Every trick in the book… unique art sculptures from vintage novels
It’s perfect fairytale story material. Struggling artist sets out to dedicate her life to creating work she can believe in and – more challengingly– make a living. Within five years, the happy ending is in sight. The artist is exhibiting her work in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Design and accepting commissions for the likes of Cartier and Vogue. The fairy stories that Su Blackwell once enjoyed as a child are taking on a life of their own as sophisticated three-dimensional sculptures inspired and created from the pages of dusty second-hand books.
So, for example, a papery Captain Hook galleon rises from the pages of Peter Pan, an exquisite origami tree raises from the contents page of Alice Through The Looking Glass, upon which are perched book illustrations of Alice and white rabbit. Tiny swans fly behind wild trees created from the novel The Wild Swans; a paper moon casts eerie shadows across the frozen poplars formed from pages The Snow Queen.
Anyway you get the idea. These books explode into life by being meticulously crafted with a small scalpel and a big imagination. “I was found a second hand copy of the book The Quiet American in a shop in Thailand and it had marks in the margin and notes made in Thai. As an artefact it was fascinating and had a life,” Blackwell tells Jumeirah. “At the time I was also very interested in the use of paper in Asian spiritual ceremonies, the ideas of life after death and origami techniques from China and Japan and a concept gradually evolved. A year later I’d created a piece with origami moths flying from the pages of the book.”
According the artist the work started out simply and gained a momentum of its own. “It seemed a pity to me that when a book is on a dusty shelf nobody can see what’s inside for years,” she says. “So I began creating paper flowers using illustrations from natural history books or bird sculptures from wildlife volumes and it evolved from there.”
By 2004, Blackwell’s work was being featured in Vogue, she had acquired a studio, a gallery, Long & Ryle, and was beginning to take commissions. “I have wanted to be an artist all my life,” she says. “I had an MA from the Royal College of Art and I thought I will give myself five years to see if I could make a living out of creating art that I love or reconsider my future.”
Although the book sculptures proved to be a runaway success, learning the labour-intensive techniques necessary to create, say, a paper illustration child lost in the foliage of The Secret Garden, were challenging to say the least. “I had mentors, but found that many were not so keen to share all their secrets,” she says. “In the end I had to find out for myself. You need a lot of patience because the work is so closely detailed, but I think I may have inherited that from my father who used to spend hours making model boats.”
Blackwell says that she allows the works to evolve. There are no preliminary sketches or specific shapes in mind when she constructs her intricate lace-like constructions. The scalpel sharp surgery she carries out on her books may reveal a classic illustration or adopt a specific scene like frozen theatre. The wonderful Girl In The Woods, pictured here, with its “floating leaves” is a particular favourite.
“I enjoy the different levels within fairy tales,” she says. “I like the work to be like the book to transport me somewhere else. And I often find the levels of the macabre and grotesque fascinating.”
Prices for Blackwell’s art start from around US$5,000 and “generally a few weeks” to create. However, the artist does work 10 hours a day, at least six days a week. “It’s very labour intensive and takes a lot of energy.”
Although she had carried out a commercial work for companies such as Cartier, Blackwell is keen to focus on the creation of specific art exhibitions in the coming months. In November she is showing at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh and in October an exhibition of her work at New York’s prestigious Museum of Modern Art and Design.
“It’s been insanely busy really and I want to focus on these shows and perhaps take fresh approaches and develop new ideas,” Blackwell says. “Recently I revisited a work I’d created from the idea from a Burmese legend called While You Were Sleeping. According to legend when you sleep your soul leaves in the form of a butterfly, so I created a huge dress dissolving into hundreds of butterflies.” The result is mesmerising. As the fabric of the paper dress unravels the air becomes filled with tiny paper wings.
So what’s the future hold for Blackwell? “I’m finishing a commission for Cartier and I’m working on an idea for Pandora’s Box,” she says. “I have a trip to Hong Kong next month, I want to create some larger works, enjoy some new influences, research some new ideas…” Clearly, there are plenty more chapters to enjoy from our papery princess.