a “rake” or “comb,” which actually looks like a yardstick with pins stuck in the side of it, and drags it across the surface of the water to make the patterns.

Once that’s done, the paper — which has been specially treated to make the paint stick — must be painstakingly laid across the water’s surface.

As she was learning the craft, Pogány frequently had to rely on Skycraft for tips. Sometimes she would ask her husband for advice on the chemistry side of things, but she said Skycraft was the most helpful in guiding her to the right proportions and techniques, which she would rely on for the rest of her career.

“I think it took me more than a year to make it work,” Pogány said. “It was really hard because you have to get everything in the correct proportions, and anything can throw off the process.”

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Susan Pogány retired from paper marbling in 1998 but still has some supplies in her studio including these tubes of orange gouache paint.

• • •

When Pogány and her husband moved back to Kansas in 1978, Pogány knew she wanted to continue marbling. But she faced new hurdles now that she didn’t have an instructor or a special class.

For starters, in Skycraft’s classes, the students were provided with the paints and other materials they needed. But now, Pogány had to track them down herself. In addition to opaque watercolor paints, called gouache paints, she needed red seaweed and various chemical compounds such as alum and glutaraldehyde.

One of the most important substances, she said, is ox gall, a substance that’s obtained from the gallbladders of steers. It’s essential for making the paint spread out in the proper way to create the designs.

“Fortunately, even back then, I didn’t have to go to the stockyards to beg for that stuff,” Pogány said.

She also knew she needed more space if she wanted to seriously pursue her art. And that meant building her own studio setup in the basement of their home on Louisiana Street.

“I took a sheet rock class and sheet-rocked off an area of the basement, and I had a plumber run water,” she said. She also had to learn how to build a large, watertight wooden trough to catch spilled water. The metal tubs where she created the actual designs came from a local metal shop.

photo by: Contributed

Susan Pogány in her first studio in Kansas in 1990.

Once she had all the pieces in place, the work was addictive, Pogány said, and she soon was able to monetize it. As she found out, there was quite a market for marbled designs that companies could put on their products.

Throughout the ’80s, she was selling her designs — sometimes to publishers, where they were featured on the covers and flaps of books, just like the ones she fell in love with at that bookstore in Portland. Other designs appeared on greeting cards and wrapping paper.

photo by: Contributed

Susan Pogány’s copy of “Rabbit at Rest” by John Updike with her paper marbling design printed on the cover.

But there were also pitfalls that came from working in a seemingly anonymous medium like paper decoration. She said she sold some of her designs to a large, well-known company for much less than she thought they were worth, because the company threatened to find her work and use it without licensing it if she wouldn’t accept their offer.

She’d heard of other marblers being taken advantage of by companies, too — including the artist who created the marbled design for the Kleenex tissue box.

“When I think of the Kleenex box, that is definitely the design you know,” she said. “That was made by another marbler and she got $250, I think. They still use that box. So, she really got a bad deal.”

Pogány would eventually design tissue box patterns of her own for Puffs, Scotties, and Soft ‘n’ Gentle, and she said “I didn’t want to get a bad deal.” Before a meeting about the Puffs box with Procter and Gamble, she asked for some advice from another marbler she knew in New York — and “she told me this crazy amount of money.”

So, when Pogány went to Cincinnati for her meeting, she asked for that amount, “and they said ‘yeah.'”

“I mean, to me it was a crazy amount of money,” Pogány said.

• • •

Pogány’s marbling career spanned two decades, as well as two home studios. In 1994, when she moved to a home on the west side of Lawrence where she still lives, she found that much of her studio was too tightly integrated into her old home or simply too big to move, so she had to build a new one.

“The sink is still there (in the old house), and I’m sure the tray is there,” she said. “… Maybe even –” and then she paused and chuckled, “no, I think I took the colors to hazardous waste.”

She only marbled for a few more years after the move, retiring from it in 1998. But she’s far from finished with creating art — and her old pieces still play a role. Today, she scans her marbled works onto her computer and creates fractal art with them in Photoshop, morphing her old designs into new creations.

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Susan Pogany opens one of her fractal artworks in Photoshop on Feb. 22, 2023, at her Lawrence home.

“I’m very addicted, just like I was to marbling,” she said. “… I come down every day and work. I just can’t get enough of it. I don’t know, I must have an addictive personality.

“But you know, when you have the normal stresses of life, it’s really good to be able to get away and come down and do something like this and have your head go to a completely different place,” she said. “And I just love it.”

Her art has often physically taken her to different places, as well. Over the years, Pogány has had her work featured in exhibits across the U.S., and as recently as 2016 she traveled to Istanbul to exhibit three of her works at the International Ebru Congress — “ebru” is a Turkish word for paper marbling. And in April, Pogány plans to attend a special event for the exhibit at the Grolier Club, where she hopes to meet with other paper artists featured in the show.

But no matter where her passion takes her, Pogány said she’s tried to stay grounded and focus on what’s really important to her.

“I can’t give you a big, you know, an artist’s statement with all this,” she said. “Artist statements always seem to be these slightly overblown comments about what you were intending. I’m just intending to make something beautiful. Yeah, that’s the most I can say.”

photo by: Contributed

Digital art created by Susan Pogany

photo by: Contributed

Digital art created by Susan Pogány


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