Questions from Charles Clary, Artist, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Question 1. What is it about paper that drew you to the material as a medium instead of a matrix?

Chinese invented paper so culturally there is a sense of intimacy, significance, and legitimacy for me to work with it. Specifically, the Chinese rice paper that I use to make paper cutouts with was the first art material I knew as a young girl practicing calligraphy and landscape painting. I love the many great qualities in rice paper: soft, tissue-thin, subtly textured, absorbent, natural, acid-free, long lasting, and sustainable. Paper, to me, is never a mundane or utilitarian material for printing information.

Question 2. With the advancement of technology, it has become easier to achieve delicate detail cuttings using laser cutters and other mechanical means. Do you employ any technological tools or do you do all your cuttings by hand? Why or why not?

When I began making paper cutouts in 2005, I decided that digital tools should be an integral component in my creative process because of my education and interest in digital media. I want my work to involve both technology and handcraftsmanship. But I only use the computer to make templates – a visual and positioning guide – for the cutouts. To me, the laborious, hand cut process is the best part. There is something very honest and dignified to create with your hands and to push the limits of your mind and body. To replace it with mechanical tools, it would mean to miss the innate desire to connect myself with humanity.

Question 3. How did your process develop in regards to using paper as your primary media and the creation of your work?

I am very inquisitive and have vast interests and training in many art forms. Before paper cutting, I worked with Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting, drawing and painting, and various digital media. My initial attraction to using paper as a primary medium is because of the intimacy I just mentioned. To sustain my career as an artist for the long haul, I chose to work with paper for it does not necessarily require expensive equipment and facilities.

As far as how I began cutting paper, it dated back to 2004 when I returned to Hong Kong and my father gave me his small collection of paper cuttings. I knew about Chinese paper cutting all my life but at that time I immediately wondered if I was capable of making something as intricate and beautiful. When creating the first paper cutout, I realized that it really suits my personality, strengths, and sense of aesthetics. And the potential and possibilities to contemporize it are endless. Most importantly, in paper cutting I can integrate nearly all my skills in other art forms. And from each art form, I can also incorporate the most effective and enjoyable aspects into my creative process. I am continually amazed by how inclusive and forward thinking paper cutting can be.

Like many artists, I start with drawing, an activity I love and find most immediate and efficient in capturing ideas. Then I create templates on the computer, making photographic/vector composites that afford my highly elaborate and layered narratives. I print out the digital templates and use them as visual and positioning guides for the final paper cutouts. The last process is to spend the incalculable, laborious hours to hand cut each image. With so much preparation up to the hand cutting, I allow myself to be spontaneous and often cut on the fly and improvise. It makes my studio time challenging and exciting. This three-fold process is a total workout of the spiritual mind, logical brain, and physical body.

Question 4. Being a paper artist myself, I find that the long laborious process to create my work, is somewhat meditative and self-gratifying, as far as the end product is concerned.  Do you feel the same in regards to your personal process? Why or why not?

I feel the spirituality in the hand cutting process. I am not good at meditation but perhaps reaching the creative zone of total concentration is similar to a successful meditative state when one is just “being.” The moment when nothing matters more than making the line I am cutting works. I absolutely am in love with the sensation when the razor sharp X-acto knife blade slices the paper open and seeing the beautiful, clean line that it produces. The hand cut process, too, is very gratifying because it is honest, simple, instinctive, and I am the only person responsible for it. I feel completely human and humbled after a long day of cutting, when I come face to face with the mental exhaustion and bodily aches and pain.

Question 5. What are your thoughts on the current state of paper art and how do you think it will advance in the coming years?

Works on paper have been around for a long time but gained a great deal of popularity in the mainstream art world in recent years. Cut paper being a part of it means the artists are getting more attention and exposure.

The current state of cut paper art is blossoming, individualized, and progressive. There has been a great deal and increasing interest in the medium in the art world and on the Internet. I am not surprised because cut paper art is cross-disciplined, multicultural, rich in content, and highly diverse in representations.

It’s difficult to predict how cut paper art will advance. But because of the critical and commercial success of several cut paper artists, more young artists will likely consider to take on cut paper art while they are in school. So I think these artists and art schools will help advancing cut paper art in the near future, solidifying its place in the mainstream art world.

But the million dollar question is whether paper art will have lasting power. Many years ago people already began to say one day there would be no need for paper and the paperless direction is where we are heading. It will be really interesting to see the destiny of (cut) paper art when paper is no longer an intimate, familiar material.

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“Atomic Jellyfish” on the Cover of L’art de la decoupe

My paper cutout, “Atomic Jellyfish,” is featured in and on the cover of L’art de la decoupe (The Art of Paper Cutting) by Jean-Charles Trebbi. The 160-page book, written in French, is published by Editions Alternatives in Paris, France.

Trebbi wrote about the history and traditions of both Eastern and Western paper cutting, with a focus on the contemporary expressions of the art form by artists around the world.

An architect and designer, Trebbi connects paper cutting with architecture, design, paper folding, sculpture, and others.

"Atomic Jellyfish" on the cover of L'art de la decoupe

More on Rice Paper (Not Made from Rice)

In Chinese, rice paper is called “Xuan” paper. The name originated from the place where it was/is manufactured in Xuanzhou fu (today’s Jingxian) in Anhui province .

There are over sixty varieties of “xuan” paper that are made from mulberry tree barks, qintan tree barks (an elm species that sheds its barks), bamboo, hemp, and other materials. What the paper contains varies from region to region.

But overall, Chinese paper has long vegetable fibers which do not disintegrate even when fully submerged in water. This quality also allows wet mounting techniques to develop as a way to preserve, strengthen, and display (with scrolls instead of frames) the paper and the art on it.

Most of the highest quality Chinese paper made for painting and calligraphy are hand made but only accounts for 1% of the production in China today. Hand made xuan paper can involve over 140 steps.

“Black Water”

Worked on it all day again and it’s done.

"Black Water," installation, 23'x10'x11', 2010

Birds' view

Birds mapping the Gulf Coast line

Crane submerged in black water

Just shadows

Heat sensitive paper crane changing color reacting to touch

“Black Water” – My First Installation In Progress

I have been diligently working on my first installation titled “Black Water” that responds to the oil spill off the Gulf Coast.

The completed installation will be exhibited in “Touch Me Please” at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, opening on September 10 from 5:30-8pm. The exhibition runs through November 7.  Eric Shiner, Curator of The Andy Warhol Museum, juried and curated the show.

Here are some photos taken in my studio and at the gallery. The installation will be in a 200+sq. ft. space.

"Black Water," hanging paper cranes traced the Gulf Coast line on the ceiling

"Black Water," installation in progress, 2010

"Black Water," folding and hanging approx. 200 paper cranes in the gallery

"Black Water," cutout in progress, approx. 45"x30 feet, studio shot

"Black Water," cutout in progress