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With apologies to Eleanor Roosevelt

January 1, 2010

Entropy happens.

A brief interlude to focus on the written word turned into several months far too long. That’s no good. But it’s also in the past, like the rest of 2009, which can only be a good thing. So, here’s not so much a resolution but a determination: Do one thing every day that’s creative. “That scares you” is also an acceptable ending, but at the moment that’s a little high-art for the projects I’m planning.

Because I’m me, I wound up trying to jump back into paper mache with a huge project, and now it’s been two and half months since the rabbit got his ears. He’s still sitting on top of my bookshelf, faceless and unfinished. That can’t stand either, but the first task should be getting my work space in order. It’s a madhouse in this apartment. There’s no room to do much of anything.

Unless that thing is scribbling doodles in a blank notebook. Which happened this week: I started thinking about New Year’s resolutions, and then I got all excited about changing my life, and then I couldn’t sleep, even though it was right before my bedtime. (This is inevitably when the ideas come.) I want to try a series of very simple shapes — little house forms or boxes, most likely — and mix it up with some found objects and collage. I promise it’ll make more sense when I have examples. Or better sketches. First, however, I need to trade in the unfun mess, which has to go away before the fun one can really start. Thank goodness for a long weekend.

Happy 2010, everybody!

Adventures in vlogging (is that still a word?)

October 30, 2009

Okay, this is an experiment. I decided to give video a try, and this is my first time with this, so your mileage may vary. A friend who I screened this for giggled a lot and very fondly told me I was a huge, adorable dork, so my hope is that you’ll be similarly kind.

I was hesitant to put this up before finding out whether attaching the rabbit’s ears at this stage was a good idea or not, but what the hey, we’ll find out soon enough.

The versatility tango

October 23, 2009

Just one of many wonderful and whimsical pieces by FionaArt on Etsy

Just one of many wonderful and whimsical pieces by FionaArt on Etsy

Any artist can say their medium of choice is versatile, and the truth is that all of them are. You can make equally astounding and nonintuitive objects or images with clay, with wires, with painted canvases, with glass, with digital photography, with anything — the sky really is the limit. One thing that I personally enjoy about paper mache is how it can so easily be used for works of differing sizes. From a life-sized dinosaur to a small bead, it’s all game.

When I was little, I always went right for the jugular. I didn’t want to waste my time with vases or picture frames or jewelry boxes — I wanted to make coat-hanger snakes and flying pigs and enough monsters to fill my parents’ house! And there are some ways in which bigger is easier for beginners. Subtle curves or little edges require a lot of patience and a lot of experimentation as you figure out what size strips (1 cm or less? yeah, I’ve done it) will preserve the shape you want without the final piece winding up full of wrinkles and loose edges.

Another great thing about big projects is that you can really go crazy with decorations and mixed media. You’ve just made yourself an awesome canvas — so use it!


I love the expression on this guy’s face. There’s something just truly turtley that’s been captured here.


Day of the Dead will always, always produce totally fantastic pieces. You can’t lose with this holiday.


God, I admit it. I am kind of a sucker for somewhat silly folk art.

Simplicity of form can lead to really interesting and exciting final projects. I imagine you’re all a bit sick of my nondescript, earless rabbit by now: wait until you see how he comes out once he’s painted. Paint, of course, isn’t the only way to play with what you’ve created. This is sculpture, after all!


I am beyond enthralled with the moon hanging on a wire here, not to mention totally charmed by the design. The whole shop is well worth a visit!

Delicate is also more than doable with paper mache, though. I am less practiced with these forms, but I’d love to give them a try. My guess is that both of these were made with pulp, but I do know you can make little clay forms, paper mache around them, then cut them in half to scoop the clay out and seal up the bead.

Have you found any paper mache on Etsy that blows you away? Leave a link! I’d love to see it. Happy hunting!

End of Phase Two approaching

October 21, 2009

Certain necessities are necessary for the final result. (I feel so Victorian saying that!)

Certain necessities are necessary for the final result. (I feel so Victorian saying that!)

There are a lot of joys I’ve rediscovered with this return to paper mache. One of the upsides is that I have every excuse to go to art supplies stores whenever I want. There’s a Blick location in the Loop on State Street, and it’s so easy to get sucked in. When I was little and growing up in Athens, Ohio, I used to go to the tiny art store in the basement of Ohio University’s college bookstore at every possible opportunity. Now I find myself getting terrifically excited at the sight of Liquitex acrylic paints or the smell of soft rubber erasers. Decorating this sucker is going to be a blast.

