Thursday, May 19, 2011

Making my own road map

A very interesting and somewhat surprising thing has occurred since Craft Boston: I seem to be becoming a successful artist...who knew?

(warning, long post, but I hope an interesting one)

I'm at a crazy point in my life full of Big Decisions. To set the scene, I need to give you a bit of the backup story. Bear with me if you've followed this blog for long enough to know everything here, but I've gotten a TON of new viewers lately.

I started papercutting when I was 10. I did a summer program that had an art class that for some reason had a papercutting component. Basically we traced designs from DK stencil books and cut them with razor blades and hoped we didn't loose a finger. No real instruction, we just figured it out on our own.

When the program was over, I showed my mom the designs I made and she pulled out this book:

She owned a daycare that she ran out of our home and had tons of art and craft books for ideas to do with the kids. I basically copied every design from the book over the next 10 years, and essentially taught myself papercutting by just doing it for hours and hours.

Fast forward to college, I attended Boston University where I majored in Archaeology. During my Senior year, I started to papercut again based on some of the designs I saw on pottery and old art from my text books. I later got into photography and started making designs using my photos as references and developed my own style: highly detailed and "crinkly" for lack of a better term. Basically, I don't use very clean lines, deliberately, to better reference textures.

I have had several jobs in Archaeology since graduating in 2006, and have been papercutting the entire time. In 2007, I started selling on Etsy, just for fun, and the recession led to me and my wife (also an archaeologist) loosing our archaeology jobs. Since we both had the same qualifications and would be competing with each other, we decided that she should look for employment, and I would give the papercutting thing a go full-time.

At this time, I had started to challenge myself with very difficult designs and they started to gain some appreciation online and many sold. I was already making about as much as I was working, so making the transition to full-time art seemed to make sense giving our employment opportunities (or lack thereof)

Since 2007, I've been papercutting full time, and for a period I have also had a second full-time job as an archaeologist (May- Dec of 2010). I would create my designs from the hotel room I stayed in during away projects all around New England and would ship pieces during the weekend. I was honestly working about 80 hours a week and very much had two full time jobs.

I have never wanted to give up archaeology for art, but I never want to stop papercutting. After five years of trying and almost giving up hope, a few months ago I found out that I was accepted into a Masters Program at UMass Boston for archaeology.

About a week later, I showed my work at Craft Boston. That's where this story gets really complicated.

Craftboston was so beyond my wildest hopes for a successful show, and the sales that have occured directly resulting from the show have been almost as great. This "Art Thing" is doing really well. Really really really well. In my opinion, I'm a bonified successful artist right now. Not Warhol-successful, but for someone who cuts holes in paper and has no formal art background...

AND, I'm about to start a new chapter in the world of archaeology, with a couple potential jobs already on my radar. What to do?

Answer: Make hard choices. Apparently.

I've made the decision that I will be a professional archaeologist, a damn good one too, and also be a professional papercutting artist, one of the best ones in the world. Totally possible.

I never took a single art class after 8th grade so I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing. Fortunately I'm ambitious, have an amazingly smart and encouraging wife, and the internet and books exist, so I've been able to make it so far.

I have a few major archaeology projects this summer, but regarding the art I'm making the following choices:

1. Reduce the smaller 8x10 non-one of a kind pieces on etsy. Love designing them, love their price point and the income they generate, and I love having them as an option for my customers but they keep me very very busy and sometimes I don't have time to create larger more significant pieces. So, you may notice that my designs have decreased in number from about 120 to about 85. That number may go down again soon.

2. Raise the bar. For myself and all other papercutters out there. Bring it! I've recently completed two personal challenges. How small can I make a complicated design, and how detailed can I possibly make my designs.

Here's the small pieces:

^ Skyline of NYC

Micro Kissing on a bike, about the size of a nickle

Both were cut using a jewelers loop

And here's a branch piece I'm almost done with. It uses a complete sheet of my black paper (30x20 inches) and is the largest size they manufacture this paper. It has about 20,000 holes in it. It will be at the Public Museum during the Grand Rapids ArtPrize competition. Not sure if I will pre-sell it since I have agreed to have it in the show. The price is $7,800. If someone is interested in purchasing it, please email me ( to discuss the sale. I am willing to split any potential prize money (up to $250,000) if it is purchased prior to the show.

Having finished both, however, I now know that I can't really do things smaller or more complicated. So, what to do now?

Make them BETTER and more interesting.

So, with that said, I'm setting out on a new path with my papercutting. My goal is to combine my detailed crazy-complicated designs, but with a bit less literal use of them. For example, instead of a bunch of branches, I've designed a large skull piece that is made exclusively of branches. The denser the branches, the more shading in the skull. Up close, it's a tangle of branches. From across the room it's a skull. I think you guys will really like it. I'm also working on two other versions of the same skull using Wycinanki style polish papercutting techniques and some other ideas. More of that to come as I finish them.

My new goal for my papercuts is to make a body of 10-15 large pieces, and find a gallery to show them. I really feel like this is the right direction for me. The larger more expensive pieces allow me to concentrate on design and execution of pieces.

