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Paper Artist Calvin Nicholls Finds Inspiration in the Forest

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Categories: Ideas and Innovation
paper artist Calvin Nicholls with two of his works

Art can be difficult to define, but one paper artist believes that’s part of what makes his job interesting. Calvin Nicholls, who uses paper as his primary medium, spoke with us about his creative journey. He says the challenge is what drives his vision as a paper artist.

Nicholls, a former freelance designer, began making paper art in Toronto, Canada, in the mid-1980s after another artist’s paper sculptures inspired him to try working with the medium. Read on to learn about this paper artist’s stunning three-dimensional paper sculptures of wildlife.

ZigZag, by paper artist Calvin Nicholls. Photo courtesy of the artist.

How long have you been working as a paper artist?

I was incredibly inspired after hiring a paper sculpture artist in Toronto to provide sculptures for a menu design I was working on. The menu was a huge success, and I was hooked. Experiments began immediately, and the first presentable ones were completed in 1986 or so. One was done for a travel brochure cover. Another of a rag doll was completed as a promotional poster for a printing company in 1987 or 1988.

This piece was a 1990s commission for a Domtar report. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Why did you choose paper as your medium?

There was a class when I was in art school that provided a focus on paper as a medium. We made three-dimensional models, and I quite enjoyed it. That was in the late 1970s, so I had the idea of paper in my mind when, as a freelance designer, I discovered the artist in Toronto. That prompted me to look into other paper sculptors, and I found several of them were using very different approaches. None were doing wildlife though. That would be my path as I had time to do my own pieces. Eventually I stayed very busy with commercial projects, first in Canada and then in the United States, where gradually almost all of my work came from.

Forty Acres, by paper artist Calvin Nicholls. Photo courtesy of the artist.

What type of paper do you use and why?

The papers must be resistant to airborne acids and resist fading over time. These are archival qualities, and because collectors asked for pieces to be framed, these issues became very important. I’m finding that the 100 percent cotton papers are very soft and readily accept “tooling,” whether it be scoring, burnishing or embossing. I also like how I can get various weights in these high-end commercial papers. They come in several text weights for fine detail and heavier cover weights for structure and underlying support. There are Japanese handmade papers that offer a high degree of strength and varying finishes, and those have added some nice accents in more recent pieces.

What are your favorite properties of paper?

Score lines in the paper cause the light to abruptly change from highlight to shadow. Curling or burnishing provides a subtle transition from highlight to shadow in an endless array of grey tones due to the smooth surface. The tactile surface and delicate quality go hand in hand with the images of nature I enjoy most as subjects.

Wilson’s Bird of Paradise, by paper artist Calvin Nicholls. Photo courtesy of the artist.

What drives your vision as a paper artist?

Every subject requires problem solving, so many drawings are required to establish the planes and form. I find this challenge to be very satisfying. Creating an illusion of depth in low relief is very satisfying as well.

I never tire of the quest to tackle yet another difficult subject, not knowing where the specific challenges will lie. Every piece demands my full attention, and as my work has become better known and is shown alongside masterworks of international artists, my purpose has been elevated to earn that display place beside my mentors.

As for a vision statement, I suppose an artist friend put it best a few years ago when he mentioned how well delicate sheets of paper and my technique were suited to my choice of subjects and my love of nature.

Then there’s always that eagerness to act on inspiration. I can’t resist a pile of sand or mound of snow. Or a sheet of paper. What can I make that into? Let’s see …

Author Jamilah Bracely, a sophomore at The Innovation High School in Missouri’s Ferguson-Florissant School District, wrote this article as part of her communications internship with the Domtar Newsroom team.