spilling ink with Kelly Laughlin
The Baltimore-based artist, movement practitioner, and creator of our marbled holiday motif on enjoying the uncertainty of life through her creative practice.
In front of her marbling tray, artist, writer, movement practitioner, educator, and creative guide Kelly Laughlin, is a convergence of a contemplative and, at times, uncertain human experience. Watching her place ink delicately into the water with such aptitude that anyone observing would be convinced that she painstakingly planned each movement. The water's surface gently ripples with shapes that look like the annual rings from a tree and then change, from gentle manipulation, to resemble the topographical map of a fantasy world. Laughlin would say it's often unintentional. She approaches Suminagashi (floating ink) like a devotional act. And much like those drawn to acts of devotion, their process compels them to teach others to have their own unique experience.
How did you find the practice of Sumingashi?
On a whim, about ten years ago, I got a marbling kit and started learning everything I could about Suminagashi, the Japanese process of paper marbling. It translates to "floating ink" or "spilled ink" and rather than being about creating something perfect, the practice centers on the fluid nature of life.
Around the same time, I started practicing yoga, hiking more, learning to slow down, and immersing myself in nature.
The prints often look like parts of the natural world and the patterns remind me to get outside when I'm in my studio
Do you find that Suminagashi connects you personally with nature?
Totally. I take it with me outside and love to practice while immersed in the colors, textures, and senses enlivened in the landscape. The prints often look like parts of the natural world and the patterns remind me to get outside when I'm in my studio.
Do you have an idea in your head of how you will approach each piece of paper that you marble? Your technique looks so thoughtful and deliberate.
Thank you! Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. I am more deliberate when creating covers for the Odette Press journals (black ink, not so much movement across the bath, and a good amount of negative space). When I'm making just for myself or the experience of the process, I like to let the water bath speak to me. It usually shifts even when I have a specific vision in mind. I like that about the process; it's often a collaboration between being deliberate and a complete surprise.
Breathing appeared to be an integral part of the process.
Yes! It's one of the tools used to make the designs. Shinto monks would use Suminagashi as a tool for spiritual connection between their experience and nature through water and breath/air. Like meditation, we can use the breath to connect while placing the ink (inhaling when placing the ink and exhaling when placing the resist or soapy water). Breath is also used to move the ink across the surface, shifting and changing the designs.
What from your process do you integrate into your day-to-day life?
Suminagashi teaches me that there's a balance between what I can control and what I can't. I can choose the ink colors, for example, and the style of paper, but beyond that, I've got to surrender to the process. It teaches me how to slow down and enjoy what's in front of me, whether that's out in the world or while looking at the ink on the water's surface.
Letting go of how unpredictable all of this truly is.
It teaches me that life is filled with unpredictability. It's affirmed for me the beauty of simplicity, and that art-making can be about the joy of the process, not always about the outcome.
Do you hope that people learning Suminagashi learn a similar lesson?
Yes! I love noticing the unique relationships people form with Suminagashi. For some people, it helps them relax and connect to a sense of playfulness; others find that it helps them counterbalance internalized stories of not being creative, or good enough to make things. Others find a sense of calmness and peace.
Is there something else you hope individuals new to the practice get from starting their own process?
I hope folks experience it as a pathway to creativity, nature, finding flow, and empowering themselves to see that creative practice (or artmaking specifically) can be an enjoyable process that has space enough for them within it, too.
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