I’m not there yet, though. The last bits of the rabbit’s base, its forelegs and underside, are drying as I type. I’ve found, for whatever reason, that blank newsprint, like the kind you get wrapped around terra cotta pots or framed prints for padding, dries very hard and so I’ve tried to make sure the rabbit as a whole has at least one to two layers of that. (It also dries very white, which gives the piece the neat effect of looking like it’s built of plaster.) I’ve seen other materials recommended around, and brown paper bags, dried cleaning wipes and matte fliers will certainly get a chance to prove themselves in future rounds. This seems like a good opportunity to point out that it’s not just the type of paper you use that makes a project stable by the end.

One of the very basic tricks I learned from Sheila McGraw was that paper mache can’t just be laid down any old way on a form. Sure, slapping strips on at crazy angles could be a little more fun, but you’d always wind up with gaps or soft spots on your piece. Not only would your final product not look as finished, it just wouldn’t hold up as well. You’re much better served by laying down all your strips for one layer in one direction, then making your next perpendicular, so they make a weave or a cross-hatch. (I really wish I had pictures for this, but my hands are always too gummy for real process shots. There may be video here if it would be help people — I certainly like having it available.)

Some people recommend using different types or sections of newspaper for different layers, so you can keep them straight as you go. For instance, you could alternate between the financial section, with all its columns of tiny numbers, and the lifestyles section, which is full of pictures and images and colors. When I was little and my dad got The Financial Times delivered, it was always gone fast, thanks to its weird orange tint. At the moment I’m pretty limited to the RedEye, Chicago’s free daily put out by the Trib, and the copies of Vive lo Hoy that no one picks up inside my apartment building’s lobby. No worries, though — so long as the piece is hard enough, no one will care once the painting starts.

I promise this isn’t like the Home Shopping Channel

October 17, 2009

Hey, I never said I wasn't a dork.

Hey, I never said I wasn't a dork.

I worry vaguely that I’m going to turn into one of those bloggers that obsessively names and chronicles all her projects. Mostly, though, I’m trying to fend off my impatience and be zen about the whole endeavor. I jumped back into paper mache with a fairly complex project, one that requires making a solid base and ensuring that each subsequent part is well attached. This means making giant, satisfying leaps forward and then waiting some time for that segment to dry.

Case in point: the rabbit now has forelegs. Which is a great thing! I had a great time figuring out where to place them and how to secure them (old screws from an Ikea bed I no longer own, plus the usual metric ton of masking tape). But there are some drawbacks. This takes some time, and while patience is not one of my better or more constant virtues, I don’t trust myself not to start a fire by drying the piece in the oven. This is the first of the desires I’m grappling with at the moment: I’ve done some preliminary layers and I just want to barrel on ahead. (Did you know paper mache was so fraught with drama? You do now!)

Rabbit with limbs I’ve got a good amount of paste left, and I’m still kind of in the zone, to totally sound like an SNL parody now. What I’d love to do is have another project I can start in on, just so I can have something else to do while the rabbit dries. I really am trying to be measured, though: if I’m not careful, I’ll have half a dozen unfinished forms cluttering up the floor in front of my kitchenette, and I do kind of need that space to exit my apartment.

So, here’s my rule: if I’m not finished with one project, I don’t start on another — not yet, anyway, as I don’t particularly have anything I desperately need to make at the moment. This brings up a rather important point, though — a piece is done when it’s decorated. Great! Decorating is fun. (Except when it’s daunting: I couldn’t begin to explain why this tiny jewelry box is giving me such a block, although the day I choose between the portrait of Napoleon and the peacock for the centerpiece will be a good one.) One good thing to know is when to start decorating.

What is the right time for moving beyond paste and paper? That depends on the project. Generally something with flat surfaces — your jewelry boxes, pencil holders, picture frames and pyramids — requires fewer layers than anything that has curves and bumps. Any project isn’t ready for decorating if it feels damp or cool to the touch in any way. You shouldn’t be able to bend or indent any part of it without effort. My rule of thumb is that if I can forget that it’s made of corrugated cardboard or a plastic bag stuffed with ad inserts, it’s probably ready for some dolling up.

