Mohawk Blog

Maker Moment: For this Paper Artist, Success and Growth Go Hand-in-Hand

Words
Rebecca Gatto
Photography
James Rice, Scott Doorley, and Reina Takahashi
Takahashi at work

Reina Takahashi is a magician with a sheet of paper. Takahashi, a self-proclaimed Paper Artist, spends her days working with brands of all sizes who need help expressing complicated or tired concepts in a bright, colorful way.

Whether it’s a crisp white page pulled from the back of a printer or a stack of bright Keaykolour, her ability to draw life from such an ordinary object is nothing short of dazzling. Her impressive portfolio of employers includes Facebook, Lyft, The New York Times, Better Homes and Gardens, The Chicago Design Museum, and Wired.

What is now her full-time occupation was once an artistic hobby—after all, there’s no clear path to "Paper Artist." But by all measures, Takahashi has found success turning sheets of paper into fantasy.

For as long as she can remember, Takahashi has worked with paper in her free time.

"My full time job was as a visual designer for about 10 years, and outside of work I was always doing something out of paper," she said Five years ago, she started creating illustrations from paper full-time as an in-house employee. Two and a half years later, she took a leap and went independent.

100 Paper Breakfasts
An everything bagel with lox, part of an Instagram series where Takahashi turned followers' suggestions into mouthwatering paper dishes.
Below, a Persian breakfast featuring bread and cheese looks almost good enough to eat.
bagel with lox
persian breakfast

Takahashi credits her achievements, in part, to a talk by an illustrator named Loveis Wise that inspired Takahashi to clarify her goals.

"[Wise] talked about the power of writing down specific goals. I thought, what the heck, I want to have work in the New York Times," Takahashi said. "I wrote that in January in 2019. I think it was December 31st, there was a page that had the Sugar Challenge on it. And I thought, ‘Ok, it took a full 365 days, but I achieved the goal.’ I think writing something makes it more concrete."

The Sugar Challenge
The Sugar Challenge
Takahashi's paper illustrations appeared in a New Year's Resolution-focused piece in The New York Times near the end of 2019.

Takahashi’s Instagram is filled with personal projects and handmade meditations. She’s currently participating in in the 36 Days of Type project on the platform, during which anyone can join in to post a letter or a number on social media each day.

"I’ve definitely fallen off that calendar," Takahashi said with a laugh. Although this year’s series—the project’s seventh year—of letters A-Z and numbers 0-9 has finished, she’s still thoughtfully working away.

"I’ve been really enjoying it because it’s just enough constraints," she said. "I know what the letter should be and what it should generally look like, but there’s enough openness the I can really explore with how I form those letterforms, and that’s been really fun. Sometimes I think about, if this letter were being written with a calligraphy pen, but in 3D, how would it look? It’s a challenge to myself to have these kinds of different prompts in my head, and experiments in my head, and get them out with paper."

Italic B
Bold B

"I had recently been missing that creative play factor in my work, so it’s been a very welcome thing to have back in my process," she said. She thinks of her free-flowing creation process as "making to think," a mental state that's all about going with the flow.

Although Takahashi views her professional life as an evolving journey, she generously offered her insight into what it takes to grow a unique and rewarding creative career while following one’s own path.

Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

letter "f"
letter "M"

MOHAWK: What drives you to make? What’s your "spark?"


REINA TAKAHASHI: This question is kind of tough—I feel like I’ve always been making, since I was really little. I’d be doing some sort of craft, even if it’s knitting or cross-stitching or drawing. It was always very encouraged in our household, which I feel very lucky about. The thing that gets me really excited is when I’m in the flow of making, there’s this moment when it feels like there are so many possibilities of where this thing that I’m making can go. It’s that excitement and curiosity and fun! I don’t think I would do it if it wasn’t fun.

M: Which materials or media most inspire you to create?

RT: I am very paper-focused. I love working with all kinds of media, but paper is the one that, over the years, has become my main medium. I think it’s because it feels so versatile and it’s also something that is very ubiquitous. It’s a fairly accessible medium. Whether it’s just computer paper or a page out of a magazine, there’s paper everywhere, and I love that aspect of it. And you can manipulate it in so many ways that I feel like I’m still learning what I can do—that’s really exciting to me. 

 

Takahashi at work
Photo: Scott Doorley
Takahashi at work

M: What do you do when you’re feeling blocked creatively? 

RT: When I was in college, I feel like my solution to being blocked was to try to work through it. Stay up late, keep working, keep asking the same questions and kind of spin around in circles.

One thing I’ve learned about myself is that there is a balance between when to kind of push myself more and keep going, and then when to take a break. If it’s down that route, then I will go outside or read a book or just try to do something else. I do think that’s maybe why so many people say they come up with great ideas in the shower. Switching up your mode helps you get out of your head.

I think I’ve just started to learn when to trust myself, and the process, and the fact that I’ve done this before.

M: Which parts of your daily routine are most important to you?

RT: I’m one of those annoying people that loves morning routines. First of all, my morning routine is very long now, because I want to get to a point where I feel ready to work and that takes a bunch of things for me. I stretch and I meditate. I want to have time for coffee and breakfast in a structured way. I do this thing called Morning Pages that’s part of The Artist’s Way, it’s very stream of consciousness. It gets me to a place where I feel like I’ve cleared out all the muck in my brain and I’m ready to work and to make. Its very long, but even if I’m really sleepy, I can still just automatically do these things. 


