The technique of paper quilling isn’t a common one in the contemporary art world, but North Adams resident Lisa Nilsson embraced the antediluvian medium and elevated even beyond her contemporaries that to her inventive and intricate — and almost obsessive — images that stretch the form to its limits.
Quilling is a hundreds-of-years-old paper craft that involves rolling strips of colored paper into formations together to create images with a three-dimensional quality.
Nilsson had previously worked in the format of box assemblages, which allowed her to create in a variety of mediums and she was always on the lookout for something new to add. After becoming fascinated by a piece of antique quilling that she saw in a junk shop, Nilsson gathered up some books, cut off the gilt edges of them and created material for her first exploration into the form. She found her voice first with a series of intricate anatomical cross sections that illustrates various organs and sections of the human body.
“I just saw a connection between the little experiments I was making and the shapes and textures in the cross section,” Nilsson said, “and then just also thought working with the quilling, it’s a quarter inch deep, so there’s this slice aspect built in already.”
Nilsson’s anatomical work garnered a lot of attention within the contemporary art world, but Nilsson began to feel she was finishing up with that section of her work.
“It was one of those artist times that you know a shift is coming,” she said. “I was open as to what it would be.”
Nilsson was looking to move beyond certain limitations she encountered in the anatomical work. She had developed special ways of manipulating the paper that she hadn’t had the chance to fully explore. Also, the anatomical work featured a limited color and shape palette, and Nilsson hope to open those opportunities. At the same time, she felt she needed some structure to start with.
“I don’t know why I first looked at a rug, I don’t have a distinct memory of that,” she said, “but what I was drawn to was that certain rugs have a compositional device of having a medallion, a field, corners, and a border, and I thought maybe I will make that my mantra for a while.”
That skeleton to work off has remained the basis of each work by Nilsson, though there is some variety involved. One piece she created was inspired by a Medieval gospel book colors, employing a jewel-encrusted effect that helps bring Nilsson’s updated innovations back to the form’s roots.
“Originally, it was this way to make something that looks very rich and expensive out of inexpensive materials,” Nilsson said. “That was one of the earlier applications of it, when nuns and monks were doing it, it mimicked metal filigree and other more expensive things.”
Nilsson begins her pieces by mapping out the basic geometry on a sheet of graphic paper, making each individual quilled section on a separate board. Nilsson says that she is careful not to draw out the whole piece or get to detailed, giving her some room for immediacy. She brings together the separate parts, with the connecting sections between functioning like bits of a puzzle.
“I fall in love with parts and I just let the whole take care of itself,” she said.
Nilsson creates her quilling material out of sheets of Japanese Mulberry paper that she is cut into strips. She prefers this paper because it is soft, pliable and thin, though admits that her choice is counterintuitive to anyone who quills.
“This is something that I do that I think is a real shift in this medium,” Nilsson said. “Most people who quill are using as their design element this coil and line, and the individual strip of paper and they will build from that. What I focus on is the external shape of a pinched coil. I’m thinking about a diamond shape.”
“There are interesting things that happen geometrically. I’m hard pressed to think of another medium where you can squish and stretch and yet maintain the dimensions. It’s got a lot of interesting possibilities, so I’m always thinking about the external shape and making it fit together like a puzzle, rather than curly-cues.”
Nilsson fashioned her own tools to bend the paper, using multiple sized drill bits that she wraps in electrical tape so she doesn’t cut herself, as well as various dowels, instead of the official quilling tools. It takes her about a day-and-a-half to make one component. A recent 2.5 by 2 foot piece took her eight months to complete.
“I do a lot of dithering and changing my mind, and there’s a junkyard of parts that I didn’t like,” said Nilsson. “Other than making up my mind and not bailing from time to time, I don’t see any way to make it go faster.”
Nilsson sees the work as filled with opposites and contradictions, and the result of a form of hyper-focus that she finds is very much a part of who she is.
“One of my favorite things to do is a long swim in a lake,” she said. “What I do is I spot a thing across the way and I love just having it slowly get closer and closer and closer. Things where I have to make a lot of decisions quickly, I feel instantly overwhelmed. I guess that’s a classic introvert characteristic.”
In other ways, the pieces offer a vision of neatness that may not reflect her outer being at all.
“I really like things to fit properly and snuggly,” she said. “That’s a certain type of tidiness and precision. I had a couple of really great days working yesterday and I just felt like my fingers were alive, just really tuned in. But then I’m a sloppy person. I’ve never had the discipline to be a tidy person. Maybe I put all that energy into what I’m making.”
Nilsson says that if you look at the work closely, it’s not as tightly constructed as you might think by concentrating on the whole, and that’s very intentional, inspired by her study of real rugs and the ones she finds the most interesting. That’s also another reflection of the artist herself, part of what she calls a “controlled complexity” that she is able to give to the work.
One of the great pleasures for Nilsson is that her medium is not instantly recognizable to everyone who sees. Nilsson herself says that sometimes it looks like embroidery to her, or even velvet. This adds yet one more level of mystery to the work, as well as one more aspect of delight to the artist.
“I like it when people look at the work and say, ‘What the hell is that, I think it might be paper.’ I think that’s really exciting.