29th Birthday

My best friend turned 29. We are rarely together on either of our birthdays and so I get great joy out of making sure what I send is exciting. This year I decided to make a card. Conveniently I had scraps of paper and card from other projects and left over red envelope from a failed previous Christmas card that was never sent. 

I wrote a nice message on the back, but the front appears as if it's been cut out in stencil form. But in reality they are pasted on the front of this heavy white cardstock. I agonized over the color arrangement. I think it came out well!


Papercutting, for me, has been an autodidactic hobby. (I like a ten dollar word, I won't apologize). I have never seen a class at a local college, an activity day at a festival or specialist training. To be honest, it is a bit obscure. I buy paper from an art shop and often take it home on the bus because of its size (A1 or often 22''x30''). I often get asked if I am an artist because of these same large sheets of paper wrapped in plastic sheeting to protect against the omnipresent British Damp. I avoid the question because I think it's prickly and say that I do papercutting. I get a lot of blank stares. Even the recent Matisse exhibition in London, prohibitively expensive as far as I was concerned, has not really given way to a greater knowledge about the practice. I'm not suggesting it should have either. If there is anywhere in the world that likes an eccentric toiling at an obscure hobby, it's Britain.

The primary source of information on papercutting is the internet. There are a host of videos and tutorials and patterns to be had. Maybe someday I'll produce a list. But the internet is often too full and as Edina Monsoon once said, "I don't want more choice. I just want nicer things". So I practiced and drew (still not my strong point) and came up with reasonable solutions to getting designs onto paper so I can cut them out.

It often happens that I want some design on paper and then work backwards to figure out how to get it there, so I can cut it out. My latest and largest piece is an example of this. I first found a large heavy (90lbs) piece of paper (Bockingford Watercolour) I liked the texture of. Then I thought I'd try and draw out a huge map of Chicago. Because I was born there and spent formative years there it's one of my favorite test options for new projects. It also, pleasingly, has grids and points of intense detail.

As you can see I didn't quite draw out all the lines. I realized that I'd forgotten one part of Grant Park until well into the cutting. Navy Pier played an important part in this process since it anchors the whole right side to the frame.

I decided that on this project I would actually use a stopwatch to see how long it took me to design, draw, and cut.
 Long story short: 35 hours.

I'm particularly proud of these bits where I was trying out a few new ways of cutting to achieve better results. But I love how it all came out.

Circle Series

I've become enamored with the idea of a series of map cuts. One of the constituent parts of cartography is canvassing a landscape and creating boundaries for a map. What do I include? How do I represent it? What needs to be included for the map to match its purpose? What is the orientation? Traditional European cartography always orients the top of the map as north. A convention so common we don't even notice. It's one I intend to upset at some point. Consider Fra Mauro's world map. He was a Venetian Camaldolese monk who made what was considered one of the most significant maps of the world at the time. It was incomparable. It was also oriented like Chinese and Islamic maps of the time, with the south at the top. An interesting perspective and reflection on the paradigms and world views of those societies.

Most of my map cutting has been rectilinear; they are more or less street maps without the names. It's very classic and recognizable. The name of the city is provided by me, but not on the map. What I noticed was that in giving them to people, it's the landmarks on which they orient themselves first. We are not used to looking at everything from above, in an abstract linear sense and knowing where we are. Once oriented to the landscape, recognition arrives gradually. It slowly dawns, these waves of revelation, as the map starts to take on meaning.

I decided that I wanted to make a series of maps that focused on these landmarks. I thought that in choosing a circle, like Fra Mauro, I owed something to the planisphere, though clearly my maps aren't adjustable or useful for star charting. As proof-of-concept I created my first map of Oxford. Rather than make the map circle centered on a square of paper as I initially thought I would, I moved it up in my design and added the name of the city to the bottom. This was the mock I drew before I cut:
The diameter of the circle actually presents some difficulties in choosing how to frame what's captured because the periphery is lost. I wanted to capture the Iffley roundabout (in the bottom right where the three roads diverge) which leads to Cowley and Oxford Brookes Uni, St Giles (where Woodstock and Banbury roads meet at the top left) and the Isis (the bits of the thames river). It can actually be difficult to tell with the mock just how it will look without the black, but I needed the waterways to be identifiable as such. 

You can see that in the final result it looks much nicer than my drawing. The drawing is always very rough and the lines are much cleaner when swept away from the surrounding paper. You can also see how fragile it appears (it's actually quite flexible) when it isn't adhered to the page. I chose an Oxford Blue backing because, well, that's the colour of the University (and the nickname for its sponsored sports teams). 

I had to add the cut outs from the 'O', 'R', and 'D' back in. Otherwise it looks peculiar and lopsided. I've yet to find a stencil font that I like well enough to swap it for Eurostile, which I traced and cut out. 

In the end the proof-of-concept worked and I created ones of Berlin and London (1, 2, 3). The circular scope focuses on particular landmarks and I think works quite well. What's next for this series is to create a triptych version where it isn't the city that's the focus but the landscape. I want to put three side by side where the common feature is noticeable and thematically linked, but I have yet to find what that theme is. I'm mulling over Washington, D.C.; Canberra, A.C.T.; and another as yet undiscovered district that shares the strange set up of these enclaves. But perhaps I'll focus on train stations which are a feature I've highlighted in my London Thames map where the train lines draw into London Bridge, Waterloo, and Victoria as well as my map of Antwerp. Expect more on that subject in a later post. 

The View from Above

This is one of my favorite pieces: Roosevelt Island in New York City. I came upon this place quite by accident. I've been to NYC twice in my life, once in 2010 on my way from London to Chicago and once in July to meet my family and friends half-way between the two in 2013. I bought an MTA pass and wanted to go wandering. I wanted to see the HighLine and all manner of transport related things. I ended up accidentally seeing that there was a stop on an Island in the middle of the East River. 

What I love about this island is that it has a cable car (of the flying variety). You can see it next to the bridge. Check out that sky. 

The view from the cable car. It was me and a whole car full of Chassidic women and their charges. An authentic experience I think you call it.  

There's an old asylum on the Island, which adds a delightful gothic flair. 

I spent several hours walking the island and deeply enjoying the height of a glorious NY summer. In previous map cutting exercises with islands in rivers I usually just left the entire island white to signify a lack of roads at the scale of the rest of the map. However, that seemed disingenuous to the experience of the island. So I attempted to finely trace the edges of the island and then a few of the paths to give a sense of it as an accessible space.

One of the primary difficulties I have when I am drawing my lines for cutting is the shoreline. There are several different ways to approach this. It gets complicated when roads run right up to the edge as they often do in large cities. In this photo you can see that the large sections of white represent area that has no road but is not the river. This is sometimes convenient when there are parks or beaches, but in a place like Manhattan or London the roads run alongside and I have to determine how much space to give to maintain the character of what I'm cutting. In this case it turned out quite well. However, I'm likely to cut it differently again the next time because I dislike the thin line at the shore. In other pieces I've made the river boundary thin or made the river solid. This is what I mean when I talk about experimenting with representation and why I like to return to my designs and try something new.