A piece from Patty Grazini's "Eccentric Misfits and Uncommon Characters." Photo Credit: Patty Grazini.

A piece from Patty Grazini’s “Eccentric Misfits and Uncommon Characters.” Photo Credit: Patty Grazini.

It was a city of endless possibility. Between 1880 and 1910, the Big Apple experienced an unprecedented boom, its population expanding to nearly double thanks to a surge in immigrants from across the globe and an influx of wealth the likes of which had never been seen before in world history. From the creation of the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1880s to the opening of the first subway line in 1904, New York City was shaping and molding itself into the “Capital of the World.” It was here that a person could go from having just a few cents to their name to becoming a multimillionaire, or at the very least start a new life for themselves by adopting any identity they wished.

It’s that adoption of identities during a very chaotic time period that forms the basis of Seattle artist Patty Grazini’s latest project, Eccentric Misfits and Uncommon Characters. Showing at the Curtis Steiner Gallery in Washington state’s largest city, the exhibition — which debuted November 22 — features several paper sculptures, each around 15 inches high and depicting anthropomorphic animal characters that represent a real person who lived in late 19th century New York.

With her latest exhibition, Grazini — whose past work has been featured in the likes of the Seattle Stranger and The Huffington Post as well as a Nordstrom catalog — uses collected and “found” paper of all types to create her sculptures. Her pieces include tiny details such as small furniture holding even smaller plates with food that’s even smaller still. Through its multiple characters with their numerous stories, the exhibition calls to mind some of Grazini’s past work, including a 2012 project featuring anthropomorphic characters based on real New York criminals who became infamous between 1880 and 1915, or a collection based on the women who inspired some of history’s most famous artists known as The Artists’ Muse. Every whimsical character features a different animal head — such as a sheep, pig or sparrow — which helps convey the personality of each individual; a woman who thought she was an opera singer, for example, is depicted as a duck, which the viewer assumes would quack (if the sculpture could make noise) in a most un-opera-like fashion.

GALO recently had a chance to catch up with Grazini, who had just returned from a trip to Italy. Here’s what she had to say.

GALO: Eccentric Misfits and Uncommon Characters reminds me of a previous project you did that featured several paper sculptures of anthropomorphic characters based on real people who had committed various crimes. How does this project differ from that one?

Patty Grazini: Eccentric Misfits and Uncommon Characters is similar to the show of criminals that I did about four year ago. I really enjoyed working on the previous group, and decided that I would like to revisit and expand with a related theme. Again by researching the New York Times as a starting point, I selected a different group of people to portray. They were not criminals, but exhibited behavior that would have been considered so unusual for the time that they often were front page news. They were a really fascinating group to study and portray. Each finished piece is about 15 inches tall, the same scale as the criminals. With the misfits, I wanted to expand and incorporate more animal characteristics in each figure, replacing human limbs with animal feet, tails and wings.

GALO: You work with a variety of different types of paper. What were some types of paper used in this project? Are there any interesting stories regarding how you came across some of this material?

PG: The paper that I select is very important to me. I began this group by choosing a color palette that I thought would best reflect the time period and personalities. I want the viewer to feel that although the artwork was created in the present, it embodies the past in both mood and feeling. In several cases, it was necessary to dye or bleach the paper to effectively “age” it. I also used as much old paper as possible. I am constantly searching for paper in used bookshops, antique stores and especially on travels. The runaway bride, in this group, is wearing a veil made from the sheerest paper that I have ever seen. I was lucky to find it at a paper store in Tokyo. When I bought the paper, I wasn’t sure how I would use it. This paper became the inspiration to search for a bride.

GALO: You mention that you started this project just like the others by browsing through old issues of The New York Times. I can only imagine the array of fascinating stories you encountered during this phase of the project. What exactly served as your inspiration for Eccentric Misfits and Uncommon Characters?

PG: I began this group by researching and reading The New York Times from about 1880-1910. I kept coming across articles about people who were featured in the newspaper, not because they had committed a crime, but because they had done something so out of the norm that it was considered newsworthy. Some of the individuals clearly had mental issues, while others appeared to be eccentrics or misfits. I found these people fascinating and abundant in the newspapers. The retelling of forgotten lives has always been a focal point in my work.

GALO: Yes, there is something captivating about getting lost in a history of a place, but even more so the stories of the people that traversed it. What was your criteria for an interesting character you discovered in your research when picking it to be turned into a sculpture?

PG: I wanted to find a range of individuals to portray. The article that I based each sculpture on needed to be in some way compelling to me. I knew I would be “living with” the character every day for quite a time. I selected individuals that I knew would keep me inspired and motivated. Another consideration was to portray only those who were living in New York. I felt [that] as a group, it added strength to create boundaries in time and place.

