When my brother said he was going to propose to his then-girlfriend on a weekend away last fall, I asked if they’d do something a little weird: would they bring me back some pretty fallen leaves? I told them I’d make something out of the leaves.
They brought… a lot! I pressed them all, and then chose two for the idea I had, and tried to figure out what they were. I was totally unsuccessful at getting a specific identification beyond maple, despite asking my tree-brilliant friends.
I think they forgot about this. Or they figured I just didn’t follow through.
After studying maples’ shapes for a while, I made a draft in January, then put the project aside on a shelf (narrowly escaping ruining the surprise when I told my brother’s then-fiancée to look on that shelf for something else… thank goodness I’d set paper on top of it to protect it from dust!)
I finally made the final version just in time for their wedding present opening…
They both love fall, so it seems especially appropriate. They like the piece! I so enjoyed making it, and resisting all of my impulses to make it more complex.
Today’s papercutting brought up all sorts of wonderings for me. I usually focus on fairly well-known animals; even if you didn’t know the species of the dragonfly, you recognized it as a dragonfly, or if you didn’t recognize the flowers in Cathy’s garden, you recognized it as a garden.
This one’s not immediately recognizable to many people, which threw me in my thinking about it; how do I design a papercutting of an animal to be recognizable if it is not well-known? Is my goal to introduce people to something new? To create connection to new creatures? To make something lovely? (Okay, my goal was to make a birthday present for the delightful human who requested this animal; I didn’t have to think this hard. But I can’t help it!)
Flamingo tongue snails live in the western Atlantic/Caribbean, and are usually found on sea fans and sea whips. When I went on my first dive trip, I fell in love with them. They’re… well, they’re weird. They look beautiful, with their orange color with black spots, but that color is part of their mantle (squishy part) that they wrap around their shell. The shell isn’t colorful at all! And if you touch them (I’m not encouraging this… just passing along information from my experience as a 16 year old quite-foolish diver!), they pull their mantle in, exposing the white shell underneath. It’s fascinating to watch the color change.
So there were decisions to be made: Do I go with my usual black-and-white, emphasizing the shape and issuing myself a challenge of somehow clearly defining the snail from the coral, both of which are composed of spots, or do I include the brilliant colors that are characteristic of both the flamingo tongue snail (orange) and sea fans (purple)? Do I just add color to the snail? In the end, I went with black-and-white, but I might play with the design some more in the future. That’s one of the reasons I love making digital designs! I can play with something that’s already “finished” without losing the original.
I tried designing the flamingo tongue snail & sea fan on my computer first, which didn’t work at all, and was frankly boring. After that failed attempt, I started out with a chalked hand-cutting, and then scanned it to create the design digitally. That brought up feelings about how I value what I make, and how what word I apply changes everything; was the hand cutting the “original”, or the “draft”? Is a machine-cutting intrinsically lower-value? (I don’t think so.) How much do I value how it was made versus valuing the final product? I do a mix of hand-cutting and machine-cutting, depending on what I feel like doing, the size of the product, the time I have to make it, the limitations of hand-cutting and the limitations of machine-cutting.
I had a bit of a fight with myself; do I send the original/draft off, or do I send the machine-cut final/replica? In the end, I sent the machine-cut; I was happier with the changes I’d made, the cleanness of the cuts, and the overall appearance of it. Plus, I’d accidentally used a piece of paper that wasn’t standard-sized as the top black layer, and straightening it out would never create a result I was happy with.
Figuring out how to make the spots while hand-cutting was a new experience; I usually hand cut single layer projects, not multiple-layers. My goal was to have a top layer that was the fan/edge of snail, a second layer that was the outer edge of the snail’s spots, a third layer that was the inside of the snail’s spots, and a bottom layer that was solid for the center of the spots After a few attempts, I took my design, used graphite to transfer the circles to the white piece of paper, cut those shapes, then used a chalk pencil to transfer those circles to the second layer of black.
It doesn’t seem fair that I get so much out of making a birthday present, and the birthday person only gets the present! What a fun process, and I’m excited to see what comes of the various wonderings it brought up. And what a lovely bonus that the recipient loves it!
I first started cutting paper 9 or 10 years ago, when a coworker taught me some basics with some paint chips we found in the local hardware store. I’ve been creating paper images ever since, sometimes in great bursts of making, sometimes setting it down for months at a time. My skills finally match my taste. I used to see potential papercuttings in the world and immediately dismiss them, knowing my skills weren’t quite up to the level of doing them justice. Now, I can make a plan for how I might achieve them.
