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Paper Cuts

August 5, 2011

SamuraiBeetle by Megan Brain

In the second installment in the Visual Nutrition category, I would like to feature the work of Megan Brain. She composes extremely striking pieces using as her medium, humble paper. Most people contemplating paper used as an artistic device, will immediately think of origami. Just as that intricate artform forces us to re-evaluate our ideas of this utilitarian material, Megan’s work also brings out and celebrates some properties of what we may have previously dismissed as an office supply.

I remember when in pre-school, the thing I liked most was storytime. The teacher would read us fantastic tales, and we were free to lie down on the carpet, our heads lying on soft cushions and perhaps, if we were feeling decadent enough, under the cover of a reassuring blanket. Even now, I find it hard to imagine a better way to spend an idle idyll. If I were a king, emperor, maharajah or CEO of Apple, I would make storytime (and cushions and blankets) a daily event for my adoring subjects/employees, and one in which I would partake whole-heartedly.

The second-best thing I liked in pre-school was Arts. Even as a young child I was frugal by nature, wearing out socks to tatters, writing with ever-diminishing nubs of pencils, playing doggedly with chipped marbles and maintaining a martial loyalty to my plastic soldiers even though many of them were molten, exhumed, chewed up, post-traumatically shellshocked canine fodder.

So imagine my uneasy wonder when in pre-school I was confronted with the Crafts Corner, where the most bewildering array of colours vied for our attention – paints, brushes, sponges, crayons, fabrics, string, and of course paper. Whole stacks of paper and card in bright colours. And we could use as much of it as we wanted to, and it would all be magically replaced overnight. Bliss.

Perhaps if I was more diligent and appreciative of this opportunity, I would be an acclaimed artist today. But sadly, it seems that my favourite thing to do in Arts was to cut paper with a pair of scissors. That’s it. While my fellow future Gaugins and Picassos were busy getting messy with paint and stamps and crayons and markers which were supposedly magical, I liked nothing more than to cut stiff card with a pair of scissors. I loved the crisp sound and tactile response when a pair of sharp scissors cut into paper, and soon discovered the joys of turning the paper with one hand while cutting with the other to make intricate if unrecognisable shapes.

Unlike me however, Megan Brain found a way to transform this love of paper into something beautiful and slightly more productive. I have always been fascinated by how complexity evolves from simplicity. Whilst in theory we are all capable of cutting out shapes of coloured paper, arranging and then gluing them together, it takes a special sensibility to be able to do just that and end up with something like this:


Like much of her work, what immediately impresses is how simple, clean-cut lines and shapes come together so perfectly and elegantly. These striking effects are not happy accidents, but the result of much thought and composition. Looking at this piece, what is undeniable is how foxy it is. To be able to capture and convey such essences is an enviable talent.

And, I’m glad to learn, a talent that is the product of conscientious study and diligent practice and experimentation. I’ll admit a bias here and state that a lot of modern art baffles and underwhelms me. A painting where someone has squelched a load of thick paint on a canvas in a fit of emotion and presented it in a museum as a deep exploration of the soul, is one that I don’t find as absorbing as a well-drawn portrait in humble pencil.

For me, the difference is in the craftsmanship, which is proof of a mastery arrived at after sustained exploration of the elements that go into a work of art. Now don’t get me wrong, the work with the squelched-on paint is a perfectly valid piece of art, and I understand that its representation of emotion can be as deep as any of the work of the Old Masters, but the reason I wouldn’t want it hanging in my lounge, is because I don’t find it visually compelling. That type of work exists (for me) more in the theory than in the finished product.

So yes, I see why a lot of modern art is ‘significant’ but I don’t find some of it as captivating as more traditional disciplines and genres in art. I also willingly concede that artistic sensibility is subjective, and so for someone else, a work where the foil cap of a tub of yoghurt has been nailed to a wall may well be the demonstration of what is sublime in the human aesthetic experience.

