Constructing the Deconstructed

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Lisa Nilsson wants to see what you’re made of.  No amount of profile photos from Facebook or search results on Google will quell her fascination. This North Adams, Massachusetts-based artist is interested in the minutiae of your makeup. Nilsson patiently builds cross-sections of human anatomy using paper filigree, a method of coiling and rolling narrow strips of paper to create decorative work.

In her own words, “I find quilling exquisitely satisfying for rendering the densely squished and lovely internal landscape of the human body in cross-section. I aspire to a treatment of the body that combines the sensual pleasure and graphic strength of an art object, the informative and analytical approach of a scientific specimen, as well as the reverential and devotional nature of a religious reliquary.”

We recently visited with Lisa to learn about her work.

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How did you become interested in quilling?

I first became interested in quilling when I saw a quilled crucifix in an antique shop (actually, it was more of a guy’s house where the antiques for sale were indistinguishable from his personal effects, but that’s another story…) on a weekend junking trip.  I had been making box-like assemblages- pieces that included many different materials and techniques and so, was always on the lookout for something new to try.

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Can you share a bit about the history of the craft and how it inspired “Angelico”?

I don’t know a heck of a lot about the history of quilling.  Though, it is consistently reported to have been practiced by nuns and ladies of leisure.

I have a book called “Tresors de Ferveur” that catalogues a collection of French quilled reliquaries made by religious folk in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.  I find the works themselves, as well as the notion of making things as an act of devotion, very inspiring.

The Angelico piece developed as I was thumbing through a book that included several of Fra Angelico’s paintings of angels.  The convention of representing the halo as a flat disc surrounding the face looked like a good opportunity to use a lot of gold in a piece as well as to make a visual connection between the scientific and the religious or spiritual.

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Describe how an intricate and detailed approach plays a role in projects like the Tissue Series.

The body is intricate and detailed and I have sought to honor my subject, though attention to detail and an attraction to intricacy seem to be somewhat hard-wired. I like precision and a good snug fit, crispness, graphic clarity.  They give me pleasure.  Yet, I admire the abandon and inhibition with which others make their art, those who are not especially enthralled with detail and intricacy… like one of my art heroes, Robert Rauschenberg.

Also, I want my viewer to enjoy an intimate look at the work, to be more engaged as one comes in closer.  I imagine some of this has to do with the process.  It is slow and affords me time to ponder each tiny addition to the whole.

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Did your training as a medical assistant coincide with your interest in human anatomy?

My interest in anatomy – or more accurately – my interest in cool-looking medical images and objects- prompted me to turn toward medical assisting when I was considering trying out a lifestyle that would include work away from the studio, around people, doing something practical.  In the end- it was not for me.  Turns out what I love best is working by myself in the studio on impractical things.  It also turns out that the aforementioned attention to detail does not translate to “trivial” things such as the tedious dosage numbers on drug labels, dates, etc.

My anatomy and physiology class in medical assisting school was very helpful in better understanding what I was looking at when I began working with cross-sections.

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What qualities attract you to a particular cross-section?

Fairly early on in the Tissue Series project my online research of cross-sections brought me to the stunning images in the Visual Human Project.

I found that as I perused the body one millimeter at a time, the landscape became more or less graphically interesting and dynamic, or iconical of a particular section of the body at certain levels, then it remains the same for a stretch before blossoming into something of peak interest again.  On occasion I would take a little artist’s license and include features from several images—so that I could say, maintain the lovely shape of the heart at a certain depth and choose another image where the vertebra at that depth is more fully realized, clearly defined and beautiful.

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What challenges do you face when making these intricate projects? Can you discuss how the properties of the mulberry paper mimic the flexibility of the body to adjust to asymmetrical mass? Some of the challenges include maintaining a level of concentration and a certain kind of patience, but mostly keeping the faith during the two months or so that it required to make the larger pieces – faith that the whole would be more than the sum of all of the tiny parts.  It’s a bit of a myopic process, as I practice it – one little piece at a time juxtaposed to its neighbor.  I can’t really undo or change much once I’ve committed to gluing pieces, beyond the annoying option to peel off the last one or two I have laid down.  I also find making the boxes that enclose the pieces challenging — I’ve acquired what modest wood working “skills” I have piece-meal and I’m afraid of table saws.

I also find it challenging – or I pose this challenge to myself – to continue to grow my repertoire of shapes and means of manipulating the paper.  I really like to vary the mark so that the work does not become a monotony of curly-Qs.  I get very excited when I make a shape or compound shape I’ve never made before.

I first encountered mulberry paper when I was making giant, contemporary versions of Japanese folding screens with a band of other artists.  I took on the task of making those amazing and elegant hinges that fold in both directions that are found on genuine Japanese folding screens.  I had a bunch of mulberry paper in the studio left-over from this project.  My first little forays into quilling were all with the gilt edges of old books.  With my first multi-colored piece, “Female Torso”, I worked with a mix of papers I had lying around the studio.  I was probably first attracted to the mulberry paper because of the lovely and sophisticated color palette it is available in, but quickly came to enjoy its malleability, thinness, and strength.  I love that mulberry paper seems to hover between fabric and paper and has a lovely, fleshy bouncy quality when coiled and manipulated. The fibers are so long and strong and it is amenable to squishing and folding and re-folding without tearing.  I also like its hand-made irregularities that lend character.

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Can you share more about the process of building the image? Would it be a stretch to say building your images in some way imitates the growth of the body from cells to organs to a being?

Typically I start at some central point and work outward.  There’s a bit of strategy involved.  It is much more doable to fit a piece to its neighbor than to fit a piece into a completely enclosed space. Often central places in the body are bone- so there is indeed an anatomical logic to it—starting with bone, moving outward to muscle, then fat and connective tissue and finally wrapping and enclosing everything with skin.  I think a lot about growth processes and so, my latest non-anatomical work focuses on growth processes—I’ve been looking at seedpods, snowflakes, sea urchins, mushrooms.  I’m also interested in geometry, how patterns and shapes fill two-dimensional spaces.  To this end I’ve become interested in textiles, decorative book bindings and oriental rugs.

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Would you use quilling for a different subject, or do you feel it is a process you utilize only for the Tissue Series?

You know, until very recently I really didn’t know what parts of the Tissue Series would continue on as my studio practice evolves.  Would it be the paper technique, the subject matter in another form?

In working with anatomical subject matter, I was able to develop a vocabulary of paper shapes and manipulations that were used in service of representing something specific. I have just begun to explore the possibilities of following the lead of the shapes themselves, and also of opening up my color palette.  I feel that at this point I’ve said most of what I’d like to say with anatomical cross-sections, though I feel I’ve got a great deal left to say with the paper.

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Lisa Nilsson is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design where she studied Illustration, and more recently of the McCann Technical School’s medical assisting program, where her life-long aesthetic interest in anatomy and cool-looking medical things grew a bit more informed. She lives in North Adams, Massachusetts. Nilsson is represented by Pavel Zoubok Gallery in New York City.

Images credit John Polak.

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