“I love working with all kinds of media, but paper is the one that, over the years, has become my main medium. There’s paper everywhere, and I love that aspect of it. ”
Reina Takahashi

bee animation
Taking Flight
An animation Takahashi created shows the process of a paper bee coming to life.

M: What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been offered?

RT: I don’t know... it’s not really a piece of advice, necessarily. The job that I do is weird. And it’s pretty different and very niche. So when I first decided that I would go independent and become a freelancer doing just art made out of paper, I was met with a fair amount of skepticism. That comes from a place of care, but that’s when I get the kind of advice that’s very uncertain. I appreciate the care part of it, but in the end it meant a lot for me to just trust myself and trust where things are going, and also know that I can fall back on other things if it doesn’t work out. I’m finding a lot of joy doing this weird job. 

M: If you could talk to your younger self for just 30 seconds, what would you say? 

RT: I would tell her not to furrow her brow so much. That’s what I tend to do when I’m stressed out and it doesn’t serve me at all.

I would say that it’s okay for your dream job and your goals to shift and evolve over time, to be able to change up what I’m doing, which is what I did when I switched from design to paper—and to follow your gut. 

M: How has geographical location shaped your work?

RT: I’ve come to realize that external circumstances like the weather: where I am and the news do affect the way that I work. It’s ok to admit that my work isn’t just an insular, compartmentalized thing. I grew up in the Midwest, and I also lived in Chicago for five years after graduating, before I moved to the Bay Area seven years ago. So I have this kind of divide between west coast and midwest time. I do think there is some difference.

When I was in Chicago I had just graduated from design school, and I spent the whole five years doing paper art as personal work. It was sort of a foundational learning of how to use the knife or how to curl paper, just understanding how the tools work. When I moved out to San Francisco, that’s when my work took a turn and become more public. There’s a very distinct line between the work that I did in Chicago and the work that I did in San Francisco and now, in Oakland. It’s interesting to look at it that way. 

Breakfast is Served
Brand image for Ueno. Photo by James Rice
100 paper breakfast

“I think I’ve just started to learn when to trust myself, and the process, and the fact that I’ve done this before.”
Reina Takahashi

M: What was your happiest design or creative accident? 

RT: I feel like my whole body of work is creative accidents! I guess the point for me of cutting paper is that now, when I make, I don’t really plan too much in terms of how I’m going to make something technically. I can imagine what it might be like before I start making. I’ll start making according to guidelines in my head, and a lot of times they don’t work. I can either redo it or find a way to work around this supposed mistake, and oftentimes that is what leads me to explorations and iterations and possibilities. I can’t pick one, because I think that’s part of my process.

M: Culturally, what’s inspired you lately? Would you recommend a book to read, album to listen to, museum to visit, etc?

RT: It’s such an interesting time for that. I guess relevant to the time that we’re living right now, I have been really inspired by creators who are finding really interesting ways of showcasing their work, and then moreover, bringing joy to their viewers, because I feel like that’s universally what we could all use right now. There are times when I feel like I’m just looking for things that make me laugh or bring me joy, so I really loved Thao Nguyen’s recent music video. She had written in the comments that she was supposed to have flown to LA during this time to film a music video, but that wasn’t possible and so she created with her team a music video that’s completely based on a zoom call. It’s done in this beautiful, creative way that just really made my day. There are so many ways that artists are really bringing a lot of joy to people right now. 

M: What’s your proudest creation, or your "magnum opus?"

RT: Proudest creation I can speak to. I have this aversion to words that make me feel like I have to have an end-all, be-all something. Magnum opus is one, dream job is a word I’ve really come to dislike because it made me feel like I had to have one goal for my entire career—and then what happens?

I gave a talk in Columbus called Rolling Dream Job about this exact thing, that it’s ok that your dreams change. They asked me to create a poster for the talk. That poster is one that I’m particularly proud of, a lot because the process was really hard and I struggled with it. I was up against the deadline and was really struggling with it, and I had to travel in the middle of it. When I came back from traveling I had just about a couple days to either wrap up the file of something I wasn’t in love with or come up with something new. I had to see if it would work, and it did, and it turned out to be a piece I really enjoyed and like and am excited about. It’s a boat sailing through the water, and the water curls back to highlight the paper. That’s one of my prouder pieces.

Poster for "Rolling Dream Job"
"That poster is one that I’m particularly proud of, a lot because the process was really hard," Takahashi said.
Rolling dream job

M: What do you want to be when you grow up?

RT: I think it is exactly that: I hope I’m in a place where I’m constantly evolving and challenging who I believe myself to be and what I’m capable of. I feel like I got into a rut a few years ago where I felt like I knew who I was, and that’s just how I was. Looking back now, I feel like a lot of those things were limiting to me, feeling like I understood and was proud of the fact that I knew what my limitations were. Now, I’m more like, ‘Why is that? Do I have to be that way?’ It’s been a lot more freeing to challenge those. It’s been a lot more freeing.

M: You know we have to ask—what will you make today?

RT: I’m working on this letterform project, and I’m hoping to get letter "P" out today. And the other thing I wanted to do was make some thank you cards. 

Follow along with Takahashi's adventures in paper on Instagram: @reinasaur.

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