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February 22, 2020
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I just make bowls!

By: Irene Hilsendager
June 14, 2019

Elizabeth Van Nuys has magic hands. Her hands seem to have a mind of their own. Listening to her interesting story was an eye opening experience. She says she only makes bowls but while telling about her bowls, old newspapers, shoe polish and glue came into the story. 

In the early 90s, Elizabeth took a class from Suzanne Johnson in Petaluma and it was an “interest” class. Whatever suited your fancy. She tried to draw with charcoal, colored pencils, water colors and didn’t love any of it. She even tried working or playing with clay what she thought was an ashtray. Her instructor told her it looked like a horse, so how could Elizabeth screw up a little ashtray? 

She was an instructor, for over thirty years, first as a classroom teacher and later as an administrator. She would cut many things for the classroom and her silhouettes always resembled something other than what she had in mind. But then she started making papier-mâché objects and it has been her passion ever since. 

Van Nuys says, “Regardless of how many bowls I make, no two are ever alike.” Showing her samples from start to finish was a rare treat. How someone could make a bowl that looks as if it is a beaten copper or brass bowl, is way beyond my comprehension. 

Elizabeth is married to David Van Nuys, has four children and a very proud grandmother of six. Kira Van Nuys-Martin lives in Cotati with her husband and three children, Jonathan Van Nuys lives in San Francisco, Matthew Van Nuys lives in New York City with his wife and one child and Christopher Van Nuys, a recent graduate of the Empire Law School, lives in Cotati with his wife and two children.

Now for a little lesson in making Elizabeth’s bowls. She takes a form, be it an old vase or whatever, cuts strips of newspapers and puts on a couple of layers with glue to begin a slow task. This is to be left to dry for a long period of time. She makes sure each layer is dry before she proceeds so that mold will not begin to grow. After the drying period she again puts on layers and begins to shape it or as she puts it; I mold with my hands. After she feels it is strong and dry enough she will gesso it white and thereafter, she will sometimes use shoe polish to stain it. One example included shoe polish, jute, a jar ring for the bottom, coffee filters and the many, many layers of news print. This is an inexpensive material and doesn’t take too much thought but is very meditative.

The Chinese are thought to have invented paper at the start of the second century and from this they developed papier-mâché and plasterboard.  The first people to start using papier-mâché as a commercial medium were the French at about the middle of the seventeenth century. In Europe papier-mâché became a preferred method among artisans to make furnishings, serving dishes, pianos, knobs and even horse-drawn carriages. The ancient Egyptians were known to have made coffins and death masks out of a primitive form of papier-mâché layers of papyrus or linen covered with plaster.

Elizabeth says there are houses in Japan and even a church in Christchurch, New Zealand that are made from papier-mâché and have withstood earthquakes. Common sense should tell you to stop and think paper is made out of trees, why shouldn’t it be used like wood. It just takes patience, passion and ingenuity. Elizabeth says. “Not everybody gets to do what they love and do it for such a long time. I consider myself so lucky.”