There’s one word missing from the above paragraph: artist. I majored in biology and environmental studies in undergrad, and have my Master’s in Natural Resources; I have very little education and training in art. I’m not very good at drawing with a pencil and paper; what’s easy for me to cut from paper is hard in graphite. I struggle to find my way through an art supply store. I’m not as familiar as I’d like to be with language around art. I’ve always called myself a person who makes things. Yet in the last few years, I’ve frequently found myself wondering how I could add more movement to my work, developed series on various themes, tried to figure out how my work connected people to the subjects, looked at ways to grow my skills to do my subjects justice.
I’ve been thinking like an artist.
It’s a strange thing to integrate a new title/identity into your concept of your self as an adult. I’m lucky that I have a truly astounding number of people calling me an artist, even when it’s a hard word for me to claim.
I’ve had friends ask me when I’d start teaching others in my art, and there’s still a little astonishment in my response. I’m happy to teach about the natural world, but who says I can teach art?
But also: who needs to? Who am I waiting to grant me permission?
When I first started, I cut everything by hand; then, a friend gave me an old Silhouette they weren’t using, and my brother gave me a Bamboo tablet he wasn’t using, and I started cutting everything by machine. These days, I do a mix, sometimes drawing into my computer, sometimes handcutting and then scanning the result so I can reproduce the piece using my machine. It’s been one more thing that has kept me from calling myself an artist, something with deep roots in gender and arts vs craft; I use a tool that’s used by scrapbookers, so what I do can’t be called art (said my faulty logic, as if what scrapbookers do is less than, as if activities that are primarily done by women are less than. Brain, why?)
I’m not sure precisely where I’m going with this, other than to say that I’m thankful to those who have called me an artist, even when I was (am?) having a hard time seeing myself as one. I’m proud of the skills I’ve developed over the years, proud of the work I do, and happy to share the results with others.
I’ve always given most of my work away; many of my designs were made with a particular person in mind. But I’ve developed a bit of a stash of papercuttings, so if you’d like one of mine, you can find a few of them at PutteringWithPaper on Etsy. Let me know if there’s one you’d like that isn’t there; I’ve only listed the ones I’ve been able to photograph so far. Summer is my busiest season at work, so I’m hoping to list cards and some other things in September.
I’m excited to send my art (art!) out into the world.
Earlier this year, I started trying to do paper cuttings for the various animal and nature themed days that come up: World Turtle Day, Endangered Species Day, World Pangolin Day. It was fun, but quickly became overwhelming. When summer (my busiest season at work) started, I decided that I would only do the paper projects I’d already committed to through September: a guest book for my brother’s wedding, a papercutting that’s yet to be made public but is due later this summer, and this one.
A friend of mine asked if I’d consider doing a dragonfly papercutting for a silent auction at the Dragonfly Society of the Americas Annual Meeting, which happened to be in Minnesota this year. I’ve wanted to make a dragonfly for years (I have notes and photos for one I hoped to make in 2014) but have been slightly scared of the immensity of the task, so having a deadline helped!
That same friend and I found this injured dragonfly (a female Midland Clubtail) at work last month, which was the perfect opportunity to get some clear photos for a papercutting.
This project was easily the largest and most complicated piece I’ve taken on.
I worked with the picture, transferred the design to my paper, and got down to work on July 4!
It was fun to see it slowly emerge, and a nice excuse to stream an absurd amount of tv/movies.
In the end, it took between 40-50 hours to complete, and that in a week that included a dear friend coming back to town after I hadn’t seen them in years, a wedding shower for my brother and his fiancée, work, and …well, other things, but I skipped out on everything but those so this could be finished in time.
I finished it July 10, and handed it off to my friend to go to the conference July 11!
I used a floating frame to make it clear that it’s a papercutting, not a print or other illustration. Despite loving the way it looks in the floating frame, I took pictures on a piece of posterboard, because it’s easier to see the dragonfly in photos that way, and because the only way I could get a photo without a lot of glare was by setting it on the floor.
The finished dragonfly is 20 inches wide by 16 inches tall, a scale that’s not really obvious in any of the above pictures. So just one more…
I’m very tired, and very happy with the final product.
In quite possibly the best compliment a papercutting of mine has ever received, folks at the conference were able to identify the species and sex of the dragonfly from just a photo of the piece! I’m thrilled it was well-received.
If you’ve ever wondered about my process of papercutting, this post is full of drafts! If you’d rather just see the final object, scroll right to the bottom.
