Paper Sculpting with Jeff Nishinaka

Contemplating Paper in a Digital World for the Month of May

Newspaper and magazine readership is down, tablets and smartphones rule the roost as communications tools, and even the most recent ADC Annual has been published in a fully interactive format. At a quick glance, it might seem that printed material is losing its prominence in society, but designers and other professional creatives are still creating beautiful things on, with and out of paper. This month, the theme at ADC is Paper in a Digital World; we’ll be exploring how a millennia-old medium still has its place among the screens and buttons.

To introduce this theme, we’re showcasing the work of Jeff Nishinaka, a paper sculptor who has been working with the material for over 30 years — and still hasn’t gotten bored. Over the course of a career that began with experimentations in art school, Jeff’s work has been featured thousands of times in of fashion magazines, on billboards, in museum installations and in television commercials for everything from airlines to coffee. Working with the simplest of tools and an innate reverence for process, Jeff is a staunch believer in the potential that his medium has to offer the world of art and design: he’s the only evidence you need that there is still room for the unapologetically handmade in our digital era.

Jeff spoke with us about his fundamental relationship to paper and the inspiration behind his astonishing work.

ADC: What is it about paper that makes it such a renewable source of inspiration? How do you make working with the same material new for yourself?

Jeff: What I like about paper and what keeps my interest in it is that there’s always a new challenge. I do commission work, I do work for prints, I do editorial, I do gallery. I do all kinds of stuff! And more times than not, there’s always a part of the sculpture or even a concept behind a sculpture that creates somewhat of a challenge because I’ve never made it before. So there’s always something new, always a new challenge, even after 32 years of doing this.

It’s always going to be a challenge to figure out, “How am I going to make this?”  It’s just flat paper. It’s not like metal where you can bend it in multiple ways. You can only bend it one way. I worked on a job for United Airlines where I had to make airplanes out of paper, and I had to make them more three dimensional, which is not how I normally work. The challenge there was to figure how to make it look more 3D, yet also look like it was like an origami type of plane. It’s frustrating at times, but the challenge is what really keeps it fresh and alive for me.

What you see and what you don’t see are equally as important.

ADC: There is an element of perfectionism in working with razors and clean white paper. How do you leave room for the handmade quality that your sculptures exude?

Jeff: I guess I’m real picky about how I present things and I figure each and every cut represents me and my craftsmanship. Even parts that you won’t see, that are covered by other layers of paper, or even the very back of the sculpture. Believe it or not, I try to make the back as clean as possible. It probably seems like a big waste of time, but for me it isn’t.  It’s kind of like a philosophy that, what’s good on top has to be as good as what’s behind it. What you see and what you don’t see are equally as important. Of course I’m even more critical about how I make what you are going to see, about my cuts and how clean they are and not showing any edges that are rough. I don’t use sandpaper or anything like that.  Everything is just trimmed so that I can make it look as perfect as I possibly can.  Of course, I know it’s not, but the eye doesn’t pick up on a lot of that stuff so that’s what makes it nice for me is that most people won’t see it.

ADC: How do you feel about this three dimensional, tactile art form being encountered by most people in a digital form? What is lost, what is gained?

Jeff: Well, it reaches a lot more people. Because of that, it has really increased my viewer base. About 20 years ago when things were really beginning to go digital, it was really cutting into business as far as the print stuff was concerned: commercial work for advertising and even editorial for magazines and books and things like that. It really took a bite out of the whole illustration industry, too. Everybody wanted something quicker, faster, cheaper and if it looked good enough, that was fine. 

I always felt that art should be something that people could encounter and have a personal relationship with. Meaning that they could interact with it on their own. Interact with it, move around it. 

It’s kind of funny how things have come full circle. I would not have gotten the notice that I’ve gotten if it weren’t for the Internet and things that have gone digital. It just reaches so many more people. So it’s actually become quite a benefit. In fact, it has more than made up for any losses that might have been given up to digitally created art or design.

ADC: Is there some part of you that prefers the installations that you do, when people are encountering them in person, as opposed to some of the digital art and print work that you do?

Jeff: Oh, absolutely. I always felt that art should be something that people could encounter and have a personal relationship with. Meaning that they could interact with it on their own. Interact with it, move around it. Maybe even touch it, or if not touch it, at least get up close to it and see all the nuances.

I actually really love doing installations and having small exhibitions because I’ve often been told that the photography or print or digital image really doesn’t do justice or show the true qualities of a paper sculpture. When someone walks around one of my sculptures and sees it from different angles, the lighting actually reacts on it differently, too. They see things that you couldn’t capture in a single image. It’s nice that you have something that’s always changing. I think that’s really neat and something that is part of the personal experience.

ADC: You make use of Chinese symbols and icons throughout your work. Does this culture particularly inspire you?

Jeff: I’m good friends with Jackie Chan so he’s asked me to make a few dragons for him and even some phoenixes and Chinese door gods. That’s one of the reasons why I probably focus on so many Chinese inspired pieces. I’m not particularly stuck on just one culture, though. Whether it’s European or Asian or Middle Eastern, to me, everything is visual and they all have something to offer. 

The commercial work forces me to think outside my box and push things in directions that I never thought I would be able to. 

ADC: When you’re working with brands to create a piece that will serve their commercial needs, how do you maintain the level of craft that you demand of yourself in the sculpting?

Jeff: Well, I guess I’m lucky. I’ve gotten to the point where when I am contacted by a company, they provide a basic idea, concept, or thought and they let me run with it. Of course, I have to stay somewhat within the parameters of what they’re trying to communicate, but they’re asking me to take their idea and really turn it into mine. It becomes a kind of collaboration.

The commercial work forces me to think outside my box and push things in directions that I never thought I would be able to. When I worked with Bulwark and burned the sculpture afterwards, 90% of it was three-dimensional but it was actually the first time I had worked that way. That forced me to learn new techniques and new ways of making things. Luckily I was able to work with a set designer who’s a friend of mine and we figured things out.

ADC: Have you ever considered working in another medium? What brought you back?

Jeff: There were several times in the past where I’d thought, you know I should start making things out of sheet metal or copper and maybe glaze it or paint it or lacquer it or something like that. But I always seem to come back to paper because with metalworking or clay, you need a kiln, or a torch or some heavy-duty cutting tools and I really like to be able to just work with my hands, maybe a pair of tweezers, and an X-Acto blade and that’s it.

The tools that I need to make a sculpture, even if I were to make a huge 20-foot installation, will fit in one small little toolbox. I just like the fact that I can carry around the tools that I need to make a sculpture in my back pocket, and I’m good to go. With other mediums, it just seems like there’s so much more involved! But it’s not laziness: it’s more that I love the touch and feel of paper. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it! Maybe I’m kind of weird.

I just love the feel and touch of paper. My friend who’s a wonderful painter says that painting is basically just pushing colored mud with a brush — sticking a brush on it. With the paper sculptures that I make, my hands are on everything. Each and every piece, I have to cut, I have to shape, I have to bevel. I really love being hands-on with my work with anything that I do.  

Follow Jeff on Instagram for more photos of his intricate and stunning work, and stay tuned throughout the month of May for more exploration, discussion and celebration of Paper in a Digital World.