Illustrator Owen Gildersleeve is the author of Papercut, a sumptuous book published this summer by Rockport, which traces the careers and techniques of 25 inspiring artists working with paper in unusual ways. The accompanying exhibition at The Proud Archivist was such a success that it was extended, and though that has now sadly ended I was able to catch up with Owen and find out more about the process of making this seminal book.
Why did you decide to write a whole book about Papercutting, and why do you think it has become so popular in recent times?
I was actually approached out of the blue by Rockport Publishing, asking if I wanted to write a book about paper illustration. Until then I’d never really considered myself a writer, but I realised that it was too good an opportunity to turn down. The publishers gave me total free-reign with how I approached the book and its content, so I thought it would be interesting to pick a selection of some of the most exciting artists in the field and delve deep into their working practices, through in-depth interviews and rarely published behind-the-scenes imagery.
As for why papercutting has become so popular; I think this is due to the recent resurgence in handmade work, where people are once again trying to connect with their art and design, and in doing so embracing the imperfections of these processes. Paper seems to be the most popular of the materials used in this resurgence, probably because it’s inexpensive and so easy to replace that artists never need to be afraid of spoiling it. This leads to the ultimate freedom of artistic expression, where the artist has no boundaries or restraints.
How did you source and decide which artists to include? What were you looking for in their work?
To start with I contacted artists whose work I admired, and fortunately a lot of them agreed to take part in the book. But I also wanted to showcase some new and up-and-coming papercutters, so I spent a lot of time searching through various blogs, books and magazines to find work that I liked. The book is about contemporary paper illustration, so although I made sure to feature a range of different styles and approaches, the artists all have quite a modern and graphical feel about their work.
What did you learn from the artists as you worked on the book?
It was great getting know more about their processes and how they make their work. Just little things like what glues they use, how they cut their work and which paper stocks they favour was fascinating to me. We’ve all had to work out our own paths, picking up tricks and working things out as we go, so it’s interesting to see the little nuances in the way we do things.
What were the biggest challenges in putting this book together?
At the beginning of the book I decided it would be nice to write a chapter on the history of paper cutting. This proved to be a considerable task, with lots of reading and research required to find out when paper first was invented, why papercutting started, and how and why this artform moved from Asia through to Europe. It was extremely challenging, but I think it helps to give context to the book, and it was also very exciting to learn more about the field in which I work.
And what do you feel is your biggest triumph?
I’m really pleased with the design of the book, which I was helped with by my friend and The Guardian assistant creative director Chris Clarke. Chris devised the page templates and then together we set about laying out the pages and trying to have fun with the compositions. It was important for me that the interviews ran through the chapters, leading the reader through the work. This made the design process more of a challenge, as it would have obviously been far easier to just put the interviews on a single page, but I feel that it was worth the effort. Chris also really pushed me in the design of the book, which included things like creating a special hand-cut typeface which I used for all the artist’s titles and chapter numbers.
We were really sad to miss your recent exhibition – what was the highlight of your extended run at the Proud Archivist?
Although there have been a lot of great events during the show, I have to say that nothing can beat the opening night. We had around 500 people attend which was pretty overwhelming, and I felt really touched and amazed that so many people made the effort to come down to it. The exhibition was also the official launch of the book and it was great on the opening night, after nearly 2 years of work, to be able to finally share it with the everyone.
Do you have any favourite bits of papercut work? If so can you share what they are?
There are lots of paper artists whose work amazes me, and I often wonder how they do what they do. Jeff Nishinaka is one of those. They way he shapes and forms the paper is truly astonishing and unlike any other artist I’ve seen. When his two original artworks for the show arrived at my studio from LA it was a really exciting moment, as I hadn’t seen his work in the flesh until then. I’ve also always been a big fan of Chrissie Macdonald‘s work. She can literally create anything imaginable out paper, and I love her ‘Bier’ and ‘Paper Shredder’ pieces.
As an illustrator, how has curating this book and exhibition impacted your own practice?
All the artists involved in the book are hugely inspirational, and working with them has made me want to keep pushing myself and experimenting with my work. I’ve also recently been working on some non-paper based projects, which is fun after focusing so intensely on the paper side of my work for the past couple of years.
I’ve got a couple of big personal projects planned for the coming months which I’m very excited about. Alongside those I also have some exciting commissions in the pipeline, including a project for a large fashion brand. So watch this space.
Papercut by Owen Gildersleeeve is available now from all good bookshops.
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