Su Blackwell uses every trick in the book to produce unforgettable paper sculptures
Once upon a time, a struggling artist set out to dedicate her life to creating work she could believe in. And make money. Within five years, she was exhibiting her creations at New York’s Museum of Art and Design and accepting commissions for the likes of Cartier and Vogue.
The rise and rise of artist Su Blackwell is as wonderful as the fairy tales that inspire her staggeringly sophisticated three-dimensional sculptures. The results, as you can see on these pages, are amazing. Previous works have included a papery Captain Hook galleon rising from the pages of Peter Pan, an exquisite origami tree soaring from the contents page of Alice Through The Looking Glass, tiny swans flying behind clusters of trees created from the novel The Wild Swans and a paper moon casting shadows across frozen trees from The Snow Queen.
These are uniquely evocative works of art where books explode into a new life of their own after being meticulously handcrafted with a small scalpel and a big imagination.
“It all started when I found a second-hand copy of the book The Quiet American in a shop in Thailand,” says Blackwell. “It had marks in the margin and notes in Thai.
“As an artefact, it was fascinating and had a life. At the time I was very interested in the use of paper in Asian spiritual ceremonies—the ideas of life after death and origami techniques from China and Japan. A year later, I’d created a piece with origami moths flying from the pages of the book.”
Blackwell says the work started simply but soon gained a momentum of its own. “It seemed a pity to me that when a book is on a 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.”
Soon Blackwell’s work was being featured in Vogue; she had acquired a studio, a representative 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 would 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 of a child lost in the foliage of The Secret Garden, was 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 creates 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.
“I particularly enjoy the different levels of fairy tales,” she says. “I like the work to be like the book—to transport me somewhere else. And I find the levels of the macabre and grotesque fascinating. They also have a legacy. They’ve been around for hundreds of years, passed down from generation to generation, slightly changing to fit each one, often watered down and sugar-coated. I find that interesting in itself.”
Blackwell’s clients are as varied as her art. “I’ve carried out private commissions for authors such as Carolyn Parkhurst to create a cover for her book The Nobodies Album and Alistair Grim’s Odd Aquaticum for Disney Hyperion. I also did a private piece for Roma Ryan, the lyricist for the singer Enya,” she reveals.
On one occasion, a woman who had lived in a picturesque house in the British village of Edensor asked Blackwell to create a sculpture of her home. She went, took some photos, did some sketches and then sculptured the work.
“Often people approach me with books that have a particular significance to them. Sometimes the commission is very specific, but often the client leaves the concept to me.”
Blackwell is keen to focus on art exhibitions. In addition to shows at New York’s prestigious Museum of Art and Design, she has created installations at the famous Brontë Parsonage Museum in the UK, where the famous author sisters wrote Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.
“I had complete freedom to do what I wanted. It took three months to set up sculptures in six rooms and they were very site-specific, using objects found within them. So in Mr Brontë’s room, for example, a nightgown looks as though it is sitting up and dissolving into thousands of moths flying from its stomach. In another, the text from a diary spirals up into the air.”
A new exhibition of her work titled Dwelling is running at the Pola Museum of Art in Ginza, Tokyo, until June 22 before moving on to London. “I created nine new book sculptures based on dwelling as an imaginative space,” she explains. “They are inspired by folk stories from the pages they are carved from and include dwellings such as lighthouses, wood cottages and tree-huts. They are small, about the size of my thumb, but made with painstaking detail.”
The years of success have taught her some valuable lessons, foremost of which is the importance of dedication to the work and to do the work to please herself. “It’s also important to find a balance between personal work and commercial work,” she adds.
And there is certainly plenty of commercial work. Blackwell’s oeuvre has spanned magazine covers as varied as the Financial Times, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair and Intelligent Life. She conceived an animated advert for Volvo featuring fairytale paper trees and cardboard cars. In Paris, she built storybook stagecoaches and castles for Cartier as well as blossoms, butterflies and secret gardens for Kenzo and Harvey Nichols.
Last year she was commissioned to create a design from a 1920s book about flowers for Liberty Art Fabrics and is currently working on a worldwide campaign for British Airways and American Express.
Despite all this success, Blackwell has made a point of working within the community, helping out at schools, organising community art events and nurturing new artists.
“It’s important for me to get out of my studio and see what’s going on in the world. Otherwise, I exist in a bubble. I think it’s important to share my skills with young people and it gives me a huge sense of satisfaction to see children excited about their projects. They come up with some great ideas.”
Clearly, there are many more chapters to enjoy from our papery princess. And, like all good fairy tales, this one has a very happy ending that will keep on going.