A blank sheet of paper is ripe with potential—and not just when you’re dealing with text or images to be laid atop it. Because, when working with paper, most creatives confine their visions to the 2D plane. But, as every grade-school child knows, paper encompasses a whole other realm; one populated with paper dolls, sailor hats, snowflakes and finger puppets.
Fortunately, several artists working today retain this childlike sense of wonder for paper’s material promise. Manipulating it to serve an array of sculptural purposes, they simultaneously explore the cultural connotations and metaphorical allusions that this ephemeral yet timeless material holds.
The sturdy blocks of construction paper so central to the kindergarten classroom become, in the hands of Jen Stark, kaleidoscopic explosions of color. She cuts into the layers of stacked paper with measured accuracy and carves the blocks of color into vibrant geometric shapes. Stark first began working with the material a few years ago during a study trip in France. "I went to the art store looking for a cheap and interesting material to work with. I ended up getting a pack of assorted construction paper and brought it back to my studio and ended up creating multi-layered sculpture."
Philadelphia-based artist Eva Wylie creates delicate webs of paper filigrees that are strung across gallery spaces. Upon close inspection, they reveal to be airy photograph collages of a series of objects. She’s built nets of skydivers, holiday bows and handshakes. Coming from a printmaking background, Wylie originally became interested in paper as a medium because she was interested in the immediacy of it. "I then started working with paper in a more sculptural vein because I didn’t want to be confined to the walls," she says. "I was interested in creating an object as opposed to something two-dimensional."
You may have spotted Richard Sweeney’s paper sculptures as the cover art for British band The Cooper Temple Clause and New York City band The Smokers. In his final year at the Manchester Metropolitan University’s 3D-design program, this British artist has already drawn artistic acclaim, having recently won the DKNY prize at the New Designers exhibition in London. Taking a hands-on approach to the manipulation of paper to replicate geometric shapes and organic forms, he’s created 3D paper models of 12- and 20-sided polyhedrons that are especially breathtaking. Like many artists, Sweeney began working in paper because "it’s readily available, easily manipulated by hand and very cheap. So it’s perfect for experimentation."
Peter Callesen hails from Denmark, and his work is suffused with archetypes drawn from Scandinavian folklore and the work of national literary figure Hans Christian Andersen. Among the most astonishing of his diverse range of paper works are miniature dioramas cut from the ubiquitous A4 printer paper. Ranging from frightful monsters to hummingbirds suspended in mid-flight, these tiny sculptures invoke the mythic wonder of fairytales.
Beyond simply referencing the literary implications of paper, British artist Su Blackwell goes so far as to carve tiny vignettes from the books themselves. Scenes rise out of pages from "Alice in Wonderland" or "The Secret Garden" in charming hand-crafted depictions which lightheartedly call to mind the fluid properties of written language.
After moving to Los Angeles from San Francisco, Chris Natrop began creating large cut-paper installations as a way to capture the dynamic struggle between nature and the urban growth that’s characteristic of his new hometown. This interplay between organic and hard-edged is reflected in his artwork, which speaks to the interconnectedness of all things.
Paper is an exceedingly adaptable and potent material for fine arts creation. Generally thought of as a platform for 2D ideas, these artists have illustrated that paper doesn’t have to be limited to that—its transient fragility and traditional applications lend it, in 3D form, an enchanting and nostalgic air. And, in this endless array of possibilities, they demonstrate that school children’s excitement for cutting and shaping paper isn’t something to be left to the playground or indoor recesses. Try it for yourself.