GALO: Each sculpture is an anthropomorphic animal based on a real person. How did you decide what animals to turn each of your historical subjects into? Were they difficult decisions?

PG: Yes, this was sometimes a very difficult decision. The personality of the animal is incorporated with the piece to help tell the story. I often found very interesting articles, but wasn’t able to find an animal that seemed suitable. In other cases, the selection was easy. For example, I found a story about a woman who thought that she was an opera singer. She annoyed everyone around her who had to listen to her. The head of a duck seemed an obvious choice.

GALO: Looking at the intricacy of each piece, I can only imagine the devotion and length of time you spent on them. About how long did you work on each sculpture?

PG: This is always a question that is hard to answer. I don’t sketch or plan each piece in detail before I begin. I work best without plans, leaving my work to develop during the process. I know this is not the most efficient method, but this is the process in which I work most comfortably. I am continuously changing papers, getting new ideas, and refining details as I work. Generally speaking, with this last group, I worked two to three weeks on each piece.

GALO: You mentioned the runaway bride before due to the choice of paper as well as the trying opera singer. With an array of characters like these, I can’t help but wonder which piece is your favorite from this collection — why that one?

PG: A kind of bonding sometimes happens for me when creating a piece of art based on a real person. There was one individual that I was particularly drawn to. She was an artist who distributed leaflets in the street, with an invitation to attend a concert that would take place in her New York City apartment on a certain day. A curious reporter decided to attend the concert. When he entered her apartment, he found that the concert was actually hundreds of singing crickets. The artist spent her days catching crickets, and then brought them to her apartment in order to hold a “concert” for anyone who wanted to attend. I gave her the head of a bluebird, dressing her in a way that would reflect an artist in early 1880. The paper that I used to create her dress was given to me by an artist friend. The paper was hand painted, originally used as a sample piece for designing Japanese Obi [colorful sashes used in traditional Japanese dress]. The most challenging part was making the tiny crickets and creating a stage for them to perform.

GALO: Was this the only sculpture that proved to be a challenge for you?

PG: There wasn’t a particular sculpture that was the most difficult to create, but some of the accessory pieces challenged me because of their tiny scale. One of these was a woman that I depicted as a pig. During the time when wealthy women were competing with each other by holding extravagant theme parties, with spectacular costumes and decorations, I found an interesting story about a socialite who had held an unusual gathering in her lavish home. In an attempt to outdo the other hostesses, she came up with a unique idea. She held a “topsy-turvy party.” The food was served in reverse order, desserts coming first. The guests sat on small tables and ate from tall chairs. For these accessory pieces, I made the required furniture that held very small plates of very tiny food. Not only was it challenging to work in such a small scale, but I had never attempted making such tiny plates and a cake stand, holding various fruits, an ice-cream sundae, and a meal of carrots, meat and a salad.

GALO: That almost sounds like something right out of the children’s story Alice in Wonderland! Where will people be able to see these sculptures?

PG: I have been showing with Curtis Steiner in Seattle for several years. My work can be seen at his gallery. Also, people can visit my Web page and Facebook page for updates and photos [of my work].

GALO: Each artist has their own daily routine. While working on this project, could you describe what a typical day was like for you, if there was such a thing as “typical?”

PG: I begin the day with coffee before going to work. Every day I try to start fresh with a new project or part of the project. Sometimes this includes dyeing or adding some surface treatment to the paper as needed. I don’t generally set daily goals for myself. I find it unpredictable as to what I will be able to accomplish each day. At the end of the day, I like to complete what I have started — not leaving anything unfinished before I stop for the day, even if it’s finishing a small detail.

GALO: What are some things you hope people take away from this project?

PG: I always hope that people will be transported a little, to another time and place. I hope that as a group, my characters serve as a way for the viewer to examine the lives of people different from themselves. And, of course, I am always pleased that people notice the details that I put into each piece. I often hear that people return to see my work repeatedly to examine each sculpture more thoroughly.

GALO: Yes, the pieces hold stories within stories. There is always something waiting to be discovered, just like when rereading an old novel or rewatching a favorite film. Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?

PG: Recently I had the fortunate opportunity to spend two weeks in Italy. I came back with some beautiful papers and I am feeling very inspired to work again. The next group that I have in mind will be very different from past shows. I’m anxious to get back to work.

GALO: We can’t wait to learn what you have in store this time! Thank you for the interview, Patty.

Editorial Note: You can navigate the gallery by using the arrows which appear in the middle of the image when hovered on, or by using the thumbnails below.

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Readers wishing to experience “Eccentric Misfits and Uncommon Characters” firsthand can do so at the Curtis Steiner Gallery, located at 5349 Ballard Avenue NW, Seattle WA 98107. || Featured image courtesy of Patty Grazini.