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Drawing with Scissors
by Sara Breselor

"Who doesn’t love the smell of a brand new notebook,” asks British artist Jonathan Chapman, “or get nervous when writing on the first blank page?” The empty sheet of paper is a potent symbol of possibility, an invitation. Though he mentions writing, Chapman himself does not answer this call with words, nor does he fill the page with drawings or paint. In his work, paper is not the canvas but the medium itself.

Marc Hagan-Guirey worked with The Viral Factory on four kirigami models for Samsung Galaxy. The catch?
Each model, like The Rockefeller Ice Rink, shown here, had to be tiny enough to fit inside a smartphone cover.

Chapman is one of a growing number of contemporary artists who work primarily in paper. They are part of an evolutionary process over a thousand years old, holders of a vision, and a certain meticulous temperament, shared with Chinese artists of the Song Dynasty (960–1279), who cut paper into intricate designs in a style known as Foshan. The artistic legacy of these early masters developed and spread throughout Europe and Asia as paper became less costly and more common. Origami developed in Japan after a sixth-century introduction from China, and distinct papercraft traditions flourished in India, Turkey, the Ukraine, Poland and Indonesia. The Swiss-German art of scherenschnitte, or scissor cuts, developed in the sixteenth century and traveled to Pennsylvania with colonial settlers two hundred years later. Mexican papel picado, or punched paper, was invented by nineteenth-century farm workers to turn the multicolored tissue paper commonly found at hacienda stores into decorative cut-paper flags, which remain popular today.

Traditional forms have cross-bred and evolved into entirely new techniques. Chapman, an Englishman who is so heavily influenced by Japanese culture and design that he goes by the name Mr. Yen, was introduced to paper art not through Asian traditions but by old cut-paper storybook illustrations by Hans Christian Andersen. Marc Hagan-Guirey, a London-based digital director who recently began constructing fantastic miniature paper buildings, uses techniques of Japanese kirigami (a combination of origami-like structural folding and delicate cutting), but the primary influence reflected by his work is his love of pop culture and horror films. British paper sculptor Su Blackwell, originally a textile artist, was inspired to work with paper by a trip to Southeast Asia, where she saw the paper replicas of everyday objects—shoes, flowers, clothing and accessories, even paper cans of beer—that are burned as Buddhist offerings to the deceased. But Blackwell’s art, including extraordinarily imaginative sculptures made from the printed pages of books, has moved far beyond these early influences. Likewise, Los Angeles-based artist Elsa Mora traces her fascination with paper to her childhood in Havana, Cuba, where she remembers watching a neighbor cut paper doilies, but this two-dimensional introduction grew into the curving, organic sculptural forms that define Mora’s work today.

(Left) Owen Gildersleeve uses layers of paper, “raised at varying heights and shot from above,” an approach typified by this illustration for Scientific American. “I think this gives the illustrations an interesting visual depth,” he says. (Center) The splash screen for the iPad edition of O, The Oprah Magazine shows Yulia Brodskaya’s trademark “quilling” technique. “I draw with paper instead of on it,” says Brodskaya. “I use edge-glued strips of paper as if I’m drawing with a pen. I like to incorporate typography and create very intricate, elaborate designs.” (Right) This piece by Elsa Mora, commissioned by Cosmopolitan China, shows her unique sculptural style. “To shape paper, I sometimes use tools originally intended for jewelry making,” Mora says. “I used to make metal jewelry, so I have a collection of special tools that have been sitting in my studio for years.”

Paper is a humble medium, cheap, readily available and easily repurposed, which has facilitated the art form’s vast growth and variety of technical approaches. But paper’s ubiquity also gives the art an unusual emotional resonance. It’s not foreign to us, as oil paint on canvas or vector-based animation might be. We handle a huge variety of paper types and textures every day: milk cartons, newspapers, envelopes, pizza boxes, glossy magazines, gauzy coffee filters, stiff white to-go cups and the little corrugated jackets they wear. We have all, at one point, cut paper into dolls or snowflakes and folded it into hats or makeshift fans. “Making stuff with paper is intrinsically linked to childhood memories of making and doing,” says Marc Hagan-Guirey. We have a sensory understanding of how it feels to manipulate the medium, and because of this, paper art is tactile, even when we’re just looking at a two-dimensional image. “Paper is such a tangible, undaunting thing,” says Nikki Nye, who partners with Amy Flurry to form the Los Angeles-based Paper Cut Project. “It immediately attracts people because it is so simple and honest.” Breselor
Sara Breselor ( is a San Francisco–based writer and the editor of the IDEO Labs website. She’s a regular contributor to Wired and the Harper’s Weekly Review, and her writing has also appeared in Idiom magazine, Salon and Slate.