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Conversations with Marie Kelzer

Today we’d like to introduce you to Marie Kelzer.

Hi Marie, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
Organization. Attention to detail. Exposure. Doing what’s next. Documentation. Practice. Following the advice of Malcolm Gladwell who wrote in Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in any field. Since I started doing my art of making paste papers and creating products from them in 1988, I have put in way more than 10,000 hours. But the point for me is if I don’t put in the time nothing will be created. “Just Do It” as Nike’s slogan says. I have a very strong work ethic which gives me great satisfaction but like everyone else I take the opportunity to procrastinate.

I learned how to make decorative paste papers while studying bookbinding in the San Francisco Bay Area as this is one of the first things you learn. It involves mixing paste with acrylic paints, painting onto paper and running tools such as combs, rollers and brushes through a paint mixture to make a design. Like finger painting. I never thought I was creative nor an artist.

I did not just make the papers: I documented how I created each design, and I hand-bound and self-published books of the patterns. To date, I have published nine volumes of my “Paste Paper Patterns”. Each volume in a limited signed edition of 18 books contains 50 original papers with recipes and tools used to create each pattern. I also used every opportunity to enter book exhibitions and submit articles for publications in trade magazines. I was featured in the San Francisco Chronicle Examiner several times along with many book arts and craft books and publications.

I learned many hand and organizational skills from my day job for over 20 years in the Bindery and the Library Preservation Dept. at UC Berkeley and San Francisco Public Library. During this time, I created my business “Paper Arts” and in 2005 added “Marie Kelzer Designs” for highlighting and licensing my designs.

But I had to start somewhere before that. From my artist statement:

“Our past creates our future. Growing up on a family dairy farm in Minnesota gave me many introspective days for thinking and observing. Studying bookbinding and working in commercial binderies gave me the skills and diligence to create an end product. Painting onto paper allows creative endeavors to spring forth. These practices allow me to create artworks. I practice the art of painting paste papers which I discovered as a bookbinder. I like to experiment with paper, canvas and collage. I am intrigued by color and tones as patterns in architecture and nature.”

While I earned a BA in Social Work in MN what I really enjoyed at the time was working with my hands at the Tonka Toy and Soft Soap factories during my summer breaks. In 1982, I was introduced to bookbinding at a small family run bindery in the San Francisco Bay area and in 1988, I studied under a French style bookbinder. In the end, you have to do what you love and love what you do. As Confucius said “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
It is difficult working a day job and managing your artwork career even if your day job involves working with your hands in a field of repairing and preserving books and paper. During evenings and weekends, I made blank journals by purchasing paper, cutting and folding paper into signatures, then sewing/binding each with a paste paper cover that I designed/created. I traveled up and down the California coast selling them to art and gift shops. Soon I was doing art fairs. It was important for me to be involved in the bookbinding trade organizations early on for the support they offered and opportunities to sell at Printers Fairs and enter my artbook creations in exhibitions.

I was always looking for new products to produce. This takes a leap of faith to plan out and gather materials and put out into the marketplace where they may not even sell. The internet and websites like Etsy and Zazzle plus social media made this easier for me; but created more time-consuming administration work. In addition to producing journals and products on paper, I painted onto canvas and had success with selling floorcloths and placemats.

Since I am an introvert and probably a bit controlling, I had decided I would do this on my own. This has limited how big I could grow my business. But it was my choice. When I started to license my designs, I realized I probably would need professional help. Despite doing it on my own, I was able to license 21 designs with 5-6 color-ways each to a fabric manufacturer. I have also completed numerous commissioned work.

Moving to Los Angeles in 2012 gave me more venues and opportunities. It is a challenge moving to a new location but in the end, it opened my horizons to different and more creative endeavors, including being involved with the two Ten Women galleries located in Santa Monica.

Of course all of this would not be possible without Joan, my soulmate and love of my life for 41 years, and counting.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I specialize in decorative “paste papers”. From these hand-painted papers, I cover blank books and design, print, sew and bind books with text. With my paper designs, I create a wide array of products all handmade one at a time from all styles of books, covered pencils/boxes, paper flowers, paper hanging balls, ornaments, cards, calendars since 2005 and paper mache bowls. My paste paper designs have been replicated on fabric which are on face masks, bags and clothing. People use paste papers for book covers, collages and scrapbooks. My art books are featured in private, university and museum collections.

I am most proud of:

1. 60 of my paste papers plus tools and self-published books are housed at the Thomas J. Watson Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC as part of the Paper Legacy Project which began in 2018. This was a great opportunity as “paste papers” and Book Arts really didn’t take off until the 1960’s as part of the back to earth movement. 45 decorative paper makers are included to date. Without Mindy Dubansky at the MET starting this collection, it would be lost.

2. Being part of 2 separately operated women galleries in Santa Monica (“Ten Women Gallery” on Main St. and “Ten Women II” on Montana Ave.). Selling my art, surrounded by all art I am inspired and in awe of the very talented artists from different mediums and career levels who are dedicated to their art. I am proud of the galleries operating as cooperatives of women especially in this Covid-19 era. A co-op is a sustaining business model. All the members make it happen. And it makes a huge impact on me to be involved in all women organizations especially since I grew up on a dairy farm in the 1960s with one brother and five sisters where typical stereotypes prevailed. The girls were allowed to work in the kitchen, garden and when needed bale hay, nothing else. Whereas my brother runs the farm to this day. The inequality stays with me.

3. Documenting 450 uniquely designed/created papers and self-publishing them in 9 volumes.

4. Learning how to make paper mache bowls with my cut up papers. This involves lots of patience and time. I love how the patterns mix with each other to create a very unique and distinctive work of art.

Before we go, is there anything else you can share with us?
I cannot emphasize enough to do what you love and love what you do. You will find it by just doing it.

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Image Credits:

Marie Kelzer

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