One look at the layers of intricately cut paper put together by Melbourne-based artist Emma van Leest will give you an idea about how much work, imagination, and attention to detail went into making each piece. We're sure her cut-outs will pique your interest, so we invite you to take a look at her and learn more about the artist after the jump!
It’s one thing to make something “artsy” out of paper, and another to painstakingly cut intricate details and images to create compelling visuals and stories out of it. This is why the works of paper cutting artists like Emma van Leest remain fascinating and inspiring at this time and age.
Born and still residing in Melbourne, Australia, Emma completed her honours year in Fine Arts in RMIT University, Melbourne and has been showcasing her beautiful archival paper cut-outs in solo and group exhibitions since then. She is represented by Tim Olsen Gallery in Sydney and John Buckley Gallery in Melbourne.
Wanting to know more about Emma and her mastery in paper cutting, we got in touch with her and asked a few questions about her beginnings, inspirations, and creative processes as an artist.
1. Can you tell us something about yourself and what you do?
I am a paper cutting artist – I was born and grew up in Melbourne, and still live there today with my husband and my one-year-old son.
2. When did you start making those beautifully detailed cut-outs? What was it like for you at the beginning?
I started paper cutting almost by accident, to solve a sort of problem. We had been given a collage assignment at art school in my 2nd year and I had traveled through Europe during the Christmas/new year holiday. I was inspired by the rich history and amazing architecture I saw there, which, to someone who had always lived in suburban Melbourne, Australia with its huge spaces and newness, was really life-changing. I started to make my collages into little surreal theater sets, and the paper cutting process stemmed from that.
At the start, it was very simple and I was just sort of feeling my way forward. I thought of these little paper artworks as exercises for my ‘proper work’, which was oil painting. Slowly it dawned on me that I enjoyed paper cutting more, the work was more successful and, most importantly, my paintings weren’t all that good!
3. We’ve read that your cut-outs typically portray references in children’s stories, folk art, medieval saints, and Hindu literature. Is/are there any reason/s for choosing cut-outs to represent them?
Using cut-outs or silhouettes makes all these little figures into puppets – it removes them from their context and places them in a fanciful landscape. Because I am adopting things from all over the place, like a kind of greedy bowerbird, I don’t feel that I should just appropriate stuff and pass it off – it is remade as cutouts, reinterpreted into my own little worlds.
4. Aside from the references mentioned above, what else serves as your inspiration for your art?
All sorts of stuff, like any artist! It started as a homage to Joseph Cornell, but I also have a general fascination with dioramas, decoration, miniaturised spaces and what my husband refers to as ‘little systems’. I have all sorts of little systems in my work, and rules. For example, I have never included a cat, or a mythical creature. I rarely include children. I have no idea why, but I just don’t.
5. Do you still remember the first cut-out that you did? Can you tell us about it and maybe show us a photo of it as well?
It would have been one of those little theater sets I did in 2nd year, and I have no idea where a photo of it would be!
6. Have you ever been influenced by other similar paper cutting techniques, such as Chinese paper cutting? If yes, how did you incorporate them in your own work?
I actually traveled to China to look at their paper cutting techniques, and found their approach was so different to mine (I use a blade, for example, and most paper cutting artists I saw there used little scissors) that I found more visual inspiration in looking at Chinese comic books, illustrations, decoration and garden design. I am really self-taught (with a few pointers from stencil artists I used to share a studio with) and a bit of an art hermit, so I don’t really have many influences in that sense.
When I traveled to Indonesia to investigate folk art there, I spent a week in the studio of a shadow puppet master craftsman called Pak Sagio. He was an amazing person, thoroughly committed to the exacting technique and the rich storytelling traditions behind his art. His commitment to perfect, consistent standards taught me a lot about the benefits of honing a few techniques to perfection. I often have in mind the idea of Jane Austen’s “… little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labor.”
7. The layering of contrasting colors in your finished pieces are certainly eye-catching; would you say that playing with shades and colors also allow you to convey the messages or tell the stories better?
Yes, absolutely. I still work predominantly with white paper on grey or blue backgrounds to emphasize the shadows. There is something so captivating to me about beautiful shadows – the impermanent, evocative nature of them, the way they change and are fleeting. I still want to do a series which is just all about shadows.
8. Is there anything that you still wish or plan to achieve/make using your expertise in paper cutting?
Yes, loads – I want to make larger scale installations, I want to master some computer stuff so I can do editions, I can see loads of opportunities in design (especially textiles and set design) and installation art. I’ve been doing paper cutting for 10 years now but it still really only feels like I’m starting out.
9. What do you consider the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your chosen technique?
The most challenging aspect of the technique is that it is still very time consuming.
The most rewarding aspect is that I still love the way it looks when it’s finished.
10. Lastly, do you have any upcoming exhibits or shows where we can catch you and your work?
I am involved in a show about paper cutting called “CUT” at the University of Southern Queensland, in Toowoomba from 16 July – 8 August 2013. See the USQ Artsworx Website for more information.
My work is still touring with the show “The First Cut” in the United Kingdom. It opens at the Southampton SeaCity Museum on 11 October 2013. See Manchester Art Gallery Website for more information!
I am also exhibiting in “Legends & Myths of the World” in October at the ARAM Art Gallery in Goyang City, South Korea.
Thank you so much, Emma, for finding the time to answer our questions and telling us about your amazing and inspiring work!