The meticulous nature of paper art is akin to Damien Hirst’s “Fly Painting,” without being macabre and ethically questionable, retaining that sense of an artist’s pain in laborious repetition and in an unforgivingly small medium.
Muneca Arthouse in Blue Point hosts New York City-based paper artist Tifa Chii from April 10 to May 8, and her perfect-for-spring bright and colorful collection that is guaranteed to inspire childlike-curiosity in its Pixar-worthy whimsy and wise adulation in its commitment to form and hope.
The Suffolk County News sat down with the artist during the opening reception (which included luxury sprinkled, pink princess cupcakes baked by Chii).
Sam Desmond: What is it like working with paper? Especially in 3-D?
Tifa Chii: When I first started university, I started in fine arts and then switched to illustration, which is mostly digital. And I hate to say it—but I didn’t like working digitally.
S.D.: What was it about digital? Was it not tactile enough for you?
T.C.: Yes! Crafting was where I naturally wanted to go. For a while, I tried different media, like painting, and while I enjoyed it, I like this better. I wasn’t getting as much joy out of painting as I thought I would. Then I started silkscreening, which I fell in love with.
S.D.: How did you get into paper?
T.C.: There was a paper artist that came onto my Instagram feed and I thought, I can delve into this. For my senior thesis at university, I made my whole project in paper and I fell in love. It’s actually through my senior thesis where I made a couple of birds and I reached out to a director who gave me feedback on how to get into the studio, and a couple of months later he had a project come in for birds for Chobani.
S.D.: So it was meant to be?
T.C.: Serendipitous. But, yes.
S.D.: What type of paper is it? Like, is it different weights?
T.C.: I use a variety of papers; it’s not so much the weight. I make sure all the paper is acid-free, so it doesn’t yellow over time. I go between Strathmore 500 series, a really nice archival paper, to craft paper like you see at Michael’s or JoAnn’s. I get a feel for what works best for the piece.
S.D.: Now, for the carousel piece [“Life’s a Happy Song”], did you start making the figures with the idea of it being a moving, interactive piece, or did that come later?
T.C.: I knew I wanted to make something interactive. About two years ago in 2019, I went out to California for a convention called “Lightbox,” and there is an artist out there who made an interactive, intricate, full theme park, so it inspired me to make something that drew in the audience with movement. I knew I wanted a carousel and I spoke with my partner, who has a mechanical engineering background, and he told me what he would need to make the platform. So I drew up size and dimensions and from there, we slowly pecked at it.
S.D.: When you do pieces that are more architectural, more 3-D, what are the challenges of doing that with paper?
T.C.: Probably my biggest challenge is the math involved! I’m not very good with math, but to create those pieces you need to use trigonometry and geometry. Like this one piece, I had to determine how many sides it had, its size, and to be sure it could lay flat.
S.D.: Now, for smaller pieces, like the detail on the carousel, where it repeats, are these punch-
outs or individually cut?
T.C.: Prior to the pandemic, everything I made was hand-cut. The bird was all done by hand. I think it goes back to what I had distaste for in digital; I didn’t want to work with technology and pre-made things. Ironically, my partner is an efficiency consultant and was always harping on me on how to make my process faster, so over the pandemic, we ended up getting a Silhouette Cameo, which is a plotter-cutter machine, similar to the Cricut. It’s similar to Illustrator or vector programs where you sketch out what you want.
S.D.: So it’s all still your designs?
T.C.: Oh absolutely, I just have a machine doing the grunt work, rather than everything being hand done. We recently got a laser cutter.
S.D.: Don’t you live in the city? How do you have room for all this?
T.C.: So our apartment is actually 850 square feet—
S.D.: Oh my God, where?!
T.C.: Jackson Heights, it’s awesome, the food is great!
S.D.: Did you just take over the whole space?
T.C.: My partner travels frequently for his job, so I have my silkscreening area, my woodworking area, my laser cutter.
S.D.: So what glue do you use? Is that like a fancy glue, too?
A: All my glue is acid-free. I wouldn’t call it “fancy”—
S.D.: It’s not like Elmer’s?
T.C.: Actually...With this piece ["Reach for the Stars"], I made this as part of a program with this master paper artist, and since I always worked with color, I was apprehensive about working in all white, but that’s what he does. Jeff Nishinaka taught some techniques about how to manipulate an all-white piece. Prior to this, I had always used a tacky, acid-free glue that I used syringes to apply. He was taught to only use Elmer’s glue; it’s archival, acid-free. Usually, we just think of Elmer’s as a school glue, but no, it’s fabulous.
S.D.: Now this piece [“Autumnus, Ostara, Aestas, Skaui”], I love the layering of it!
T.C.: This was actually the first piece I made for this solo show. I wanted to make something fun and flirty, so I thought working with the season—these are my seasonal girls—and what we typically do in those seasons. This was right at the beginning of the pandemic, so it was the wishful thinking of what we wanted to do instead of being stuck at home.