Painting with Paper
Carol Flax finds inspiration in the pages of
magazines to piece together her works of fine art
Think of the skeletal structure and muscle beneath a horse’s skin. Or the light of the sun and the blue of the sky visible behind a cloud. Now think of the task at hand for an artist to realistically capture such dimensional elements. A painter, for example, could create these effects on canvas with the finessed movement of a paintbrush, using a palette to concoct the right colors and tones. It might seem impossible to artistically render the nuances of a subject without tools like brushes and paints. Not for Carol Flax, though. Challenging, yes, but not impossible, as she’s shown through her Cut Paper Mosaics.
As Flax demonstrates while sitting at her studio work table in her Yarmouth home, it is her hands, and her ingenuity, that are the keys to her artwork. The rest of her resources are simply a pair of scissors, a glue stick, and reclaimed paper. Using all kinds of magazines, as well as catalogues and calendars, that she sources from the Yarmouth Recycling Center—from design catalogues to issues of Cape Cod Life—Flax upcycles the papers, cutting and shaping them on collage board into representational depictions of landscape and seascape scenes. “I call it ‘Cut Paper Mosaics’ because it almost looks like the pieces have been fit together, like a mosaic,” Flax explains. “The technique is a lot like painting with paper. The way I cut paper and apply it is the same way a painter would use a brush to create an effect. The painter can use his brush in a particular way to create a texture or to create light; I have to find texture and light in a piece of paper and cut it a specific way to make it mimic the paintbrush.”
Needless to say, Flax’s creative process is one that requires tremendous consideration. First, she needs the magazine paper itself to not be so thin that it’s see-through, and it can’t be so glossy that there’s the glare of reflecting light. Flax studies the photographs printed on the pages of magazines and looks for specific colors, textures and shadows that can realistically depict her subjects. Take, for instance, the papers she’s used in recent portraits of horses: In an image of brown chairs she found the grain of the wood to be perfect for the hair, and in images of white feathers she saw the mane.
When Flax cuts the paper, she cuts it in such a way to make its form appear as natural—and less like paper—as possible, and oftentimes she will layer her cut out pieces to create a sense of texture and dimension. “It’s not like paper dolls,” she notes. “You can’t just cut out an image and then paste it on—that has no dimension, it’s flat.” Flax then builds her scenes from the bottom up, designing the background before the focal point. She doesn’t draw out her subjects first—it’s rather freestyle, she says. Her Elmer’s CraftBond glue is tacky enough for adhesion, but she can also quickly reposition the paper if necessary. And no piece of paper, no matter its shape or size, is wasted, as evidence by the sea of scraps on her work table. “Sometimes the most microscopic piece is something that I need to add.”
“The technique is a lot like painting with paper. The way I cut paper and apply it is the same way a painter would use a brush to create an effect.”
When people see her work, Flax says they are often taken aback. “Seeing people’s reaction—they think it’s a painting, and then they get up closer and they’re like, ‘Wow, what is this?’ It’s fun to see that,” she says. She’s often asked how long a piece takes her to complete—a question she originally struggled with. “An artist friend once said to me, ‘You should answer, and don’t say it takes three weeks or two days or five months. You should say it takes your whole life.’ It really does,” says Flax. “I’m bringing every day of my life experience to the table to create something.”
The first time Flax ever made a piece with cut paper was during her college years. “I had been using magazines that were in my family home,” she recalls. “I made gifts for people—I made collages just like the ones I make now. I’d use poster board, and Elmer’s glue back then was the liquid kind so it was really messy. My 96-year-old mom still has an owl that I made for her 50 years ago.” At the urging of her father to pursue a career that was financially stable, she went on to become an English and theater teacher. She eventually went into marketing and communications, and over the course of 20 years she worked for such institutions as the University at Albany (SUNY) and Ohio Northern University.
But she never forgot about her cut paper art. When Flax retired in 2012, she started experimenting with the medium again. “As soon as I started doing it I thought, wow, I love this! I loved doing it then, and oh my gosh, I love it even more now,” she says. “Love is probably bordering on addiction,” she admits with a laugh. “It’s pretty compulsive at this point. I have some pieces that really give me fits. I’ll be thinking about it at night, and I’ll wake up and run out here (to her studio table) in my pajamas and I’ll go, ‘Oh, I know just what I have to do.’”
Flax moved from her last job in Ohio to Cape Cod in 2013 to be closer to friends and family. Her excitement for her new home only grew when she discovered just how much artistic inspiration surrounded her—like Gray’s Beach and Lewis Bay. “I couldn’t wait to get started,” she says of pursuing her artwork on the Cape. In addition to her solo exhibitions, Flax and fellow fiber artists/friends Christine Anderson, Lisa Horton and Toni Newhall are part of a group they call Fiber Fusion, holding their first show last July at Woodruff’s Art Center in Mashpee Commons.
“We all kind of deconstruct things and reconstruct them into something new,” Flax says. She goes on to explain why she particularly likes using recycled magazines. “There are lots of paper artists, and people do things like this with paper that they’ve made or painted or that they’ve purchased. But I love the colors in magazines—I think the colors and textures are really beautiful,” she says. “And when I see a magazine lying in the recycling center or the dump, I think of the people who spent so much time and energy and their own creativity working on this, and I feel sad that it’s getting thrown out. So I think it’s cool and creative to upcycle it into something new and beautiful. It kind of honors the work of the photographers and the designers, and even the writers too.”
For Flax, the last five years have been some of the most fulfilling of her life. Her desire to pursue the creative life she always yearned for is finally happening—one piece of paper at a time. “I just want to see where the paper takes me and how far it will go.”
Carol Flax is represented by Creative Hands Gallery, The Gallery on Main, and The Rice Gallery at Woodruff’s Art Center. To learn more, visit carolflaxart.com.