Cutting paper: a love story by Laura J. Lawson

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Of all the tactile pleasures I can think of, interacting with paper is among my favorites. Paper is as varied as food: slick-coated candied magazines, paperbacks with soft pastry pages, hot white copies sizzling with toner, tea-colored lines steeping secrets in a journal. There is no repulsive paper.

I spent years drawing, folding, writing, painting, rolling, and preserving paper before it ever really occurred to me to cut. In graduate school I eagerly signed up for Art of the Book. Cutting signatures and stitching bindings was worth the cold reality of 8 am class. One of our first lessons was how to make a simple 16-page accordion book out of one sheet of paper.

That did me in. A single page was transformed into a book with a few folds and snips. It's not the most elegant kind of book, but this change into a new object had me hooked. What else could be done with a single sheet?

I can't remember the guidelines for our first project, but I could not let go of the idea of the single sheet transformed. I wanted to go beyond making content with pencil or ink. The pages alone had to carry their weight. So, I cut into them.

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To express something big in a modest project, I chose to illustrate the use of paper across continents and time. Of course, this is an extremely long and varied history-- far too complex to really explain in a picture book-- so I picked four places to highlight.

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After folding and cutting a sheet of drawing paper into the accordion book, I found that the structure of the paper would allow me four two-page layouts. Rather than pack in eight places with questionable identity, I chose to work in the style and language the paper was used for. 

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A real historian of paper might have some advice on locations, and native readers of Mandarin and Arabic may have some corrections for me, but I was more concerned with my due date. The four places I settled on were China, Iran, Germany, and the United States. The written titles are a bit more generic: I opted for something like "the Islamic world," as well as Europe and America.

It's not a perfect project by any means, but unpacking it recently was a welcome surprise. It's a clear link between my past and current work. I did a few other projects where I cut my own drawings, but doing this piece ultimately led me to cutting up maps to explore my biggest obsession-- the human experience of place. Erasure by knife and the transformation of the object created a huge breakthrough for me, and over 100 X-Acto blades later, I'm still making discoveries with it. I'm excited to see what comes next.

What is depaysement? by Laura J. Lawson

I titled my thesis exhibition Depaysement. Said exhibition was held in Memphis, Tennessee, where French is not the lingua franca. I dedicated an entire section of gallery wall to the definition. Why bother?

The exhibition was the product of my experiences after three years of study in Memphis, and a two month artist residency at the Centre d'Art Marnay Art Center (CAMAC) in Marnay-sur-Seine, France. I wanted to take a deep look at the concept of the identity of place, and I did so by investigating the landscape through color, pathways, borders, and cartography.

As an undergraduate, I spent a semester in Paris, and gained what I'll call an academic fluency with the French language. (Fluent enough, but not confidently bilingual yet.) My favorite words to learn were the ones that didn't have an English equivalent. Depaysement. The feeling of not being in one's home country. What is that, exactly?

The odd thing is, by returning to France for the CAMAC residency, I was essentially returning to something familiar. I spoke the language, navigating nearby Paris was already easy for me, and there were few surprises left when it came to cultural differences. Still, the light and air were different, and invisible particles seemed energized in different wavelengths. Time ran at a slightly different speed. Even on days when I felt terrible, I could still delight in how normalcy was never quite normal.

The depaysement in the French countryside reminded me of the almost imperceptible differences that continued to permeate my life in Memphis. Despite moving frequently, most of my youth was spent in Texas. Southern culture covers a huge swath of states, but beyond slightly inferior BBQ and sno-cones,* there were still peripheral and atmospheric qualities that would never be identical.

I really saturated my mind and body in these places. They were a little familiar, a little strange, and had more in common than I could have predicted. It's invigorating to be depaysee, and these questions and memories continue to drive my artistic practice.

*I'm sorry, Memphians; "excellent" is still one rung lower than "best."