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Perspectives In Circulation

A Dream Realized

The Paper Legacy Collection of American Decorated Paper, 1960s to 2000s

Nov 22, 2023

Papers on display in the exhibit

The idea of the Paper Legacy collection was born in 2017, as I reflected upon the enormous growth of book arts during my professional lifetime. Thinking through the contributions of artists involved in the various book and paper arts, I decided to create a collection for Watson Library that documented the artwork and careers of decorated paper artists. My reasons were based on many things, including the beauty of the work, its broad presence in American culture since the 1970s, a lack of documentation about contemporary American decorated paper, and the fact that most of the artists were still available to interview. Initially, my goal was to build a study collection of paper augmented by biographical and professional information; however, when the collections arrived and Chief Librarian Ken Soehner and I saw the majesty of the work and considered its aesthetic and cultural significance, we agreed that the Watson Library would embark on an exhibition, book, and symposium.

Papers on display in the exhibit

Display in the exhibit, "Pattern and Flow: A Golden Age of American Decorated Paper, 1960s to 2000s". Photo courtesy of the Grolier Club

The fifty-three pioneering artists of the Paper Legacy Collection revived the centuries-old practice of decorating paper, using techniques such as marbling, painting with paste, fold-and-dye, and stenciling. Their experimental approaches, the new tools and materials they employed, and the collaborative spirit they shared brought decorated paper to new heights of artistry and commercial success over the ensuing decades. The collection features works from prominent American professional decorated paper artists working from the 1960s to 2000s. These artists were selected for their commercial success, both in the US and abroad, and their contributions to the field through education, research, publication, and technical development.

The Paper Legacy collection consists of over 1,500 decorated papers, as well as artists’ biographies, business archives, tools, objects made with the papers, and publications. All the papers and selected related materials have been digitized, including the important marbling journal Ink & Gall, which the library has made public—with the permission of its publisher—on our Digital Collections database. The Paper Legacy Collection and its related resources can be accessed both online and in person through Watson’s online catalog, Watsonline, and through the Paper Legacy Resource Guide.

The Grolier Club was our choice for the exhibition and symposium, as it has a large, beautiful exhibition hall and a deep commitment to book arts. The Pattern and Flow exhibition opened to Grolier Club members and Watson Library guests on the evening of January 17, 2023. We had a full house with many of the artists and their families, library staff, Library Friends, and Grolier members present. The exhibition was open to the public from January 18 through April 8, 2023. During the exhibition, I presented in-person and virtual tours, which can be viewed here.

Wide angle of the entire exhibit

Interior of the exhibit, "Pattern and Flow: A Golden Age of American Decorated Paper, 1960s to 2000s". Photo courtesy of the Grolier Club

On Friday, March 24, Watson Library and the Grolier Club co-sponsored a full-day symposium, which was live streamed through the Club’s Facebook page and is available through the Paper Legacy Collection Resource Guide. The program consisted of four topical panels, including techniques and materials in decorated paper; the expansion of decorated paper through programs, outreach, education and publications; earning a living in decorated paper; and distributing and marketing decorated paper. The panel moderators were John Bidwell, curator Emeritus, The Morgan Library and Museum; and Met staff, Yana van Dyke, Conservator, Paper Conservation Department, and Holly Phillips, Collections Manager, Watson Library. Speakers included Paper Legacy artists Sage Reynolds, Garrett Dixon, Regina St. John, Peggy Skycraft, Jack Townes, Caleb Clark (for John Coventry), Diane Maurer, Mimi Schleicher, Amanda Degener, and Claire Maziarczyk; David Aldera, former manager of the paper department of New York Central Supply; Marge Salik, owner of TALAS, a retail bookbinding supply store; and Sidney Berger, collector and historian. Following the symposium, on Saturday, March 25, Watson Library co-sponsored a half-day paper event at the Center for Book Arts which featured a sale of papers made by Paper Legacy artists and a conversation between Regina St. John, Sheryl Oppenheim, and myself.

Book cover

Cover of Pattern and Flow: A Golden Age of American Decorated Paper, 1960s to 2000s. Photo © Thomas J. Watson Library

The corresponding book, Pattern and Flow: A Golden Age of American Decorated Paper, 1960s to 2000s, is the first book Watson Library has published. It was made possible with the support of Mark Tomasko and the Friends of the Thomas J. Watson Library. Very early on in the process, we were fortunate to have the support of Dr. Sidney Berger, who wrote the introduction, “American Decorated Paper from the Colonial Era to the 1950s.”

Paint splattered clogs

Ingrid Butler's marbling apron, clogs, and tools in the Paper Legacy Collection. Photo by author

As writing the history of American decorated paper was not my original intention in making the Paper Legacy Collection, it presented a new challenge. After reading the limited publications that documented the field, I decided to interview the artists directly about their perspectives and experiences. With the generosity of The Met’s travel grant program, I was able to go to Santa Fe, New Mexico to meet the organizers of the First International Marblers’ Gathering, which took place in 1989, and to Estacada, Oregon, to meet with Paper Legacy artists Peggy Skycraft and Jack Townes. These trips, as well as additional interviews, helped me to develop the text. Work was well underway before March 2020, when the COVID pandemic required Museum staff to work from home for two years. Like many others, I was having difficulty focusing during this time, until I was able to obtain the services of an editor, Livia Tenzer, and a designer, Adam McIsaac, who were indispensable in bringing the project to fruition.

Marbled paper sample

Peggy Skycraft and Jack Townes, Marbled paper, Bouquet pattern (1990). Acrylic and pigment on paper, 20 x 26 in. (50.8 x 66 cm.). Watson Library gift of Peggy Skycraft and Jack Townes. Photo © Thomas J. Watson Library

Thanks go to the many people at The Met who helped make the Paper Legacy dream a reality, including the entire staff of the Watson Library, Meryl Cates (Met Communications), and Leanne Graeff (Retail), who created a lovely line of Paper Legacy products for us all to enjoy. 

About the contributors

Museum Librarian for Preservation, Sherman Fairchild Center for Book Conservation, Thomas J. Watson Library