Blog · My story

How I became a paper artist – A long-winded tale

Sometimes I will visit the website of an illustrator whose work I like and I am always impressed if their biography says they always wanted to be an illustrator, they studied illustration and…then they became an illustrator! Oh to be that clear from early on what I wanted to do with myself! My journey to becoming a paper artist and illustrator has been long and winding, with detours and diversions all over the shop.

True, from a young age I had lots of ‘notions’ about being an artist. I also used to like playing ‘school’ and make my little brother sit down and do maths in the summer holidays while I was the ‘teacher’, which in retrospect was probably only fun for one of us but implies I had ambitions to teach. I also wanted to be a vet for a while until my inability to manage basic maths derailed that dream, and after watching ‘Space Camp’ A LOT I had fantasies about being an astronaut for some time. Being creative and drawing was less of a career aspiration and more of a long running thread throughout my life, and when I was a teenager it became a sort of therapy that I would turn to whenever life was too difficult, which let’s be honest, as a teenager is most of the time for a lot of us.

I focused on the arts and history pretty easily as my favourite subjects and has decided by my A Levels I wanted to go to art school. I did a year of Art Foundation (which I still think about as one of the best years of my education and should be more valued as a pathway now) and at some point during this I chose sculpture pathway. I think, primarily, this was because I perceived sculpture to be the ‘coolest’ choice as it involved wood, metal and plaster, sharp tools and wearing a boiler suit. If I were being kinder to my naive 18 year old self, perhaps what it also offered was the most experimentation with different mediums, and the opportunity to learn lots of new techniques. Because to me, choosing one medium meant closing the door on all the others and I really didn’t like that idea. This is an important point, which I’ll probably come back to at several points in this strange, extended essay about my life.

Somehow, presenting a bizarre collection comprising of a pile of art journals obsessively typed into interfacing on an ancient typewriter and then hand sewn into every page, some frankly creepy pencil drawings of people with animal ears, a photograph album of bits of broken doll parts cast in plaster and some miniature wedding dresses got me a place at Goldsmiths College in London. I had only applied to courses that didn’t have a specialism (see inability to choose anything as mentioned above) so I was excited to start and try all the different workshops, media and ideas. And try them I did. Being a bit of a Hermione Granger at heart I spent vast amounts of time in the library reading about every artist, art form or technique I could. In my three years at art college I made sculpture, installation, books, paintings, dolls houses, some really cringe worthy performance art (some performance art is amazing – mine was not), decided I wanted to be a glass artist and then graduated making film installations about the history of landscape and it’s relationship with communication technology.

Stills from my final degree show film, 2008

As soon as I graduated I knew that I wasn’t a good fit for the London art world, and I was offered the opportunity to visit South Lakes in Cumbria where I decided to stay. I felt really confused about my relationship with my creativity at this time. My experience of art school had been both very challenging and fulfilling in some ways, but being taught to look at my work objectively had separated me from my passion for making things. I couldn’t engage with an artistic activity without constantly questioning ‘what it really meant’ and was it’s context was within the history of art. As a reaction to this I got a job in a shop and spent a lot of my time knitting, sewing and drawing which all brought me joy in small ways and helped me escape my own endless self-doubt.

A nature journal making workshop from around 2009

I also began to volunteer on creative workshops for families, eventually running my own. Working with children and sharing in their powerful enthusiasm just to be creative was inspiring, and helped me to find my own love of art again. The fact that every class, group or project was new meant I was given permission learn absolutely every art form, and in fact this was seen as a strength! This led me to working for 7 years as a creative practitioner where I got to do some amazing projects from leading family activities in museums and galleries, to planting a sensory garden, to animation workshops and working on parades, carnivals and other celebratory arts events.

