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November 11, 2011

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Magical world of paper cut artist

ON a plain wooden door, a leafy tendril catches your eye - it emerges through a crack from a hidden world beyond. Round a corner and the walled garden reveals itself - a delicate forest of winter trees, white and black, with a small girl navigating her way through the thicket. Only, there is something surreal about this garden - the ground from which the forest springs is a book, and the trees themselves are carved from wafer-thin pages. This scene is a creation of British paper artist Su Blackwell, entitled "The Secret Garden," and is created from the children's book of the same name.

Blackwell, 36, takes books and turns them inside out, extracting plots, themes, words and illustrations, molding them into beautiful sculptures on top of the pages.

"I thought it was a shame that books are closed and nobody sees these illustrations unless you pick it up," she says. "So I started cutting out the illustrations and putting them on the outside of the book, rather than having them on the inside."

Blackwell soon progressed to storybooks she had loved as a child, reimagining the stories as delicate paper sculptures: "I was looking through all these old books in the second-hand bookshops, coming across childhood books I'd read as a child and had a big influence on me growing up, such as 'Alice in Wonderland,' 'The Secret Garden'," she says. "The stories kind of come out in a visual way as part of the sculpture."

Not just pictures, but words themselves add depth to the artworks: "I cut out particular words and particular things so it has another layer of meaning."

Blackwell's book experiments have led to a successful paper sculpture career over the last five years, winning her scholarships and commissions, and leading to many solo and group exhibitions in the UK, Australia and America.

Most recently she was in Shanghai, touring a sculpture commissioned by hotel chain Fairmont, created from one of the hotel chain's own guest books. The work depicted in filigree detail four of Fairmont's most famous hotels, from the Savoy in London to the Peace Hotel on the Bund. The piece took three weeks just to construct, let alone the time spent beforehand researching and planning. "The challenge was getting everything that we wanted to on the book. Because you're kind of constricted, restricted to a size," Blackwell said.

Another obstacle was trying to faithfully recreate buildings Blackwell had never seen in real life. Photos of the hotels might show only the facade of a particular hotel, so Blackwell had to make an educated guess for the rest. Arriving in Shanghai, she was relieved to find she had portrayed the famous hotel accurately, down to the shape of its roof tiles. "I don't think it's too bad, because I stood out on the river last night looking up and thinking 'yeah, it's quite similar'," she laughed.

Despite China's long-established paper-cutting tradition, Blackwell only began to investigate the Chinese art form after establishing herself as a paper artist. She was initially inspired to work with paper during a holiday in 2003 to Thailand and Laos. At the time she was a student at London's Royal College of Art, and had been working mainly with clothing and embroidery, but seeing Southeast Asian funeral effigies made of paper made a deep impression. "In Thailand and Laos I came across spiritual rituals incorporating paper as part of the ritual, so that was really a catalyst of where it started. I was interested in using materials that had a cyclical process, and with paper coming from trees then rotting back into the earth, that was the reason I began using paper.

"I was interested in looking at life after death and the philosophy of everything being impermanent."

There was, however, a Chinese influence in her first book sculpture, created using a book purchased on that Thailand holiday. A Chinese friend told Blackwell a myth about two lovers who die and are reincarnated from ashes as butterflys. "I cut moths from the pages all by hand, and then had the moths suspended, and I kind of put it inside a frame," she says.

The idea of impermanence has remained important in Blackwell's work. She does not lacquer her artworks, so they will eventually return to the earth where the paper came from.

Death, which inspired her love of paper, remains a strong theme - Blackwell is drawn to fairy tales, which in their original forms are often full of dark magic and unhappy endings.

Indeed, fairy tales dominate Blackwell's upcoming projects: she is designing a theater set for a London production of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," and has illustrated a book of fairy tales which will be published next autumn. Her enthusiasm for paper art has not dimmed, however: she feels she has only begun a relationship with the medium. "It still feels early stages."


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