Updated: Jul 21, 2020
With his left thumb held perpendicular to the rest of his fingers, Mustafa Yasar made a sturdy base against which to beat the rosewood staff of his paintbrush. The force sent globules of bright dye from the brush’s horsehair head into a rectangular pool, which was about the size of a large birthday cake pan.
After dropping more layers of multicolored paint, which pooled out into translucent coins upon impact, Yasar plucked a long, needle-like implement from a collection of tools and poked the water, dragging to manipulate circles into hearts, spheres into swirls and lines into lacey patterns. After layering more dye and swirling more designs, the water resembled stained glass. He gingerly plopped a sheet of acid-free paper on the surface.
As the outer corners curled, pulled by the weight of the dye below, Yasar picked up the paper and, lifting while pulling, dragged the sheet off the water, scraping it against the side of the pan.
He turned it over and revealed a sheet of marbled paper gleaming like a resplendent slice of otherworldly granite.
Ebru, or the art of water marbling that was born in modern-day Uzbekistan in the 13th century, is a common sight in Turkey, Yasar said. Marbled paper was often used as book covers. But several Turkish cultural centers around the New York area are bringing the art to a broader audience through biweekly classes, such as a recent one at the branch in Sunnyside.
“It is impossible to make the same one twice,” Yasar told a class of four women on a recent Saturday. “There is no bad and good in this art, everything is perfect.”
Yasar, a Sunnyside resident who has been crafting Ebru for years, first delved into the staggering degree of science behind the seemingly alchemical art. All of the materials used are entirely natural, with paints derived from crushed stones and flowers and powder made from carregeanen, a substance in Irish seaweed, added to the water long before the dye to give it a touch of viscosity. A turpentine float makes the colors cling to the surface.
As Alba Fandino, a Briarwood resident, tried her hand at the art, Yasar dribbled different dyes from one brush onto another, which he then proffered to Fandino before she tapped out the base for what she wanted to be a sea of flowers. Breaching into more advanced techniques, Yasar helped her make bigger circles and connect them with lines to conjure petals and summon stems from the watery world.
“It’s really fun,” said Marissa Ferrara, an Astoria resident, as she later gracefully stabbed at the surface of her work, sending streams of orange into streaks of blue somehow without the hues mixing.
For much of the class, Yasar let students guide themselves as they took turns at the marbling station, which might have left some flummoxed at first. But soon they appeared to disappear into the Zen-like art, which was at the same time a dance with the materials.
“You are not the master,” Yasar said. “The real master is the water.”
The water seemed to swallow and dissipate lighter shades, such as lavender or white. But when students applied the paper, which sopped up the dyes like a time-freezing sponge, they reappeared.
While Jocelyn Jeannot, a Bronx resident, tried warping the pockets of dye with a large “needle,” which looked like a blunt prison shiv, she met the testy resistance of the water, which responded differently than she thought it would.
“The water really is the master,” Jeannot said.
Sunnyside’s Turkish Cultural Center offers two kinds of classes, basic and professional. Yasar said students consistently return to learn as many as 30 different techniques.
While the evening’s class was made up of all female students, only men practiced Ebru until the 20th century. Now, the gender makeup is pretty even, Yasar said.