During this time I would say my specialism was in visual storytelling with 5 – 11 year olds. This included using illustration, animation and puppetry to explore with children how stories are created or re-told, and leading activities where they developed their own visual storytelling skills. In 2010 I began an MA in Art as Environment at Manchester School Of Art. I spent my time on my MA exploring how art and creativity could empower people, and completely immersed myself in learning everything I could about the art of puppetry and puppet making. I was lucky enough to work with some puppet theatres, celebratory arts companies and practitioner like Horse + Bamboo, Thingumajig Theatre, Handmade Parade and Ulverston Lantern Festival in this time. Yet again, I saw puppetry as the dream art form because it allowed me to do many things including draw, paint, sculpt, sew, animate and write stories.

Skull sculptures to be worn by stiltwalkers for Handmade Parade in 2012
Me and a puppet, 2012
Shadow puppets from 2012

As someone who loved to draw, I was especially interested in shadow puppetry and began to create my own shadow puppets, and to teach shadow puppet workshops and stop-motion animation. I read or bought every book I could find, and I have to say I don’t remember ever seeing a papercut mentioned…although I may not have been looking at this point! However, I liked my shadow puppets… I struggled seeing them getting bashed about, or being bound in a laminator to make them more hardy. So I began to cut pictures out of paper as well, and at some point I realised that the art of Rob Ryan which a friend had shown me wasn’t just screen prints, but were also an artform in it’s own right called papercutting!

Making shadow puppet inspired papercuts, 2013

I know this must seem funny now that paper arts have gained so much recognition, but papercutting just wasn’t talked about as much then as it is now, and up until 2010 there was no Instagram to easily show you the world of creative possibilities (also being somewhat un-hip I only joined Instagram in 2015). I had seen Scandinavian papercut collages in museums, and I’m sure I must have seen papercuts in the V&A, as well as traditional Victorian cut portraits. But it took me a while to realise that I could call myself a ‘papercutter’. Finding books like ‘Paper: Tear, Fold, Rip, Crease, Cut’ by Hatori Koshiro and Richard Sweeney showed me what it was possible to achieve with paper.

I spent my evenings googling paper art – trying to work out what the best tools were, which papers worked well and what adhesives to avoid. And I made many many mistakes…including using the same blunt scalpel for a month, trying to cut copy paper into an intricate papercut and getting a papercut I’d spent hours on stuck to brown paper after I coated it in cheap PVA. But eventually I began to use better tools and materials, and my technique began to improve too. It took me a while to work out what I wanted to represent as an artist. I began by making papercut borders for local business or for events posters for my community, all with a pretty whimsical, fairytale inspired feel.

‘Country Bird’ from 2014
A commissioned papercut border, 2015

But in 2014 I began working towards a solo show in a local cafe, and I decided to make a series of British birds with ornate patterns on their bodies, as I liked how this referenced Chinese and Scandinavian papercutting history without directly imitating these styles. And from there the world of representing nature in paper was opened up to me, and it’s been my focus ever since!

My first papercut from the ‘Bird Spotting’ series I began in 2015

So, as I warned at the beginning of this post, my journey to making the artwork I do now was long and complicated! But I also feel glad I didn’t close too many doors too early, as this just doesn’t suit how my creativity works. I think the thing I love about paper art is how many different crafts that umbrella term can contain – from papercutting, sculpture, origami, book folding, papercut animation, quilling and more. It can involve drawing, cutting, construction, book making and paper engineering. There are just so many possibilities. And of course I want to do them….all!

‘Winter Hare’ from late December 2018

But do I think I’ll be calling myself a paper artist for the rest of my life? In all honesty I doubt it. I’m sure over time my practice will evolve as my interests will change. But I do feel that at this point paper art is a key aspect of my work as an artist that excites me, and often brings me a lot of joy. And I hope that I can make a worthy contribution to this ancient way of producing art, and hopefully inspire other people to engage with their own creativity. For me, creativity is about the process not the final outcome, and being an artist is my way of life, not my ‘brand’. I have developed an approach where I focus more on certain aspects of my interests, and in order to make a living I communicate these in specific ways which I guess is branding. But I wanted to write this more for those, like me, who feel like they are never able to find their ‘thing’, and therefore they are somehow doing it wrong. I think having one clear practice is a way of being an artist, not neccessarily the way and it’s ok to try things, to experiment, to move on. After all isn’t that an inherent part of being creative and learning?