Pulp and Prisoners: Seattle Artist Patty Grazini Creates Paper Sculptures That Tell Stories
Paper, and the papermaking process, is said to have been developed in China during the early second century A.D. by the Eastern Han Dynasty’s highly regarded eunuch Cai Lun. Today, paper waste accounts for about 40 percent of total waste produced in the United States each year, with each person contributing about 477.4 pounds (which adds up to 71.6 million tons).
While many may take this versatile product for granted, Seattle artist Patty Grazini focuses on the story of paper. Creating intricate sculptures from various paper sources, Grazini has built a name for herself with her work being showcased in Ornament Magazine, on the cover of the February 2012 Nordstrom catalog, and on local television.
Having been working with paper for the past eight years, Grazini’s most recent work was inspired by real people who committed crimes as reported in the New York Times between 1885 and 1915. Thirteen rogues stand 12 to 14 inches high, and accompanying each piece is a copy of the original article about the person. Yet what’s most interesting is that despite being based on real people, they almost certainly came down from the proverbial rabbit hole: Each immaculately detailed figure has a different animal head — such as a crow, rat, or sheep — to make the viewer conversely uncomfortable and enraptured enough.
After fantasizing for more time than one would like to admit about the Rain City’s famous coffee houses, GALO recently caught up with Grazini. Here’s what she had to say.
GALO: Why work with paper?
PG: I have worked in several different mediums. About eight years ago, I started exploring the use of paper as a primary medium to create sculptural pieces.
I continuously search for ephemera that I feel can enhance my work. I prefer using paper that has a history of its own and that can be incorporated in a meaningful way. Because much of my work uses historical references, using paper such as discarded letters, newspapers and other printed material, gives me a personal sense of closeness to my work. When using type printed paper, I always use paper that would have existed during the time which I am depicting. Although the viewer may ultimately be unaware of this, I feel it is almost necessary for me as part of the creative process.
GALO: You collect paper from various sources, such as bookstores, abandoned corners, etc. Do you know some of the stories behind the paper you use?
PG: Recently, in San Francisco, I purchased a letter written in French dated [back to] 1699. As I hold the letter in my hands, my mind wanders…What would the person who wrote this letter be wearing? What would the room and desk look like? How would [the] messenger who delivered the letter [be] dressed? Having actual letters or ephemera in my hands, bring an authenticity that breathes through these letters.
GALO: Your Web site states your art focuses on the “beauty and mystery of recapturing forgotten moments and scenes from history. The distance of time passed is diminished through the retelling of stories, from the quotidian to the macabre.” Could you elaborate on this?
PG: Before starting a body of work, I spend a considerable amount of time researching my decided topic. I look for newspaper articles and search census records looking for more clues. I feel it is necessary for me to gain as much knowledge as possible, to be the most expressive. As an example, the subject of a current piece which I am working [on] lived in the last part of the 19th century. In thinking about the details of her life, I wondered if she would have worn lipstick, and if so, what color. This yearning to have closeness to the subject by knowing intimate details, makes it difficult to determine the amount of time spent on each piece. Focusing on the particulars, I often become lost, thinking about the person. Also, I often make changes several times on a piece, if I feel in the least dissatisfied.
My work tends to be very detailed, and sometimes tedious, in order for me to exact the work to my satisfaction. I try to give clues and life to a piece using symbolism, color, and posturing. I hope to engage the viewer, in order for them to further interpret and apply meaning of their own to a piece.
GALO: So, your art is entirely made out of paper? Did you have any formal training?
PG: The figures are made entirely out of paper, even the heads. My work is constantly evolving, adapting techniques used in wearable art, for example: pleating and pattern making. I am completely self-taught.
GALO: Your most recent group of work focuses on real people. What inspired you to explore such a theme? What do you hope audiences get out of it?
PG: The last group of work was based on 13 criminals whose crimes were reported in The New York Times. For this group, I did an extensive amount of research, concentrating on crimes committed from 1880 to 1915. This was a time of great wealth and poverty in New York. The clash between these two groups fascinates me. Desperation and a view of “what might be” inspired those who had newly arrived from impoverished conditions in their own countries to commit crimes. I wanted to give the viewer a glimpse into the criminal world in New York at this time by selecting a range of crimes and criminals to portray. I also feel a desire to memorialize these people who have been long forgotten, and letting them live again through my work.
GALO: Although your work is based on real people, they are portrayed with animal heads. Why?
PG: I chose to give the criminals animal heads for several reasons. I wanted to use the characteristics and personalities, attributed to a certain animal to give added value to the criminal and the crime committed. I want the viewer to be allowed to wonder about the connections and symbolism behind the animal, and why it was used. (The knife thrower is a sewer rat. The 16-year-old opium smoker is a sheep, and the woman polygamist is portrayed as a crow, as she gathers keys and husbands.) Another reason for the animal heads is that during the Victorian era, political cartoonists often used animals to portray their villains as well. I wanted to reference that connection.
GALO: Is there a figure among the 13 you created that has the most meaning for you?
PG: Of the 13, the criminal that has the most personal meaning for me is Mary Largo. She was referred to as “Queen of the Beggars Society.” Feeling there was a need to help the poor in the Lower East Side of New York, she taught beggars how to increase their take. She supplied them with prosthesis and crutches, rallying them to try harder. She was well-known and beloved among the poor. Mary Largo did take a percentage of their profits, but she also nursed the poor and fed anyone who was hungry from her tenement apartment. I gave her the head of a pigeon, a common bird that scavenges for handouts in every city. She carries a torch and wears a crown, modeled after the Statue of Liberty. Crutches lay at her feet. I used paper that I purchased in Paris that has images of their own impoverished citizens, many of whom crossed the ocean to seek a better life.
GALO: You’re based out of Seattle. Does the city itself or the Northwest influence your work?
PG: I live in Seattle. Perhaps an open mindedness that exists here is beneficial to my work. I also prefer using muted colors, which reflect the natural beauty of the Northwest. However, traveling outside my hometown is what inspires me the most. I feel a connection to the past that is unexplainable and can’t be found where I live.
GALO: What do you see in your future?
PG: In the future, I plan to work in different scales. The criminals, from the previous group, were a uniform size. I enjoy pushing new boundaries in my work to keep it challenging. Recreating another time and memorializing its inhabitants will be a continued theme. I will move away a bit from focusing on only figurative work, and bring more narrative elements to the surface.