Sanding a flat surface Sand your surfaces to even out the bubbles and blobs and get cracking however you best see fit. Maybe start sketching out some ideas for the next messy piece of glory you’re ready to build. Contemplate how much you love this part of the process while you read My hot glue gun by Shaina Feinberg.

But only after everything — and I mean everything — is dry.

I will not start new projects before current ones are finished…

October 14, 2009

While I did do an obscene amount of paper mache as a kid, I usually didn’t deviate too much from the strips-of-paper method. One of the other ways you can build sculpture with paper is by making it into a sort of clay. Ultimate Paper Mache has, among other wonderful things, a great tutorial that I’m just itching to try. (Which isn’t entirely fair, as my rabbit is still waiting for his front legs and his ears, and let’s not even start on solving the problem of decorating that jewelry box. Those are for another post and another time. I don’t have the floor space to be that immoderate.)

There may be a reason Epimetheus chose clay

October 10, 2009

Now it's starting to look like something.

Now it's starting to look like something.

It’s been slow on the actual “making stuff” front here for a while, but I promise this has nothing to do with waning interest or massive difficulty and everything to do with my magpie personality. I’ve managed to avoid further Etsy adventures (at least of the paper mache variety), and I’ve also been spending a lot of time gearing up for National Novel Writing Month in November, but every day that damn rabbit form had been staring me in the face from on top of my very small television, eyelessly pleading for the rest of its body parts. After coming away somewhat poorer from a gardening center today, I found that with a little scissor action, the plastic bags they gave me for my new pot and potting soil would do nicely for a protective floor mat. The thing is you can’t overthink these revelations when you’re graced with them, and so off to work on the semi-demi-rabbit I went.

The feet make all the difference!

The feet make all the difference!

What had been irritating me most was the rabbit’s feet. The front legs will go on after the base is really solid, as will the ears, but since the hind legs are essential to how the piece balances, I wanted to get those in place before I even put on my initial layers. They’d been sort of haphazardly taped into place, but that was easy enough to secure. A rabbit needs big paws, though, and that proved a touch trickier. The paws were formed from wadded up newspaper wrapped in masking tape (well, one was; the first is made of the tissue paper from the front of a pair of high heels — everything has a use), but they weren’t attaching very readily to the legs, made from two halves of a toilet paper tube.

The way around this (and I really wish I’d taken pictures, but I appear to have been too pleased with myself to have thought that far) is chopsticks. You may have dozens of them hanging out in a drawer from take-out meals, in the vain hope (if you’re me) that someday you’ll master eating with them. These suckers are, craft-wise, worth their weight in gold. I took a very lightweight stick, cut it in half, coated each end with glue and poked it through the rabbit’s paw and its leg. As there’s no such thing as too much masking tape, I then secured it further, filling in any gaps with small crumpled pieces of newspaper.

Rabbit project (early stage) bottom solutionThe top had already gotten a few layers, and the head was pretty much where I wanted it to be, thanks to drying it propped up against a soda bottle. With the legs attached, I was able to (ahem) attack the bottom. The rabbit bravely endured a somewhat undignified position for the sake of shoring up its lower half, and I was able to add some layers everywhere but the tip of the muzzle and the fronts of the paws. I’m quite sure no one overthinks quite like this, but to me it became kind of a fun exercise in spatial problem-solving. Your instinct is to approach the project as it will be when it’s finished, upright. But unlike clay, you have the ability to upend your piece, lean it against things, leave it out in odd positions and tackle it from a variety of angles without worrying too much if it’ll get deformed in the process.

Rabbit project (early stage) detailTwo more notes before I sign off: first, notice how rough the layers are in the beginning. The rabbit’s head is covered with lumps and bubbles and and exposed ends and pieces of paper that aren’t lying flat. Don’t sweat it. This takes care of itself as the piece progresses. The more layers you add, the more uniform it will become. Be sure, though, that you’re smoothing out each strip as you lay it down. When it doubt, slather on a little more paste.

The second note involves clean-up. Plastic bags are your friend. I almost didn’t post these pictures, because the bags I used were clear and I didn’t want it to look like I was encouraging just messing around on your floor. Here’s why:

This is why it's good to use protection.

This is why it's good to use protection.

Make it easy on yourself. For now, I’m pausing just long enough to update and then start on my jewelry box while the rabbit dries. Happy crafting!