In September, my aunt Cathy was hospitalized with some injuries. Cathy always has beautiful gardens, and I decided she needed a paper one for the hospital.
Of course, I increased the difficulty level for myself. I wanted this papercutting to:
be high-contrast (ideally black and white, but I eventually caved on adding some color)
be cut entirely from one sheet of paper with all parts connected
include only flowers that Cathy grows (ideally that flower in the same season, but I bent that rule)
include the pattern of her house’s front porch railing
Whew. Constraints breed creativity, right?
Getting to the final product was a process; I designed each flower and the porch railing as separate cuttings, testing their size, scale, and style against each other, before joining them all together into one cutting.
I started with a single hollyhock, a flower I’ve wanted to make in paper for years. This is on a standard size post-it note, for scale.
Then I tried out some coneflowers and made the railing/frame. The flowers weren’t attached to the frame here, so I could move them around and try out different placements.
I tried a set of hydrangeas, which never made it to the cutting stage; their shape just wasn’t fitting with the other flowers. I replaced them with irises, but the style of the irises here doesn’t match the style of the hollyhocks or coneflowers. Two of the hollyhocks are too big, and the buds on the irises look weird.
The next draft included better-scaled hollyhocks, less blocky irises (and without the buds), and was almost the final one… but see that top hollyhock?
Earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to listen to a lecture an author/illustrator who used papercuttings in one of his books. He recommended pastel pencils for adding details, and I couldn’t resist playing with my set when I got to the final draft of this cutting. I love the effect of the tiny pop of color against all this black and white.
Finally, the finished product:
This was definitely the biggest papercutting challenge I’ve set for myself, and I’m delighted that it served its purpose: Cathy enjoyed it!
I took a bookmaking class this July, and while it’s not like I needed more crafts (or more blank books!), I might be hooked. Sewing! Papercrafting! Books! A potentially useful product! That’s basically catnip for me.
The class included several simple books and one more complicated one. Here’s my complicated one (a Coptic-stitched book):
It’s wobbly, and I can see where I messed up my stitching pattern, and I’m not sure whether I’ll ever use it, but oh was it fun to make. Our instructor pre-drilled the holes in the art boards we used for covers, so I hadn’t punched/drilled holes in covers or learned how to cover them when I decided to try some more on my own.
I didn’t just want to replicate my first experience, so I decided to get more complicated: the Secret Belgian Binding, which includes a spine held in place by the tension in the binding thread. “Some binding experience is required”; well, I’ve done one, so let’s do this! (Fact: I have read way too many fantasy books to be able to say “I tried a new binding” without thinking of magic. It cracks me up every time.)
I went to an art store to look for supplies, got completely overwhelmed, and left without getting anything at all. My second try was The Shop at MCBA where I also got completely overwhelmed in the best way possible. There’s so many types of books in the world! There’s so many things to make! There are so many books about paper cutting that I haven’t read yet! I am so small in my skills, but I want to try all the things! (To which a friend said: “You’re exactly the right size to make things.” Oh, what a relief, and a new sentence to tuck into my self-talk.)
The result: I followed thesethreetutorials, which mostly didn’t contradict each other, and helped when I needed a different image/description of a step to understand it.
The covers I made turned out okay, with only one minor tear in the paper when I too aggressively tried to smooth out a bubble. If this book was a gift, I’d redo it, but since it’s just an I’m-learning-a-thing book for myself, I’m choosing to find it charming.
I have not a single picture of the rest of the process, because I was concentrating so hard!
But the final product is something I’m proud of, even while I can see its weaknesses and what I’ll improve next time, and how I’ll make it easier on myself. What a good learning experience.
So I’ve succeeded in making a book! And I’ve also succeeded in making something I’m terrified of writing in because I might ruin it, a problem I have with all blank books.
And I’ve succeeded in getting hooked on yet another craft, though at least this one mostly uses tools and supplies I already have.
On to the next!
*Uhhh. I just realized why Book It! was called Book It! I always got annoyed with the name because I couldn’t figure out what it was we were booking, or what booking meant as a verb. Oooooh to set aside time for or to go quickly. Right. I was never a good Book It! participant; my family ate pizza a lot, and I read a lot, and I just didn’t get why you needed pizza to get you to read.
I’ve made tiny scenes under glass bells before, and I’ve known about these lanterns (from Ikea) for years, but last night I sat down with a lantern and my felting tools and went to town. I’m utterly delighted by the result: a felted scene that demands to be picked up, turned, and examined, with little details to notice.
