A Q&A with artist Debbie Shannon

Mar 25, 2016 at 4:54 pm
A Q&A with artist Debbie Shannon

[The above image is “Absinthe Agate” by Debbie Shannon.]

“How do you make that?” is a phrase Debbie Shannon ([email protected]) hears regularly. As an artist who creates marbled paper, she is drawn to the mystery, history and wonder of it as much as anyone else.

LEO: What type of artist are you?

Debbie Shannon: I’m an artist who loves to putter, take my time and experiment. I collect decorative paper — mine and others — and have more than I could use in a lifetime, but [I] still want to make more. While I do sell my work — it’s not how I pay the bills. That allows me to make what pleases me, without the pressure of making work that other people will like or worrying about price points. I think that if you’re lucky in life, you can look back and see that the journey to becoming you has made a lot of sense. As a young child, I was convinced that I should be a writer and an artist. While those are both still dreams, one more a reality than the other, I didn’t choose either of those as professions. I chose to be an educator, and that has turned out to be a good choice. While I couldn’t articulate it as a child, I was always fascinated by what and how people learn. Most of my career in education has involved getting access to the performing and visual arts for people of all ages. It was an aha moment for me when I realized that I couldn’t keep telling people how valuable the arts could be in their lives if I never made time to nurture my inner artist. The quest for how to provide arts opportunities for others (without stifling my own artistic self) began in earnest when I was in my late 30s.

Debbie Shannon
Debbie Shannon

LEO: How did you get into marbling and the book arts?

DS: I attended a two-day workshop at Larkspur Press in 1994. Gray Zeitz and Carolyn Whitesel taught bookbinding and as part of that workshop we made marbled and paste paper. The marbling was done in a dishpan out in the yard. It was very basic. It felt like magic! I still have the first book that I made there. A friend and I tried unsuccessfully to marble at home, and we gave up on marbling. However, I started making books and taking short workshops when I could. For a while I participated in book swaps with artists around the country. In a swap, a person makes a certain number of books (generally five) based on a theme, and mails them to a central person, who then sorts them and sends each person five books, all from different artists. I got a wonderful collection of books that I subsequently used as samples in workshops. In 1998, I took a 5-day marbling workshop at Arrowmont [School of Arts and Crafts] from Mimi Schleicher. She and her mother were prominent marblers who had written books on the subject. Mimi worked full-time marbling paper. She is a wonderful artist and a great teacher. At the time, I assumed that was a wonderful adventure that wouldn’t be repeated. Four years later, I returned to Arrowmont to study with her again. At that point, I decided that I needed to find a way to marble back home. For years, I rented studio space at the Mary Anderson Center at Mt. Saint Francis in Southern Indiana. The annual marbling trips started out in four or five-day time periods, then a week and then (for a few years) a month. During those sessions, my goal was to learn the craft and create one-of-a-kind works. For every hundred sheets marbled, I felt about ten were worthy to frame and enter into shows. I’ve been lucky to be included into many juried shows and to have a few solo shows of my work, as well. It’s much easier to make books at the kitchen table, and that’s what I did in between marbling retreats. These were one-of-a-kind art books, blank books and miniature books for Artomat. The Artomat is a wonderful project that sells original works of art out of vending machines. Since 2004 I have made 650 miniature books for that national and now international project (artomat.org). For many years, The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts had an Artomat machine. More recently, the Speed Art Museum housed an Artomat machine at [Local] Speed. Last summer I began renting a studio space full-time close to home. Having a studio space has allowed me to come full circle and do editions of marbled paper for Gray Zeitz at Larkspur Press. The papers are used as covers on special edition books. It is an honor to be included in these rare books that are hand-printed (type is handset one letter at a time) and hand-bound.

LEO: Explain your artistic process.

DS: Marbling is an ancient art form that involves placing pigment (paint) on a size (essentially thick water). For some pieces, the pigment is splattered on the surface with a whisk (similar to a tiny broom). In others, the pigment is applied with an eyedropper.  The color is then manipulated in a variety of ways. In traditional marbling, very specific and intricate patterns can be achieved by then combing the surface. Paper is laid on top of the pigment and the design is pulled off of the water, making a one-of-a-kind image. The process of marbling is mystical. While much can be predicted, much is still a wonderful surprise as the paper is lifted off the water. When making a book I generally determine the purpose and then the structure. For example, a wedding register has to meet the needs of the couple. Some want it to open flat, most want to incorporate their wedding colors, etc. A book to enter in a juried show might start with a message that I want to convey or a story I want to tell. Then there are decisions to be made about the structure, size, kinds of papers and embellishments.  After that there is plenty of measuring and cutting and assembling. It’s interesting to me that my two art forms are really at far ends of the control spectrum. So much of marbling is chance. I can choose the pigments and, to a certain extent, manipulate the colors. But when it comes right down to it, it’s always a surprise when the print is lifted off the water. Books on the other hand are very precise. I choose the size, the color, the subject matter and content. And yet, I like them both. Marbling is much more abstract; books generally more direct. Yin and yang, a search for balance. That’s a metaphor for my life.

Floating Feathers by Debbie Shannon - Copyright,
Floating Feathers by Debbie Shannon

LEO: You also wear another hat as the arts magnet coordinator at the Lincoln Performing Arts School. Please tell us about that.

DS: Most of my professional career has involved advocating for arts education.  Unfortunately, it’s often a struggle to convince people that all children should have the opportunities that our students have at Lincoln Performing Arts School (LPAS). While I can’t take credit for LPAS, it almost feels like I willed it into existence so that I could work there! My job isn’t convincing people that the arts are important. That’s not an issue. We just need to find the right resources, and put them together in the best way to benefit our students. LPAS is a Jefferson County Public School arts magnet school that has about 570 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Our students participate in the arts every day. They get nearly an hour of dance, drama, vocal or instrumental music taught by professionals in those fields. We have a fabulous arts wing with a theater, dance studios, a piano lab, drama and music classrooms. The Louisville arts community is incredibly supportive. Our students get opportunities to go to professional performances and have world-class artists visit us at school. We even have live music monthly in the cafeteria with local, professional musicians in a variety of genres. [The principal] Susan French-Epps and [assistant principal] Mike Ice are passionate about the arts and have created a nurturing environment. People work at LPAS and send their children there because they believe in the value of the arts. And the kids are great!

LEO: What is something people do not know, and would be surprised to learn about you?

DS: One of my early jobs was as an educator at the Louisville Zoo. While at that job, I once spent all night in a barn with my future husband, Steve Crews, waiting for a horse to give birth to a zebra. It was a long and cold night, and the zebra wasn’t born until a few days later.

LEO: Anything else you want to say?

DS: I have many wonderful and talented friends in the arts community. Louisville Area Fiber and Textile Artists (LAFTA) is a group that welcomed me over ten years ago. It has provided inspiration, several opportunities to teach and to show my work, and some very dear friends. I am very fortunate to have found them.  Everyone should have such a wonderful support group.