I'm still trying to figure out how exactly to go about finding a gallery here in Boston. I may start in Portland, ME where I grew up. Great art scene, and possibly a bit easier to find a gallery. I've sold a ton of pieces now for between $1,000 and $5,000 so I know there's a proven market. Just need to raise the bar a bit more in this next batch. Reading a ton of books on art careers. Wish I had made those important connections you get in art school, but there's plenty of ways to skin a cat, and perhaps not having a clue what I'm doing is charming, right? We'll see.

Here's my reading material:

This can't hurt, so here goes: If you're a gallery and like my work, contact me ( I have design proofs of some of the pieces I'll be making for the body of work.

I have no idea how far I can take this. My work really doesn't have a "message", it isn't political, and I never want it to be. I'm hoping people and Art People can recognize it for what it hopefully is: Something beautiful, visually interesting, and mind-blowingly cut from paper.

If you aren't a gallery, keep coming back, follow my facebook page (updated often) and hang on for the ride! I have no idea where it is going but I'm working my ass off to make it as successful as possible!

Thanks for making it to the end of this really long post, I appreciate it.


Jessica said...

Oh my God, Joe, that competition piece is incredible! You should totally win! I heartily support your decision to be both an archaeologist and an artist! Good luck with your future!

Mr Yen said...

This all sounds very interesting and I wish you the very best of luck!

I find your work so amazing and very inspirational - I hope to be as successful as you someday ^_^

Anonymous said...

Cheers to you, Joe, for being brave and making the hard decisions.

JDML - atx

Ashly Picazo said...

you do really great stuff and reading about your journey was very interesting. Keep up the good work and with the natural talent you got, I know even more success should be coming your way.

Rachel H said...

Joe, I have so enjoyed reading your business musings! Ever since meeting you two and photographing your wedding, I think often of your unconventional life choices and quirky sense of humor!

Ruth Mergi said...

All of this sounds great, Joe! I'm glad to hear that your pieces are selling, and at the same time I agree that you need to push yourself further. It's about crossing over from craftsmanship to art.

When I first started "following" you, you were talking about pushing the medium of papercutting into uncharted territory, bringing this folk art form up to date. I think this is where you are going to shine. Don't get me wrong, I love your small designs, but the world needs your bigger, more invested pieces. :-)

Don't worry about being "political" or having a "message". Just follow your nose, do what's interesting to you.

Wishing you the best of luck (and congrats on your acceptance to the masters program!)

Unknown said...

Joe - I am continually impressed by your talent, creativity and energy. Seems like you are always up to something!

Furthermore, you seem to be able to easily do two or more things at basically the same time - I call it "multiplexing." I would like to think I do a couple of things well, but multiplexing is something I have never really been able to do.

All the best to you in your two professions! I'm sure you will do great in both.

Laura said...

I wonder if the magazine Art New England would be helpful for you. It has calls for artists and calls for entries in the back and reviews exhibitions at galleries in the region. Good luck!

Kelli said...

I enjoyed reading this is wonderful blog and love your work.

I nominated you to find out more about you!

Minnie Kitchen said...

Hey you made them mini! I admire your work and stalked you from etsy :)

Idaho Wireless said...

Joe - you are so inspiring to me. I have been trying my hand at papercutting with a knife over the past few months and I stumbled upon your blog and etsy shop a few weeks ago.

I think your work is jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, and absolutely amazing. You are definitely blazing a trail in the art world in my opinion.

Keep up the amazing work and best of luck with your archaeology as well! Another thing I have always wanted to do. Haha.

You are awesome. Always remember that.

Artsnark said...

Congrats, Joe! You are ready to take on the world & it is finally ready for you :D Keep up the brilliant creations!

Anonymous said...

I just discovered your paper cuts a few hours ago, and I have been hooked reading your blog! Hearing your story here is very encouraging, and I wish you the best of luck! I have only recently decided that I should sell my own paper cuts, and starting a PhD program in Ecology has meant my focus on the art process has waned a little. I am excited to follow your blog and see your new pieces. I love the microcuts, and your large elaborate trees are quite breathtaking! I look foward to seeing more!

Handmade in Israel said...

A friend sent me a link to your Etsy shop and I am blown away by it! Your work is inspirational! It has been fascinating to read a little more about you on your blog and I wish you the very best of luck with all the forthcoming changes!

Ray Rousell said...

I've never heard of this art form before reading your blog, but boy the stuff you do is amazing, keep plugging away with both jobs,and good luck with both jobs!!!

Steph Card said...

Joe I just came back from ArtPrize in Grand Rapids and had to look you up. Your piece was amazing. The best there in my opinion (even though I was there for top 10 week). Thank you for sharing your work and your story. As a 'hobby' artist, you inspired me to think bigger with my art.

Karin Corbin said...

you finding a gallery in Boston is easy enough. Just ask around for what is the best, the top, gallery in town and go talk to them.

Your work is fresh, the medium of paper is super hot right now. There will be no problem with your work getting accepted into a group show at that gallery. Solo shows usually come a bit later after you have proved yourself. But you never know...

ChristineMarie said...

very inspiring, really enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks for sharing
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