Also, I hasten to add that ‘craftsmanship’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to exhibit a freakish display of talent like a painting which looks as real as a photograph, or a sculpture that is huge and intricately worked. I love a lot of old Japanese painting, and what I admire is the craftsmanship that goes into producing a work from the smallest number of very simple brushstrokes. This is a mastery that comes from many years of accumulating a fearless hand that is comfortable with using very basic forms to suggest so much more.


Again, while I’m sure that we are all capable of cutting out and assembling the component shapes that make up the above piece, I don’t think many of us could then use them to craft such an arresting image. The synthesis of colour and the placement of those shapes is where the craftsmanship comes in. This is literally simplicity raised to an artform. Even an arachnophobe would have to appreciate this.

As I mentioned before, this is not a fluke, but the end product of a lot of effort. Megan  recounts:  ‘My father is a veteran of the Animation industry and was very supportive of my artistic interests. When I was 13 he took me to my first figure drawing workshop which was headed up by his old friend Corny Cole. Drawing from a nude model made me feel so professional and mature. My drawings were pretty lame for the most part (two decent ones out of 100), but the most important thing I came away with was being exposed to Corny’s fluid drawing technique‘.

Any 13 year old with the patience to do a hundred practice drawings is well on the way to becoming a serious artist, and is a refreshing change from les enfants terrible that populate the art world today who rely on shock and controversy to persuade us how intense they are.

Her fascination with working with paper came from a design course she took, taught by the paper sculptor Leo Monahan. She explains:  ‘My teacher Leo taught the German Bauhaus “Design and Color” course created by the Swiss artist Johannes Itten.  The course is so great because it teaches artists how to control the tools of design (line, space, shape, color, texture, form,size, and value) and be thoughtful with these tools‘.

For me, paper has always understandably had literary connotations. I remember as a child staying with some family friends for the holidays, where my relieved parents offloaded my nightly bedtime story ordeal to an unsuspecting but enthusiastic elderly gentleman who for inexplicable reasons smelled like blueberry jam, even though constant vigilance on my part could never identify when precisely he was sneaking mouthfuls of it, or why he didn’t offer me any.

Not having the decided advantage of a book like my pre-school teacher, he tried to improvise a tale about a dog looking for a ball. Very soon into the narration of this insipid tale I began to despise the dog and not only hoped that he would find the ball as quickly as possible, but choke on it,  so rendering any chance of a sequel being perpetrated upon me the next night gratifyingly unlikely. Sensing my mounting irritation, he offered me a choice of where the dog might next choose to look. My reply of “at the bottom of a lake” was meant as a vicious, stinging retort, but he took it in his stride and soon the blasted dog was making an excursion in a submarine to the dark depths of a lake. Well now, things were beginning to look up plotwise. He offered me further choices and soon I was sending the poor dog on ever more dangerous quests, at one point achieving the distinction of becoming the first dog on the moon.

Impressed with my imagination, the next day this kindly old man placed in my hands a ream of blank paper and suggested that I might like to write my very own story. My first instinct of course was to thrill at the possibility of spending the next few hours cutting the entire ream into tiny pieces with a well-weighted gleaming pair of scissors, but I realized that this might come across as a little ungrateful, so I should probably humour him with a short story first. Pretty soon I was lost in my own world, and can still remember my hand hurting from holding the pen so tightly over the course of an afternoon where I turned out a derivative, but nonetheless charming novella of a young cat on a search for a ball.

Ever since then, I have always been filled with a sort of reverence for the possibilities of the blank page, admiring it as a vehicle for ideas, rather than admiring paper as a physical object in itself with attributes such as acidity, caliper, finish, grain, weight, curl, formation and permanence.

For Megan Brain, her fondness has a more artistic basis. ‘I love the way paper art looks and I like discovering effects that can be created with it.  Cut paper has a sharp deliberate look.  I like creating  textures, and layering pieces on top of each other to create depth‘.


