Deer Isle artist Frederica Marshall shows her sumi-e brush painting of a zebra. PHOTO BY JENNIFER OSBORN

Deer Isle artist keeps alive ancient art form

DEER ISLE — Frederica Marshall’s largest paintbrush, made of wood and four horsetails, stands at about 64 inches, taller than she is.

The horsehair brush looks like a witch’s broom, and while heavy, it moves easily.

In her 57 years as an artist and master Japanese sumi-e brush painter, Marshall has collected more than 500 brushes.

In Japan, the fabrication of paintbrushes is an ancient craft steeped with tradition and history.

“My husband and I call ourselves tool gatherers and skill learners,” the Deer Isle artist said. “We’re really fortunate because we both understand the need to create. We have a rule that tools don’t count. Buy what you need.”

All those brushes, in Marshall’s skilled hands, have created countless works of art, which are included in private collections in Australia, Europe, Japan and the United States.

The Washington, D.C., native’s father served in the U.S. Army and was stationed overseas in South Korea and Japan. Marshall lived in Japan — Sendai, Okinawa Island and Yokosuka — for 28 years, first as a child and then returning after earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Miami University.

“I stayed in the States about two years and realized if I wanted a career in art I should go where I have connections,” she said. That was Japan.

Marshall has been painting since she was 5 years old. She sold her first painting at age 10.

“I thought, “‘Oh, I love doing this and I can make money.’”

So, of course, Marshall’s work includes a strong Asian influence.

A sketch on glass paper of the Goddess of Compassion, or Tarashikomi, is one of the first pieces of art one notices entering Marshall’s gallery.

“Compassion is really important in my life,” Marshall said. “I support four Tibetan Buddhist monks. I send money to the monastery for food and daily needs. Part of the money from the gallery goes to that cause. You’ve got to give back.”

Marshall created the 24-by-18-inch goddess painting on nonabsorbent glass paper. A stroke of water is painted on the paper, then an ink-dipped brush is touched to the water. The water moves the ink only in the wet area.

“Each area must dry before another piece has water placed so it’s like working on a jigsaw puzzle, working around the image letting parts dry so that they don’t run together,” Marshall explained.

Preparing to paint is an important step. The artist rubs an ink stick into a stone with a small bit of water. The stick, which is made of soot and glue made from fish skin, is rubbed in a circle in one direction and then in reverse. This helps the artist relax and clear his or her mind before launching into a painting.

Marshall, 66, has taught the art of sumi-e (Asian brush painting) and other forms of art, including watercolor, to more than 23,000 students throughout her career. Sumi in Japanese means black ink and ‘e’ means painting.

“This is such a beautiful art,” Marshall said.

Sumi-e painting employs an ink stick and ink stone in addition to 270 different brush strokes. Brushes are made from a variety of animal hair and whiskers.

“The thing about Asian art is it’s so specific,” the artist/educator said. One has to consider, “how can I express myself with these tools and these techniques.”

In addition to the aforementioned horsetail brush, Marshall has a beloved brush with a handle fashioned from lustrous, black buffalo horn and the mane of a white horse. She has others made from peacock feathers. Those iridescent brushes are only used for painting with gold dust.

Then, there is a brush she had made from a fox whisker that a Deer Isle friend procured for her after finding the dead animal. There are brushes made from weasel and mouse whiskers and hair to name a few others.

Marshall has taught for 39 years — 17 years of which were spent in Japan. The venues also have also included art and educational institutions ranging from China to Florida’s Gulf Coast and more recently her Deer Isle workshop/classroom.

She met her second husband, Dr. Herman Kidder, in Japan. He was an audiologist at a military hospital. The two ended up moving to Florida when Marshall’s parents began to need help.

A visit to Deer Isle with friends convinced Marshall that Maine was where she and Hermon should spend the next part of their lives.

In sumi-e brush painting, each stroke requires a different paintbrush.

“We’ve been so happy,” she said. “It suits both of us.”

However, Marshall does admit to getting a little cold. She did grow up on a tropical island after all.

Marshall has exhibited in Japanese venues and galleries since 1973, including the Takumi Gallery, the Mikimoto Pearls Gallery, the Okinawa Civic Center and the International Ocean Exposition in Motubu. Her Sumi-e paintings were featured in a solo show at the U.S. Naval Gallery in Yokosuka.

A cluster of small buildings surrounds the couple’s 1830 farmhouse. They include Marshall’s studio, a small gallery and a studio for her husband who is a blacksmith.

Marshall teaches workshops all summer and spends every February in Florida teaching students there.

For more info, call 348-2782, email [email protected] and visit


Correction: An earlier version of this article contained an error. Sumi-e painting requires 270 brush strokes — not 270 individual brushes. Many strokes are possible with one brush.

Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.

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