Crafting Stories - Interview with Layla May Arthur

Layla May Arthur, based in the Netherlands, is an internationally exhibited paper artist, who invites her audience to become a part of her work when they step into the shadows of her installations. Having received many international awards, Layla, with great imagination and focus on details, is aspired to create an experience of visual storytelling with paper and light.

Could you please introduce yourself? What is your background?

I am from Jersey, the Channel Islands, which is a tiny island in-between England and France. I recent graduated with a Bachelor in Fine Art in the Netherlands. and was a student in the past four years.

How did you get into paper cutting?

About four years ago, I went to a paper cutting exhibition in Jersey which was my first time encountering paper cut.  The exhibition was about a Chinese artist and a Danish artist, and it hast happened to come to Jersey. I immediately fell in love with the idea that the paper was the only material and that you were kind of taking away and sculpting the paper itself to make the imagery and the possibility for shadows and then making it into these spaces where you feel like you kind of step into this world of paper. Now I have been working on paper cutting for about four years now. It is not so long but I think my style has changed quite a lot already.

I cut the paper using a scalpel, not traditional scissors, just because my style is much more drawing with the scalpel rather than folding and then unfolding. I originally was only cutting, like flat cuttings. So everything I was doing was very more traditional. It was flat, white paper. But more recently, in the last year or so I've been experimenting more with making the paper more sculptural. So I am still working with cutting it, but making it 3D and having it more as a set.

Where do you get your inspiration from? How do you design your paper cutting art pieces?

I always kind of draw the imagery myself, and i like a lot of patterns. When I was growing up my parents travelled a lot, and they bought loads of very patterned things. So I kind of grew up in a house, which had loads of patterns. That's why in my work, there is a lot of parts that I really enjoy doing these tiny details - pattern elements, and small things. I also make a lot of efforts to make my art more vivid. For example, drawing people is really hard, so I actually take a photograph of myself posing in the position that I want to create. Then I draw from that. And then that becomes the characters for people.

In terms of the overall design, it’s hard to explain because normally in my head there is a full image, not everything but like the main composition is normally there in my head before I start. So I kind of know what will go where and how they will connect together. And recently, I've been working on stories, the ones that my parents told me as I was growing up including folktales and fairy tales from all over the world where they traveled to. When I was reading the text and then making the words into the images that I imagined when I read it.

In your instagram, all your work is done with white papers. Is that your style or do you also use paper with different colours or even patterned papers?

I really like the white paper just because I think then the imagery really stands out for itself. And it's not distracted by loads of colours. I think sometimes in some paper art, when you have a lot of colour in it, it immediately creates an impression to the work, like what colours you choose really informs the way that people look at it. It already gives so much context to the work. Like using red paper, you immediately associated with China, and dark black paper, it already makes the imagery sinister in some way, because the paper is black. So I really like the fact that the white paper, which is more neutral in the way you approach it. And also, with the lighting, using the white papers meant that I can play with the layers of paper. So in some of my recent work, you can see that there's multiple colours in them. And that's actually still all white paper, but it's just layers of paper. So the darker parts are actually two layers of or three layers of paper. I really love that new element to my work. So I think I will mostly stick with white paper for my own work for now.

Do you use a specific type or thickness of paper in your work?

I always use 200 gram, like white drawing paper. It is actually quite thick compared to what other people use, because I like the fact that the paper feels solid when you're working with it. Because I know, traditionally, the papers really, really thin because then you can fold it, cut it and unfold it. Whereas my paper is much more difficult to fold while cutting. I've tried using paper, like natural paper which has loads of fibers in it. But because the stuff I cut, which is so tiny, the fibers kind of like stick out into the cutting part. So for me, because I want it to be so precise and the details to be really clean, using handmade papers doesn't really provide that.

Could you talk about more about how you work on paper cutting especially to people who have not tried by themselves?

When I'm working on paper cutting, I like listening to an audio book or podcast. So it's not focusing on just the paper. The way the imagery works is that you really have to think about which bits to take away and which bits to leave, and how certain parts connect the paper to the larger piece. For me now that really instinctual, like, I don't even have to think about it, and I just kind of know because you can also work like in silhouettes, so leaving the paper there like a normal silhouette, or you can cut away the lines. Paper cutting is actually quite versatile in the way that you can make the imagery but you just always have to be aware that the paper needs to stay as one piece if that's what your intention is.

Do you have a specific part of the paper cutting process that you enjoy the most?

I really enjoyed the actual cutting. I draw the characters first, just the character, so I know what they look like. But I'm always super looking forward to the time when I start cutting it. Because, normally when you cut about halfway, you you can kind of really see the imagery coming together. And I really loved that moment where you really start to see the images emerging from the paper. It's funny that I'm actually really impatient in everyday life. But for paper cutting, I just have so much time. I need to work very long hours as well to even see a difference. It is common that you can be working for five hours and only have made like a really small section. But it’s worth it in the end as well. Just be prepared to put in the time to make it come together.

Are you a perfectionist in life or only to paper cutting?

Definitely in everything, although it definitely comes out in my art more than anything else just because it's a visual representation. I think that's also why I like making it so detailed and so tiny, because it's kind of like pushing myself to make it as small as possible to be as intricate as possible.

I'm definitely a perfectionist. I want my art to be clean, perfect, and in the way that I kind of imagined it, or if it's not perfect, it needs to be deliberately done that way.

Do you prefer to work more independently? Do you like to share ideas or techniques with a group of other paper cutting artists?

There are not so many people doing paper cutting nowadays. Apart from me, no one else is doing that in my school. At school, I spoke quite a lot with my teachers and fellow classmates, but they were doing very different things to me. I also follow a lot of paper artists online, and I don’t specifically speak to them about the work I am doing or anything. In that sense, I am quite independent.

Could you please describe your daily routine?

I normally get up quite early. I check my emails during breakfast and then I basically start working all day until dinner, and then I'm done. So like dinner at like five, six o’clock. But when I was working on my graduation project, at the end, I was working to dinner and then again after dinner, so I was working till about sometimes 12am. To be honest, paper cutting can be very, very relaxing. But if you have a deadline, and because it is such a slow process, you do have to work very long hours. However I do not feel stressed at all. For me, it's fine to work long hours.

Do you consider yourself as a serene person? Would you like to pursue a more serene living?

Probably not right now. Eventually I would love to, even when I go back to Jersey. The island is really suitable for serene living. But right now because I have just graduated, and I need to start a successful career. I am at the point in my life where I am going to be working the hardest I have ever worked.

Although you are not pursuing a serene living at the moment, any tips to people or your future self? how you would start? 

My big tip for serene living would be to make time for it! I currently am not taking time to live serenely and that is the first step! And other than that, going outside there isn't much better than fresh air!

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