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Paper Art

By Charles Purdy

From traditional origami to abstract sculptures, paper inspires these artists.

Origami horse made of folded money, by Nguyễn Hùng Cường
Origami shark by Nguyễn Hùng Cường

When we talk about history’s most significant inventions, paper is often overlooked. Sure, the printing press gets a nod: Johannes Gutenberg’s 15th-century invention is credited with democratizing knowledge and giving literacy quite a boost (though, in fact, the Chinese printer Bi Sheng invented the world’s first-known movable-type machine a few centuries before Gutenberg came along).

But none of it would’ve been possible without paper. Developed in China at the start of the second century, paper spread quickly to other parts of Asia and then, more slowly, traveled to Europe. Before its arrival, the use of impractical, costly, or rare materials like leaves, parchment, and vellum made jotting something down a luxury. Comparatively, paper (made of wood pulp or rags) was inexpensive and easy to produce in bulk. The masses were free to doodle.

And paper isn’t just for putting art on. It’s also for making art with. In China and Japan, people began folding paper into beautiful shapes not too long after paper’s invention; origami, zhezhi (Chinese paper folding), origami's cousin kirigami (the cutting and gluing of paper), and paper quilling are still vibrant art forms today, and artists are reinterpreting these traditions in countless ways.

In this feature, we’re sharing the work of just a few of these artists:

Nguyễn Hùng Cường (the artist behind Horse and Great White Shark) is expanding the definition of origami with his beautiful paper creations—which he says can be viewed as craft, science, or art. (See more of Nguyễn’s origami.) 

Abstract origami by Giang Dinh

Of his semi-abstract origami designs (such as Dream Dancer), artist Giang Dinh says, “Sometimes I have an idea in mind; sometimes I just play with a piece of paper and things come unexpectedly. I think it is fun and wonderful. You do not force the paper to go your way...let it show you where it wants to go.” (See more of Dinh’s origami.)

Carved paper art by Charles Clary
Carved paper art by Charles Clary

Charles Clary uses paper to create what he calls a “world of fiction.” His playful abstract paper carvings fascinate the eye with intriguing colors and shapes. (See more of Clary’s artwork.)

A colorful paper bat - paper art by Zim & Zou
A colorful paper video camera - paper art by Zim & Zou

Lucie Thomas and Thibault Zimmermann are better known as Zim & Zou. Their studio focuses on handcrafted objects—made of paper and other materials—that are very much in demand. They created these pieces for the SXSW Film Festival. (See more of Zim & Zou’s creations.)

Paper art by Eiko Ojala - a paper sculpture representing David Bowie
Paper art by Eiko Ojala - a paper scultpure representing New York City

Eiko Ojala’s beautifully crafted minimalist designs are based in paper art; they have appeared in Wired, the New Yorker, Le Monde, and many other publications. (See more of Ojala’s artwork.)

Quilled paper dress by Ella Kasperowicz

Quilling is the coiling and shaping of narrow paper strips to create a design—it requires only paper, glue, and something to curl paper with, but the results can be beautifully intricate. Ella Kasperowicz created this quilled dress when she was a 15-year-old student. (See more of Kasperowicz’s portfolio.) 

Paper art by Luke Bugbee, titled

Luke Bugbee was commissioned to create his work The Lion and the Lamb for a church in California. He says this piece was his most challenging and most rewarding—in part because he used strips of paper with different widths, in order to give the piece depth. (See more of Bugbee’s quilling.)

Long-Bin Chen uses recycled phone books, newspapers, and other paper materials to create his remarkable sculptures. He says that his work is meant to encourage discussion about consumption and waste. (See more of Chen’s artwork.)

Book carvings by Julia Strand

Julia Strand uses X-Acto knives, tweezers, rulers, and “lots of glue” to create her carvings. She says she cuts only books that are out of date, giving them a second life as works of art. (See more of Strand’s carvings.)

Paper art by Marc Hagan-Guirey, representing the Amityville Horror House
Paper art by Marc Hagan-Guirey, representing the Dakota, the building made famous as the apartment building in Rosemary's Baby.

Marc Hagan-Guirey’s first venture into the world of kirigami resulted in his wonderful Horrorgami project—13 haunted houses (such as the Dakota from Rosemary’s Baby and the Amityville Horror house), each cut from a single sheet of paper. (See more of Hagan-Guirey’s work.)

So when you’re looking for inspiration, consider the possibilities of a simple piece of paper—and then start folding, cutting, and gluing your next masterpiece.