Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Paper Dreams: Su Blackwell


Su Blackwell

Su Blackwell is quite at ease with the limited life expectancy of her work. The fact that she spends hours crafting materials that won’t last very long does not bother her. Instead, she refers to her chosen medium of paper as “delicate and accessible”, her techniques as “irreversible and destructive” and the outcomes a “reflection on the precariousness of the world we inhabit and the fragility of our life, dreams and ambitions”.

Blackwell’s magical creations often emerge from the pages of books, as though the images we may imagine a text to contain have quite literally materialized. She describes a sense of “claustrophobia” lingering about these book-based works, “as if these characters and the landscape have been trapped inside the book all this time and are now suddenly released”. Alternatively, her fairytale worlds sit inside wood boxes with glass fronts. Rather than restrict viewing, the box seems to heighten the spells her work casts by creating a boundary that clearly separates the scene inside from our mundane reality outside.

Materials that deteriorate have long been of interest to Blackwell. Paper entered her vocabulary after studying textiles, which may in part explain the sensibility in her work that tends to catch the eye of textile enthusiasts. She studied Mixed Media Textiles at the Royal College of Art (2001-2003) with tutors Freddie Robins and Karen Nicol, but often worked in the jewelry workshop and experimented with electroplating thread with metal to create fine wire. From metal she moved to paper, which she observes “has both a fragility and strength that drew me in and still fascinates me to this day”.

“A master of the monochromatic,” is how Freddie Robins recalls Blackwell’s work at the RCA. This and her choice of unassuming materials are approaches that can be seen in throughout her work. Robins remembers Blackwell’s use of “paper, wire, tea bags – just about anything other than materials usually associated with textiles. Her processes and techniques were modest too,” Robins notes, “mostly using simple hand techniques such as cutting, folding and bending to create her structures or forms.”

One the most striking elements of Blackwell’s portfolio today is the variety of high-end commercial projects that have sought her clever use of such a simple material. A full page image of “The Quiet American” in the December 2006 issue of the British edition of Vogue brought her work to the attention of many. Her work appeared at the Craft Council’s Origin around the same time and commissions from high profile clients such as the Cartier Store in Paris as well as pages for the likes of Harpers Bazar, Tatler and Vanity Fair followed.

Clients seem to reach Blackwell through both luck and planning. In 2008 she was named “one to watch” by the Financial Times. Not the typical press coverage for an artist who practices a craft that makes use of undervalued materials. While the press exposure has certainly helped build her reputation, it was her website, which Rich North, the Art Director of an ambitious paper animation for Barringer Wine, explains was how his creative team came across her work.

Considering her loyalty to material and scale, Blackwell’s portfolio is striking in its variety. Ironically, the modest scale of many of her projects does little to limit the time involved with production. Intricate scenes are often quite mesmerizing to view and the detail of work involved is often overtaken by the atmosphere finished works conjure. Larger projects are not out of the question, although Blackwell explains that even when working large, “I work on a small scale. Even larger pieces are made from smaller parts.”

It may be this sense of scale that explains, in part, the number of times her work has styled jewelry spreads in fashion magazines. The contrast is a curious one: sparkly jewels worth a fortune, draped over landscapes of hand cut paper. The inherent value of the materials could not be more striking. But perhaps that isn’t the point. Magic is present in both. Jewelry can make its wearer – even if only fleetingly – feel like a princess. Blackwell constructs imagined landscapes with the same sense of escape in mind.

A stop-frame animation for Beringer Vineyard in 2007 also captures this sense of enchantment, this time in the unfurling leaves of a vineyard made from white paper. But the 45-second advert belies the time and monotony involved in the making. Blackwell explains, “the filming was very slow and mundane, they had to film it in seven days. Prior to that I had spent 3-4 weeks making the models, and a week prior to filming, a team of artists made replica vines on set.  It was strange at first, seeing other artists create replicas of my work.” Stranger yet was production, which involved slowly trimming away the paper vineyard and then playing the animation backwards to replicate the ‘growing’ trees.

Assistants are, at times, needed these days. But Blackwell is quick to admit that too much assistance can be counter productive: “I work alone and find having assistants in every day is distracting. I work better when I am on my own.” Is there currently any time left over for projects that don’t have an eager client at the end of them? “That is in the background at the moment as I don’t have much spare time,” Blackwell confesses. “But this is something I want to work on this year. I have residencies at the Robert Burns National Heritage Park’s Museum in Ayrshire, Scotland [exhibition opening mid-March 2010] and the Brontë Parsonage Museum in West Yorkshire [exhibition August-September]”.

Elements of Blackwell’s work remind me of New York-based artist Kirsten Hassenfeld who also uses paper to create the most magical atmospheres. A recent reviewer of Hassenfeld’s exhibition in Providence, Rhode Island commented of her materials, “Add up the cost of everything in the Bell show and you’d barely have enough to pay for a typical opening-night party at a New York gallery.” Perhaps this is part of the charm both artists share, particularly in the cash strapped climate of today. The paper itself may not last forever, but public interest in Blackwell’s creations looks to be stronger then ever.

Embroidery magazine (May/June 2010: 26-29)