I am not sure any words could quite do Emma Van Leest justice. There sure is a lot of paper engineering / paper folding and cutting around these days... but have you ever seen anything quite like this!? ME neither!
Emma's intricate creations demand a double-take. 'Is that HAND-cut?', 'is that PAPER?' and 'How LONG did that take?' are commonly overheard at an Emma Van Leest show! What is amazing about this work, is that no matter what your interest or knowledge of fine art, Emma's work never fails to engage curiosity! There is just something so mind-boggling about the incredible detail in these works, achieved with the simplest of materials - a sheet of archival paper and a blade.
On completing her honours year in Fine Arts at RMIT in Melbourne, Emma traveled to Indonesia to study Balinese and Javanese folk art - including the ancient art of shadow puppetry. Later, she was the recipient of an Australia Council Emerging Artist’s Travel Grant, and visited China to study traditional Chinese paper cutting techniques. These days her work draws from a myriad of references - Nature and plant-life, orientalism, folk art, Medieval saints, Hindu literature and children's fairytales.
Although she's just 32, Emma's work is quickly gaining notoriety and is already highly collectable. She was recently featured on the TV for an episode of Art Nation (SBS). You can view the segment here to see Emma in action!
Emma Van Leest is represented by John Buckley Gallery in Melbourne.
Huge thanks to Emma for her time, and to Jessie Bridgfoot at John Buckley Gallery for facilitating the interview!
Tell me a little about your background - what path led you to what you’re doing now?
When I was little, I was always making things and drawing and playing elaborate made-up games, but I didn’t think about being an artist until I was at high school. Then, I was at RMIT University doing painting and in second year we had a collage project. I had backpacked around Europe over the summer holidays where I collected a whole lot of collage materials and went to as many art galleries and museums as I could. I walked everywhere, went to the opera for the first time in Vienna, and just soaked it all in. I came back to university and started making little theatre sets, exploring ideas about architectural space and putting figures in these little sets. Paper cutting began from here, almost as a solution to a problem. I had some artist friends who were making a lot of stencil art and I learnt a few techniques off them, and it grew from there.
What have been some favourite recent projects / pieces (would be great if it’s possible to supply images of those you mention if possible?)
I was very proud of the Perpetua works – in particular, the works Perpetua and Héloïse. I really enjoyed participating in the installation of Consumed – it was exciting to do something a little different to my usual work.
What is it that you love most about working with paper?
It’s such an ephemeral, everyday material that we all use. We scribble on it, scrunch it up, throw it out. It’s lightweight and accessible which means that you don’t think of creating something so delicate and painstaking as a papercut with it. It’s exciting to create something of beauty and interest out of it.
How long does each piece take to make as a general rule?
Anything from half an hour for a little piece like Transcend to 2 months for a recent commission I did which was 2.5m x 1m. It also depends on how detailed it is, the shapes I’m cutting, whether I’ve had coffee, etc.
Papercutting is a slightly dangerous craft! Have you had any sliced fingers or devastating last minute mistakes!?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate (touch wood) that I haven’t had any serious cuts when I’ve been paper cutting. If I do get any knicks, it’s usually at the end of the day or after a long period working to a deadline when I’m pretty tired. The phone rings, I try to juggle it with a stencil knife and the next minute I’m reaching for the bandaids. I’ve only ever ruined one artwork with a big slip – it had to be thrown out but it was not a very large work, just something I was mucking around with. You can usually fix or conceal mistakes, or be sneaky and just cut that bit out.
What does a typical day in the studio involve for you?
I try to get in by 10am and I tend to ease my way into the day because I’m not very good in the mornings but I’m pretty productive in the afternoon. I’m a little bit obsessive though and I generally don’t leave the studio until about 5.30. I try to break up the day with a catnap to rest my eyes, or reading a book or calling a friend. Otherwise such repetitive work and a solo environment can drive you a little bit crazy. I’m a devoted Radio National listener and current affairs nerd so I also (sadly) seem to plan my day around the radio schedule.
Where do you turn for creative inspiration – travel, cultural references, books or the web etc?
I turn to all those sources for inspiration – I spend a lot of time in the Baillieu Library at Melbourne University, and I use a lot of photos from my travels overseas. These days I do also go to the internet a lot because there are many more high quality images available than there ever used to be. Sources like the Gutenberg Project are invaluable.
Which other artists or other creative people do you admire?
I admire paper cutters like Michael Velliquette and Chris Natrop, who push the boundaries of the medium out of craft, really it’s more sculpural. I love the work of jewelry maker Katherine Bowman – her objects are like talismans and her use of textiles motifs and the handmade presence resonate strongly for me. My friend Geneine Honey at Little Salon has shown me how creativity and commerce can work together and everything in her shop is beautiful.
What is the best thing about your job?
There are plenty of things about being an artist that are not great – the lonely hours, very sore arm, and of course the constant money issues. But I love working for myself and setting my own projects. Coming in to work and creating an artwork about Captain Cook’s voyages, for example, is a pretty great way to spend your professional life. It’s wonderful to have a job where you’re not hanging out for the weekend all the time.
What would be your dream creative project?
A really physically huge commission with lots of time and space for research, thinking and refining. Something involving travelling to my favourite places in India or Europe (and complimentary business class airfares!).
What are you looking forward to?
All sorts of things – having a big studio at home one day, doing artwork full time, doing interesting things and travelling more.
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
Fitzroy North – where I live. It’s a bit too cool for school these days and outrageously expensive, but I love the wide leafy streets, how close it is to everything and of course, the shops and cafes are great.
What/where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
My husband and I recently went to Enoteca Sileno in North Carlton which was lovely Italian, very classic and beautifully made. I’m addicted to cured meats and they have a separate menu for cured meats so I was a happy girl.
Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools of your trade?
I don’t generally need much more than paper and cutting mats - I shop at Deans Art in Fitzroy and the city. I have a box of 1000 blades that I got from the US so I never run out.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
It would probably involve a sleep-in, then eating a home-cooked breakfast or a coffee and croissant from Loafer on Scotchmer Street. Reading the paper from front page to back and arguing about politics. Then the boring house stuff that I’ve been putting off all week!
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
The Merri Creek trail. It runs down to the Yarra and links up with trails all over the city. You almost feel like you’re in the bush in some parts of it.