You can see this depth in this stylish work. Plain paper, collage and cut tassles nicely create the layered look of the clothing, showing an appreciation for the right technique for the right effect. A great whole created out of the sum of paper, acrylic paint and glue. Her talents have seen her featured in various exhibitions, awarded projects with Disney and work on the animated films Coraline and Madagascar.

It would be easy to just view Megan’s work as creative static representations on paper, but I believe that one of the most engaging features of art is how it communicates things beyond the duplication of recognisable objects. Here we get into things like mood, atmosphere, subtext – the kind of intangible stuff that gets mulched through a lot of art criticism to the point where I understand why people feel so alienated from art and view it as something to be herded into the inner sanctum of a museum where snobs congregate to decode works according to some incomprehensible schema.

For example, a well-meaning fellow in intimidatingly square glasses and skinny tie might, before the double shot espresso wears off, with the best of  intentions, write something like: “Brain’s ouvre moves beyond an admittedly capable handling of a merely mimetic function, and displays a studied ease with which the more involved demands of a subjective conversation with the viewer are admirably met and deconstructed, where tone and narrative are broader paradigms which constitute as integral a component to her success as an artist as does her technical accomplishments with composition, line and colour“.

I’ll give you a moment to rinse off and replace your suppurating eyeballs into their sockets. There are reasons why people write in this way about art but I find them too depressing to go into here. Let me try and give a version in plain English, taking as an example the following piece:


There is a strong jarring between the subject matter and the tone. It’s obvious something pretty gruesome has occurred. So you might expect the vibe to be all shock and horror, rage and bloodlust. But the feeling you get from it is very chilled – the vibe is cool, calm and collected. How has this been done? The colour palette for one. A lot of cooling blues and whites. The only bits which are red are representing red things – lips and blood. These colours of passion contrast with the rest of the picture, where the only colours apart from black and white are all shades of muted blue.

We can see this contradiction emerging as a theme. The way the murderer’s clothes hang, elegantly and formal. Again, great use of layered depth. The robes aren’t all helter skelter, they are meticulous. Her casual posture as she replaces her weapon so it can be disguised as a hair accessory. The weapon is the same geisha-white as her mask-like skin. She is two people – an exquisite beauty and a calculating assassin. All these technical factors reinforce the mood and the tone – this is one unruffled killer, completely in control.

This entire contradiction is sublimely summed up in a tiny portion of the work that your eyes are (purposefully) drawn to – not the spurting blood, but the bright red lips against that deathly pale skin. Freud would have a field day.

Also note the composition, and how your eye follows the line from her head, shoulders and side, into the way the robe at the bottom directs you into the second character, whose feet are cropped off in the foreground, leading you into and out of the picture. A lot of thought has gone into the different aspects that all contribute to the telling of a story, the creation of a mood. Not bad for some acrylic paint, glue and paper.

I hope my paltry efforts have managed to convey some of what I like about looking at and thinking about art, and hopefully proves my point that you don’t have to sound like some desiccated art expert to express this.

I’ll let you loose on a work that is at the other end of the spectrum. Even without an encyclopaedic knowledge of Hindu mythology and the adventures of Kali, I hope you take a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship that has gone into producing a vibrant, brash fanfare of an image like this:


You can see the full range of her talents at her site

I think it is a false distinction to try to make between ‘art’ and ‘life’. I lot of creative people I know are not exclusively creative in their chosen artistic fields, it is an enquiring, experimental, disciplined, open mindset that they bring to all areas of their lives. They put things together in ways that would never occur to other people. They don’t view art as a hobby or a pastime, it is as much a strand in their personhood as a sense of humour or an accent.

So when it came to an event as important and significant in life as her marriage, it was only natural that Megan ensured her creativity got an invitation, sweet proof that if you are an artist, you can have your cake and eat it too…


viva minutiae,

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