This is the first of a new series in which we explore how Nevada artists do what they do. It includes a simplified tutorial, where you can try to make a version of their art style at home.
Las Vegas-based artist Bobbie Ann Howell makes intricate cut-paper creations that are both beautiful and meaningful. Look to her art for meditations on negative and positive space. At first you will simply notice the pretty designs. But peer closer, and images—such as depictions of nature, women and children—will emerge.
Her work has been displayed all across Las Vegas and beyond, including Winchester Cultural Center, Las Vegas City Hall and one on display now at the Historic Fifth Street School. She also has a piece in the current Nevada Humanities show Margaret, Are You Grieving. The gallery is closed due to the coronavirus, but you can see an online version of the show at nevadahumanities.org.
Here’s a peek into her process:
How do you come up with your ideas?
Ideas are constantly creeping into my thoughts. I’m always looking to the landscape and natural forms for shapes, textures and patterns—I’m a little addicted to patterns. I’ve been on a pollinator kick lately, so looking at butterflies, bees and insects that travel across borders to do their work. It’s a little bit reflective of people who aren’t able to do that now, or just the movement of people across the globe.
What are you working on right now?
I have a piece on my worktable now that I've just finished cutting out of the heavier paper. It’s based on the downing of the Ukrainian jet. I use birds a lot as imagery and symbolism. I took the lists of countries [of origin of the airplane passengers who perished] and their national birds and started working them into a design. I wanted to have a pattern with 176 shapes within it, but I ended up with 180 [to represent all] the people impacted.
How do you make the design?
It’s basically a snowflake pattern that you might have used in grade school. You fold the paper until you have a triangle shape, where you’re cutting through 12 layers of paper. When you unfold it and open it back up, you have a hexagonal or circular form, depending on the [the original shape]. I also sometimes try a shape or pattern and just draw it out and see what happens. It’s a little bit addictive, the folded pattern, because you never know what the repetitive part of the pattern is going to come out like. It’s always fun to see that.
What materials do you use?
A lightweight cotton paper that’s about 15 pounds, so not quite as light as tissue paper. I do have a scissor fetish, and I'm always looking for excellent scissors. I use a lot in my classes when I can find them. The Martha Stewart detail scissor has a nice point on the tip so you can really cut right to the edge. I use an X-Acto knife and cutting mat because I use a lot of interior shapes that would be hard to get to with scissors. In my finished work, I recut those designs out of a much heavier paper so they can stand on their own. I recut them out of Linux 100, which is 110 pounds on paper. It holds that shape nicely.
How does working as a program manager for Nevada Humanities impact your art?
Yes, my other life. I’m really lucky—what I love about humanities is that it is so broad. So it might be meeting archaeologists, historians, poets, musicians—all different people who are interested in the human experience and all the forms that we show our curiosity and tell our stories. … I have a whole series of cut-paper sculptures that were inspired by one particular poem by Brian Turner. I never would have made those pieces if I hadn’t been doing a workshop with him as part of the book festival a few years back.
TRY IT AT HOME
When the world isn’t on lockdown, Howell often teaches “snowflake camps” (i.e., art workshops) to adults and children ages 8 and up. So this project can be a family affair!
1. Howell uses lightweight cotton paper to draft her paper creations. But if you don’t have that, Howell says that wrapping paper (use the white side), butcher paper, newsprint and even copy paper will work fine. The ideal is any paper that is light enough to cut when folded but sturdy enough to not completely disintegrate. So tissue paper, for example, is probably too weak.
2. Cut the paper into a square.
3. Fold the square in half for a simple design.
4. Or for a hexagonal design: Make a hotdog fold (half lengthwise), then a hamburger fold (in half again), then an ice cream fold (fold into thirds at a 30 degree angle).
5. Take a deep breath and remember that it’s just paper. You can always start over.
6. Cut out shapes in the folded paper. Cut on the folded edges of the paper, but make sure to leave a finger-width space between cuts so as not to cut the paper in half. Experiment! Have fun! There is no right or wrong answer.
7. Open it up and see how it looks! If you’re happy with the result, iron out the wrinkles so the paper lays flat.
8. Add any desired flourishes or finishing touches by drawing patterns, shapes or designs on the paper with whatever art supply you want (color pencils, makers, paint, etc.) It is paper, after all!