Of course, it’s also annoyingly hard to photograph!
I made the tree and ground last night; today was about figuring out how on earth to make a tiny swing. A visit to my local model train store started to solve the issue; I picked up a 2 ft piece of wood, a tiny saw, and the very tiniest drill that you just spin with your fingers. I mentioned to someone at the train store that I was concerned about the swing appearing to have weight; the rope supporting a swing usually stays somewhat taut, even with no one on it. I didn’t want the swing to seem too light, but I very much wanted the swing to swing if you moved the lantern (so using wire was out). They suggested stiffening the string with watered down glue, which worked quite well; the swing swings when you move the lantern, but appears to have weight.
Of course, like any proper swing that’s well-loved, the grass has all been worn away beneath:
In what’s possibly my favorite detail, light shines through the star-shaped holes and into the felting of the “leaves” above the tree, much like shining through a tree’s canopy.
There’s still a few little things I’d like to add. I can’t find my embroidery flosses (they’re still packed away somewhere after a recent move), but I’d like to add some french-knot flowers to the grass, some yellow and some purple, and I’m sure pulling out my flosses will bring up other ideas.
I’m delighted with this little piece, and so excited to play with this idea some more. Someone at the train store suggested LEDs might be a fun addition, so I may have some learning to do!
I’ve been working on fitting and sewing a spring coat for over a month now, and it’s stopped all other creative endeavors except taking photos in the park. So, instead of a usual dose of things I’ve made, here’s a thing I wrote after recommending a birding app to a friend, plus park photos (which will hopefully inform future paper cuttings).
I’m feeling soapbox-y today, so let me talk for a minute about something I find incredibly frustrating (which people may fundamentally disagree with me on, which is fine, but I’m on the side of inclusivity and righteousness and… I’m joking, mostly): field guides for birds pose a huge barrier to entry to birding as a hobby*, or Why I Love Merlin.
Years ago, I approached a birding booth at an environmental fair. I introduced myself and said I was interested in learning to identify birds, and asked for a book recommendation. The two people in the booth immediately got into an argument over the relative merits of Peterson vs Sibley vs National Geographic, and I backed away, then ran, and didn’t attempt anything related to birds for years afterwards. They made the hobby seem divisive and hard and unfriendly to newbies, so I gave up. I know more birds today (as well as wonderful and unintimidating-except-in-their-brilliance birders), and enjoy trying to identify birds, but I’m a very casual birder outside of my work as a naturalist. Basically, I look for pretty birds in interesting poses and try to create them in paper.
The first field guide I ever used intensively was Reef Fish Identification by Paul Humann. (Yes, best name ever for a field guide author!) Its primary way of sorting fish isn’t by using names that might not be familiar to beginners, but instead broad descriptive categories. For example:
Swim with pectoral fins/obvious scales
My personal favorite: Odd-Shaped Bottom Dwellers
I identified more fish than I would’ve thought possible from my first dive or two! I had no idea what a goby or a blenny was, but I knew I’d seen a small long fish darting around on the sand, so I could jump to the Small, Elongated Bottom Dwellers section and have a good chance of figuring it out. I saw something, I went to the books, I figured it out, and I got hooked. Now, diving is different from birding; it’s awfully hard to take the book with you, and fish are way more diverse in shape and size than birds are.
Still, jumping to bird field guides was a shock after Reef Fish Identification. Many bird books use language that feels hostile and strange as a beginner; it’s almost impossible to find your bird without some serious dedication if you don’t know a thing about bird taxonomy (or even what taxonomy means!) One of my bird field guides explicitly says this.
The books that use simpler methods to sort birds (such as Stan Tekiela’s excellent for beginners but limited in number of birds included “Birds of (State)” books, which are organized by color and then size within that color) don’t help you make the jump to more complex books (identifying way more birds) by teaching you the language you need.
Where did you see the bird? (You can use the location finding on your phone, or just punch in your zip)
When did you see the bird? (meaning date, not time)
What size was the bird? (You get a scale from sparrow to goose)
What were the main colors? (Choose 1-3)
Was the bird… ? (Choose from a list of behaviors, ie at a feeder, in bushes, swimming)
And from that you get a list of potential birds with photos, calls, and some info about them. It’s brilliant: it works with the things you notice as a beginner (color, size, what the bird was doing). Now, thanks to the app, you know that you saw a yellow-rumped warbler this morning. You see a bird this afternoon and think “Huh, that’s kinda the same shape as my yellow-rumped warbler, but stripey and without the yellow!” Congratulations! You now know the shape of a warbler. You know that they tend to be in trees and bushes, because you saw them both there. You can use the app and realize you saw a black and white warbler.** You realize you really like the little guys, and grab a field guide, find the warblers, and are delighted by all the pictures and what other kinds you might see where you live. The next time you see one, you might think “I saw that in my book!” and we’re off to a lifelong delight in birds.
