Princeton-based artist Marie Sturken — whose solo exhibition, “Joy of Ink and Fiber,” is currently on view at the Rider University Art Gallery — becomes a central part of the art when she and gallery director Harry Naar engage in a public discussion about the nonagenarian’s career and inspiration on Thursday, March 26, at 7 p.m.
Naar — a highly regarded artist and art professor at Rider — is also known for curating significant solo exhibitions of prominent regionally and nationally known artists, including the recently deceased Michael Graves. Naar has also produced an important series of catalogs that are records of both the artists’ inner and outer journeys.
Recently Naar conducted an interview with Sturken for the current exhibition’s catalog. Her remarks — edited and arranged here — provide the occasion for Sturken to speak directly to the reader about her life and work. Her words also serve as a start of conversation that continues when the artist, curator, and the audience come together to talk about the process of creating art.
Looking back to the beginning of my lifelong journey in art, I had no idea that my life would be full of exciting work, travels, fascinating people, and that at 93 years I am still in the midst of it all, and enjoying it fully.
I come from an Irish Catholic family with a strong work ethic. My father loved art, and in his youth he studied anatomy with the famous George Bridgeman at the Art Students League in New York City.
However, his family emigrated from Ireland in the mid-19th century and it was important that he learn a trade. He learned to be a printer, and when I was growing up, he worked on a large commercial lithography press at Conde Nast in Greenwich, Connecticut, printing Vogue, Glamour, and other magazines. But that was only his day job. He did freelance commercial art at night, and was also well known in our town of Stamford, for his sketches of the events of the week, which appeared in the local paper on Saturday.
My father was delighted with my early drawings, as I was the only one of his five children who was interested in art, and he encouraged me in my efforts. He wanted me to study art, but only in order to support myself, which meant studying commercial art. I spent the first three years after high school commuting to New York by train and changed art schools twice before finding the right one.
I had dreams of becoming a dress designer, but at design school I quickly discovered all the tedious work involved in making the patterns, and transferred to a school that emphasized illustration.
I spent a year at the New York School of Design, where I had courses in both pattern making and drawing. I once took a semester off in order to work for a large photoengraving plant in Stamford. I was one of a group of young artists who learned to do the color separations for comic strips.
When I went back to New York, I transferred to Grand Central School of Art (on the top floor of the terminal).There, I finally found the courses in illustration that excited me. I had the good fortune to study with Mario Cooper, a well-known illustrator for magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s.
McCall Pattern Company was in a skyscraper above Grand Central Station. I worked for the head designer, who would send me, with my sketchbook, to draw the elegant clothes in the nearby shops. I also drew the completed design on the covers of the patterns, using a model, who actually wore the one dress made for each pattern.
I went to work for Abraham & Strauss in Brooklyn in 1943, and was finally able to leave home for the first time. The art department there was an exciting place, with mostly young people like me. For the first time, my drawings were published in the New York newspapers. Fortunately, there were not many photos used for fashion at that time, and I liked drawing the clothes on a live model. Another benefit was social — I worked with a group of young people who liked to go to galleries in the city.
When I married my wonderful Bob Sturken, an engineer with the DuPont Company, it meant leaving exciting Brooklyn for life in Wilmington, Delaware, a company town. Fortunately, I found my way to Philadelphia and my dream job as head fashion illustrator for the John Wanamaker department store, an exciting place to work. I had wonderful colleagues, loved drawing the high priced clothes, and commuted from Wilmington for the next two years.
When Bob decided to leave DuPont to become a partner in a new engineering firm, started by two friends from Stevens Institute of Technology and their father, it was a fortunate decision that necessitated a move to New Brunswick.
I continued my commercial work, freelancing and commuting to New York. Within the next few years, the company prospered with its design for coating paper for packaging, needed after the war.
We moved to an old farmhouse north of Somerville, when our first, Barbara, was born, followed by Carl and Marita, and we lived there for 10 years. Bob was constantly traveling to Europe and Asia, and I went along whenever I could. We also frequently hosted foreign visitors.
I enjoyed it all, but missed my artist friends. I found some local artists to paint with, but even though I joined a weekly painting class this was not enough. I continued to paint in spite of not having a real studio in our charming farmhouse. When my first child was ready for school, we decided to move to Princeton.
It wasn’t until we moved to Princeton in 1962, that I found the community of artists I was searching for. This happened when Judy Brodsky started teaching printmaking in the former bank building on Nassau Street, a few years after I arrived. None of us knew much about printmaking, but dynamo Judy is a brilliant teacher, so we were soon producing etchings, collagraphs, and lithographs, and exhibiting our work.
A few years later, a group of artists collaborated on three portfolios: “Princeton 1776-1976” 1975); “The Ten Crucial Days” (1976); and “WOMAN” (1979.) The 1970s and 1980s were tumultuous times, years of great upheaval, with the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the struggle for women’s rights. My etchings in those years were very political. One of my works was titled “Summer of 1968,” which depicts a news image of a black man being clubbed by the Atlanta police.
Naturally, we were feminists, but hardly radical, as our husbands were mostly supportive of our ambitions and proud of our success, especially when the “WOMAN” portfolio opened at the New Jersey State Museum.
I had taught classes in printmaking for the Princeton Art Association at Spring Street and Ettl Farm before Bob financed my transition from a Meeker-McFee etching press to a fabulous, large Takach-Garfield lithography press in the late 1970s. I loved that press, made a series of large lithographs, the “Work Clothes Series,” on it, and taught classes for the Princeton Art Association in lithography for 20 years.
I like to work in a series, using a finished work as inspiration. Also, as a member of the Princeton Artists Alliance (PAA) for 25 years, I often have a theme to work toward and doing the research can start the creative process.
When I sense that I have gone far enough with a certain theme, I look around for the next inspiration, and an unusual way to use it.
Over the years I have moved from drawing and painting to etching, lithography, monotypes, and handmade paper — I was attracted initially by the pure, natural materials, and the tremendous versatility of the pulp, which can be poured or sprayed, translucent or heavy.
Princeton has been a place where such communities of creativity have thrived, but, actually there are many groups of artists who have joined together over the years, for support and to exhibit together. They are generally larger than PAA, such as Trenton Artists Workshop Association (TAWA) and the now defunct Princeton Art Association.
I would like the viewers and especially the students, to see that there are many ways to make art. I would encourage them to be adventurous, to explore new ways and new concepts, and to know that even commercial art can be a useful tool. In my own lifelong journey, trying new ways and being excited about them has kept my life fresh and interesting for all these many years. For artists, especially, I would say “never stop working.”
Marie Sturken: Joy of Ink and Fiber, Rider University, Bart Luedeke Center, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville. To Sunday, April 12, Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday noon to 4 p.m. Free. Marie Sturken in Discussion with Harry Naar, Thursday, March 26, 7 p.m. Free. 609-895-5588 or www.rider.edu/artgallery.
For more information on Marie Sturken, visit mariesturken.com.