Fun with non-sculptural paper

October 1, 2009

One of the formative texts of my childhood

One of the formative texts of my childhood

You know, it’s funny. I grew up loving books beyond reason. This isn’t so unusual: my dad is an English professor and my mom has a PhD in psychology, and both been devoted readers my entire life. When you come from that kind of family, it’s not so unusual to think of books that really have changed the course of your life. Some of mine are definitely heavies — The Odyssey, The Republic (in which I discovered that kings fear philosophers, but philosophers fear art), Invisible Cities — but so many more, in a sense, are pretty zany: The Far Side, Calvin & Hobbes, Bloom County (I raided the shelves of older siblings in the ’80s). One of these latter was Papier-Mache for Kids by Sheila McGraw.

This is it. This is the book that showed me the way. My sister Anya holds the blame for lighting the spark, but this was the one that laid out all the instructions and got me started on a million and one vases, cats, monsters, flying pigs, snakes and, in one memorable instance, a three-bag basset hound with tin cans for feet. If anyone wants to go the book route for learning paper mache, this is absolutely the first place I would say to go.

What makes it so great? It’s got two huge things working in its favor: great instructions and fabulous photographs. The text itself is also tremendously laid-back, and takes itself seriously only insofar as it’s a guidebook to serious fun. I’m someone who learns best by seeing and imitating, and to have such clear, simple written directions alongside easy-to-follow pictures that draw you into the project set a great example. (I’ll link you to the Amazon page, which has excerpts from inside the book, but I really hope you’ll support an independent bookstore like Powell’s if you can. Yeah, I’m insufferable like that. Support small business and local economies!) I really hope to emulate her style in this blog, because it helped me work through a lot of form-building basics, and really allowed me to get my fundamentals right so I could experiment more.

So, Sheila McGraw, if you’re out there somewhere, thank you many times over for writing the best book out there on paper mache for anybody.

Not to blow my gasket all at once, but…

September 29, 2009

Never look on Etsy ever. Just don’t. Not only will you be sorely tempted to buy up all sorts of amazing handmade art and crafts, you’ll be totally gobsmacked in general by how wonderful, creative and varied people out there are.

These are just a few of the incredible finds I made with one swipe through a “paper mache art” search.

shelostit Sugar Skull Dia de los Muertos (Etsy)
Check out that amazing paint detail — not to mention the snazzy bow accents. I love the color and the negative space.
 
Fishstikks Wallace (Etsy)
Talk about putting your new spin on “bird watching.”
 
RockingParadise Pot Head (Etsy)
Simple concept, but so visually interesting!
 
LolliePatchouli House Number Lollie 6 (Etsy)
This whole series is just so sweet. I love how the artist makes use of the newsprint as visual texture.
 
careysquirks Blimey Bearded Bill (Etsy)
I think this kind of sums up everything that’s fun about paper mache.
 

You should also check out the Venetian masks, Dirty Birds and all this gorgeous American folk art. Curse you, Etsy, and darn you to Heck!

Hello world!

September 28, 2009

I promise someday soon this will be a creature.

I promise someday soon this will be a creature.

This was the automatic WordPress first entry title, but I think there’s something very fitting about reappropriating the premade post and turning it into my own. That was one of the things that I always loved about paper mache, the process of taking ordinary objects and transforming them into something more often than not bizarre, fun and interesting.

I think endless hours of paper mache as a kid also taught me that if I didn’t see what I liked in the world, I could go and make it myself. That’s what this blog is for — a place to talk about paper mache and paper mache only, not as a highlighted craft of the day but as a topic all in itself. I’m excited! I haven’t done much with tangible art in what feels like a very long time: I write and dabble in photography, but I recently rediscovered how wonderful just working with my hands is.

I also hope to show the world how easy and fun it is to make something really cool with material that’s just lying around, with the added benefit of allowing yourself to get really, gloriously, paint-in-your-hair messy. It’s cheap, it’s environmentally conscious, it’s personalized and it’s a great conversation-starter. But enough of my speech-making: I hope you all enjoy yourselves, and I’m really looking forward to rocking paper! (Scissors can come too. Rimshot!) Please feel free to say hello, and also please tell your friends — this may be the first entry, but I’ve put up some how-to’s, decorating ideas and tips, so poke around and let me know what you think!