In that place where art meets life sits Su Blackwell, paper artist extraordinaire. In person, Su is rather like the heroine of one of her works – slightly ethereal, mysterious and a little bit lost. These otherworldly qualities are integral to her work. Exquisite craftsmanship combined with an underlying narrative and overlying sense of fairy tale magic makes her work stand out from the paper crowd.
Su trained in art and design at Bradford College and then at the Royal College of Art, where she completed her MA in Textiles in 2003. She was one of those students who refused to be pigeonholed by her choice of medium, constantly sneaking off to try, amongst other things, welding, electro-plating and bronze casting. At the RCA, to her tutors’ frustration, she spent half her time in the textiles department and half in the sculpture department. It was there she began to experiment with paper, making sculptures and origami and exploring the nature of this material.
She followed her time at the RCA with a residency in rural Scotland. Rather a dark time personally, it transformed her art and helped her find her paper calling. In Scotland Su experimented with the fragility of paper: hanging it in forests, burying it, testing its limits. It was in Scotland that she made her first major book work, too. A discovery of luscious illustrated second-hand books led to many days meticulously and repetitively cutting out the wild flower illustrations and re-forming them into an explosion of fauna, spilling out of the open tome.
Her love of books didn’t start there, though. At school English was her favourite subject and throughout her studies she might equally have pursued the written or practical side of the subject. So, in a way, beginning to work with books was an obvious route. It feeds both her love of words and of working three dimensionally. And not just any book will do. Obviously it needs to have fabulous illustrations but for Su the story is equally important. In her process, Su reads the story first to work out what she will do with, and to, it: “I read the story and an idea might form and it usually relates to the story itself.” Her sculptures are made from the actual book, consciously keeping paper and word and illustration together in one piece. Less obviously engineered than traditional paper pop-up work, these pieces seem much more organic. They look to have been grown. It is as if Su is releasing something that is inherent to the soul of the book. These are paper ‘happenings’.
Su Blackwell will be leading a paper engineering workshop at Selvedge this December. For more information and to book your place, click here.
To read this article by Jane Audas in full, order your copy of Selvedge issue 37 here.