You start to learn some of the technical terms just from seeing them. Your brain does what brains do: builds categories and adds stuff to those categories so they stick. When you find a bird that’s not in the app, you’ve got some of the language for looking in a big field guide.
If you have any interest in birds (any at all!), Merlin is an app worth trying. It’s free! It’s useful! You’ll learn something and get a little more excited about the world!
And (apparently) don’t approach birding booths for advice as a beginner. (I’ll admit that I might have just found a particularly intense pair of people…)
Who cares about correct identification anyhow? Is it really necessary, given that what matters is caring about them? Not everyone needs to be able to identify birds to care about them, they can just be happy with “little yellow guy” and “small grey dude.” That’s fine! That’s valid! Identification isn’t the only way to develop interest or care! I might set a goal of having my students learn 5 birds, but really what I want is for them to care and take action to help birds (and everything else) in the future (which I’ll also write as a goal, but that’s going to be a little harder to assess). My goal is connecting citizens (even the littlest ones!) with natural resources, not necessarily creating professional scientists (and this sentence is a whole other topic that I care passionately about: producing professional scientists absolutely should not be the goal or the perceived goal of science education).
Use of technical terms can be a deliberate way of retaining exclusivity; some terms are necessary, but use too many and you’re creating space between you and people “outside”. Personally, I suck at technical terms. I often know them, but revert to simpler language, partly because as a naturalist my knowledge has to be so broad, and partly because I try not to exclude folks who might not know the topic as well. One of the results of this is having been treated as if I know nothing by some scientists because I don’t use the in-group language. It happens. I could try to get better at code-switching, but.
**Okay, warblers aren’t the greatest example, being mostly dull colors and sometimes very confusing and not always closely related and often not seen but heard and a similar shape to lots of other things, but you get my meaning. I hope. You start to build categories in your brain, and those categories get names. Really, it’s just a bird I saw recently and came to mind. I bet you birders could come up with a better example.
It’s suddenly winter again in the Twin Cities, after a weirdly spring-like February. There are few things that delight me more than driving in new snow. Going slowly, having to pay attention, slip-sliding around corners: I love it. I’m not always good about sitting to meditate, but driving in new snow puts me in the same mental state where the only thing that’s important is paying attention to this moment. Driving in new snow is freeing.
Which is all to say that instead of puttering with paper this week, I’m puttering with wool. Because winter, and because it feels good in my (cold) hands.
The best part of taking pictures of this black-capped chickadee was hearing all the (slightly more lively) black-capped chickadees calling in the tree above me. It started out the process a little less fuzzy-looking, but getting snagged on a few branches changed that quickly.
Needle felting both delights and frustrates me (and also makes me bleed). It’s amazing to watch a shape just appear from repeatedly stabbing some fluff, and challenging to do small details. When I do a paper cutting, it’s hard to tell when to call it done. I’m always tempted to change one last detail. With needle felting, it’s easier to decide when to call the item finished; when I start to feel guilty about repeatedly stabbing what looks like an animal, I know it’s time to stop.
I seem to come back to the same subjects in multiple ways. I’ve done a paper cutting, a sewn stuffed animal, and a felted penguin, for example. A while back, I did a layered paper cutting of a black-capped chickadee. I might pull it out and compare.
My little chickadee is going to hang out on my desk for a while. Of course, the danger there is that I’ll have De-Lovely stuck in my head as long as this little one is around.
I always feel like I know an animal better once I’ve done a paper cutting of it. With as many cranes as I’ve done, I’m starting to feel like they’re old friends! Most of my cranes have been based on photos I took of the whooping cranes at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Walking through grasses, wading and reflected in the water, they always create remarkable silhouettes (and sometimes, with a feather or two astray, downright silly ones!)
Every time I do a paper cutting of a bird, I can’t help but think of Silhouette of a Sparrow. When I first read it, I knew nothing about it, and that’s the way I like to read new-to-me books. Set in Minnesota in the 1920’s, featuring paper cuttings of birds and a coming-of-age story: it’s like the book was written to fulfill a checklist of things I adore. It’s beautiful, and I’m overdue for a reread.