Tuesday, January 27, 2015

They Create: Jeremy Shatan’s Playful Paper Cut-Outs


I’ve said it before. My husband, Jeremy Shatan, is a Renaissance man.
He raises money to help children with cancer. He is a serious baker. He’s an avid skier. He writes about music for his blog, AnEarful.
He does too many things well to list them all here. In addition to all of the other stuff he works on, Jeremy also makes these whimsical and wonderful paper cut-outs.
Ever since we became a couple, Jeremy and I have always been intent on creating our own holiday traditions. We tend to take classic elements from Halloween, Thanksgiving, birthdays, Christmas, and Chanukah, and give them a unique spin. We pick and choose what we like, discard what we don’t, then reinvent the rest.
Jeremy began making the paper cutouts as alternative to commercial, mass-produced decorations when our children were very small. We are still enjoying the first creations he made 17 years ago. Over the years, he's added to the collection, inspired by birthdays and other celebrations. They hang from our doorways and ceilings. They're affixed to our walls, windows and front door.
The paper cutouts are serving an even higher purpose now. Our firstborn, Jacob, inspired Jeremy's first cutouts and lots of other art, too. Jacob passed away from childhood cancer at the age of two and a half. Every year, we form a group called Team Jacob in his honor. We participate in a special walk to remember him and raise money to help children with cancer. You can learn more here.
For the last two years, Jeremy and I have created a theme for Team Jacob based on some of Jacob's favorite things. In 2013 our theme was the Granny Smith apple because not only was this one of Jacob's favorite foods, he also loved noticing apples everywhere we went.
When Jacob was being treated with chemotherapy, it was a challenge getting him to eat enough. So Jeremy made Jacob special waffles called Power Pack Waffles. They were loaded with the nutrition and calories Jacob needed. In 2014, Jacob's waffle became our theme.
I wanted to share Jeremy's thoughts, process and creations with you. So I interviewed him.
Describe what you remember about the early days of your paper cutouts. Why paper cutouts as opposed to paintings, photography or a different art form?
When it came time to celebrate Jacob's first birthday, I didn't like the commercial themes and designs of the stuff they sold for kids' parties back then. Since it was common to have wall and hanging decor made of heavy card stock, I thought I would just make my own. 
I wanted them to be simple shapes that Jacob could recognize - and I'm good at drawing simple things. At first I thought I would do imaginary bugs but then I decided on hippos, rhinos and elephants as they are easier to cut out and we had a history of buying stuffed animals of those creatures. 

When it came time to make them, I found it very easy to make a line drawing and then cut it out using an X-ACTO knife. I discovered a real affinity for that tool, enjoying the sensation of the blade cutting through paper. I often enter a flow state when I cut, a relaxed, focused mode where every instinct is the right one.

I never considered other media as photography was an involved process back then and I wasn't confident in my abilities with paint. I also like the absolutely graphic quality of colored paper, giving each element of the final product an even, overall color. 

Talk a little about how our friends and family have responded to your cutouts.
The best first audience for the cutouts was Jacob. We hung up the hippo, rhino and elephant from a beam in our apartment while he was napping before his first birthday party. When he woke up, I brought him out and held him up high, near the decorations. "Wow!" he said in a drawn out and clearly enunciated expression of wonder. At that moment I knew I had done something very special. Those three are still hanging in our apartment, 17 years later.
When it comes to the holiday cutouts, everyone has loved them. The feedback I've gotten tells me that people like the fresh approach to classic themes, somehow making stock images like wreaths and menorahs new to them again.

Having birthday parties for our kids year after year took the themes of the cutouts to a different level. Describe a birthday party or two and how you used the cutouts and other paper elements in your decor.
When Hannah was little, she got really into the circus. She liked anything to do with that form of entertainment so we made that the theme of her party. I really challenged myself with some of my most elaborate designs yet, including a decorated elephant standing on a drum and a trapeze artist swinging through the air. 
The year before that, we paid tribute to Hannah's well-rounded interests. She liked ducks, trucks, and globes ("Eart!" She would say, pointing) so that's what I made for her.  We would've had to buy three different sets to cover all those bases!

Noah's parties were fun because he was all boy, so that meant balls of all shapes and sizes one year and a three-car steam engine the next. 

Could you give our readers a paper cutout "recipe" along with some helpful hints? 
I always start with a sort of Platonic image in my mind: what would the perfect Santa hat look like? Of course, that image is filtered through my taste, memory and perception so it can't help but be an individualized idea. 
Once I have the image in my mind, I think about how I can achieve it using the minimum amount of elements. In the case of the Santa hat, I knew I would need a red triangle, a fluffy white brim and a fluffy ball for the top.  After choosing my paper, I draw each element, which is one translation of the image into reality, and then cut out the shape, which is another. I accept the changes that occur during this translation process - as long as I'm satisfied with the final results, of course. 

Then I glue everything together. If it's going to hang from the ceiling, then it needs to be double-sided, which means making two of every element, except for the central one (in this example, I only needed one red triangle) - another good reason to use as few pieces as possible. 

Here are some technical tips:

1. If you're unfamiliar with X-ACTO knives, experiment before your first project. Don't press - just drag your blade through the paper (I often think of molecules parting, believe it or not). Buy lots of blades and change them often. Dull blades rip paper. 

2. Splurge on glue. It can be seriously annoying to have all these beautiful bits of cut paper and then your final piece has all kinds of bubbles and bulges because you used Elmer's glue. I used to use this weird stuff that came in a white tub. I think I got it at Kate's Paperie.  In any case, go to a good store, ask their advice, and make no object of money. Cheap paper is fine - cheap glue is untenable. 

3. Have fun with it! If you enjoy the process then you can't help but be satisfied with the result. 

They Create: The Playful Paper Cutouts of Jeremy Shatan is the second in an ongoing series about creative people across many disciplines.
Halloween Cat

Acrobat for Hannah's circus birthday party

Jeremy made me Mother's Day and birthday cards using his beloved X-ACTO knife & glue

Detail of oft worn Team Jacob granny smith apple shirt

Team Jacob wore the waffle in 2014

Thanksgiving pie, 3rd birthday clown & Christmas candy cane

This pumpkin is faded from many years of Halloween window display

Chanukah gelt


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