Ebru lessons

Actually, we had not planned to attend because the museum and their numerous interactive activities are geared towards children from preschool through about 12 years of age. As a high school student, my son felt that he was too old to be trying his hand at experiments and exploring the exhibits at the museum. However, the ebru artist who was scheduled to give a demonstration of the traditional Turkish art of ebru was unable to meet his commitment at the last minute. The Turkish cultural foundation knew that my son had an interest in ebru and that he had taken a class to learn the basics when we lived in İstanbul, so they asked if he would be willing to step in and act as the substitute artist. He, of course, was both excited and nervous. He had never done art in front of an audience before and had not practiced ebru for almost six months. He was very worried that he would make mistakes or forget some of the techniques he had learned. However, we all assured him that he would definitely know more about this art form than the children attending the event at the museum.

Ebru, also known as paper marbling, is thought to have originated in China, with the first mention of it in a document dating back to the Tang dynasty. No one knows for sure when this art form traveled along the Silk Road, eventually arriving in Anatolia. However, there are examples in Turkish museums and private collections that date back to the 15th century. By the mid-16th century, “Turkish paper” was a valuable commodity for European bookmakers and collectors. In the Ottoman Empire, ebru was widely used to decorate calligraphy, books and book bindings. Throughout the Ottoman reign, exceptional examples by masters of the art were collected, framed and displayed in homes. Traditionally, ebru is not signed, so there is often no way to uncover the names behind some of the collected pieces.

In a nutshell, ebru is an art form that can take years to master. It requires a steady hand, patience and imagination. The process itself is fairly straightforward, with designs made on top of a viscous solution known as “size.” The traditional dyes are made from natural substances such as metal oxides and vegetable dyes. In addition to the small rakes with different sized teeth used to create patterns, different sized brushes are used that are made from coarse horse hair bound around a rose stem, which is thought to prevent mold. Once the design is completed on the water, a single piece of paper is carefully laid on top of the design and the paper is removed from the container, with the design transferred to the paper. Since the design on the water disappears as soon as it transfers to the paper, the process ensures that no two pieces will even be exactly the same, so each work of art is unique. Although traditional flower designs and the well-known wavy patterns are popular, there is no limit to the designs one can create.

Demonstration from a novice

Although my son had taken a course in ebru, he is by no means a master of the craft. However, as the museum and Turkish foundation pointed out, he was more knowledgeable about this particular art form than his audience would be. As he began the demonstration, he was nervous at first as a crowd of children and parents gathered around the table to watch him as he carefully sprinkled paints on the water and used small hand tools to create designs. While he worked, he explained what he was doing and what the numerous small tools were used for. He also gave a short history of ebru while he slowly and carefully worked. As he removed the first piece of paper from the water, he began to relax as he heard the “oohs” and “aahs” of those gathered around him. Soon he was helping small children make their own creations, guiding their hands to help them hold the tools and offering suggestions on designs and colors. It was interesting to watch the transformation from a slightly awkward 14-year old boy who was nervous in front of a crowd to a confident young man who calmly answered questions while focused on his craft.

While the nearby DJ played music from around the world, families and museum staff took time to learn about Turkey and experience one of the traditional arts that is still very much alive in the country. Our table was one of many from around the world offering a sample of traditional arts and even dance lessons. Participants had a chance to learn about Hanukkah with an interactive art activity using dreidels. They tried their hand at tying Celtic knots and making St Brigid’s crosses. The Diwali celebration demonstration offered them a chance to learn new dance steps and play Indian musical instruments. The traditions of Kwanzaa were explored and wreaths were made. Papel Picado, the traditional paper craft from Mexico, offered them a chance to create their own unique paper cutouts. Polish Christmas traditions were presented and children made their own puppets and ornaments. The Argentina table offered new games and other items for children to explore. Every available corner of the museum had tables set up for demonstrations and exhibits from around the world.

Sadly, my son’s demonstration was over too soon for his liking. After the allotted two hours, he still wanted to continue, but because so many activities had been packed into the day, the museum staff was on a strict schedule. My son sighed as we packed up all of the ebru equipment, loaded it all into the car and began to head home. On our drive, he admitted that he had been a little worried about how a Turkish art demonstration might be received by those attending the festival at the museum. With all the negative news concerning Muslims lately and the rising Islamophobia in many countries, he had been anxious about someone making nasty comments about Turks or Muslims. He was relieved to discover that the majority of people, even here in South Texas, are open to and welcoming of other cultures and traditions. It was a good lesson for him to learn and it was an excellent opportunity for him to face his fears. Hopefully, some of the people attending the festival at the museum also learned about different countries and religions and put aside some of their prejudices. Like music, art knows no borders, opens minds and brings people together.