Quilling: Interview with Sarah Yakawonis
PORTLAND, ME -- Quilling, or curling paper to create art, is increasingly popular for cards and other crafts (as seen in photos 1 - 2). But some artists use quilling for other projects, like depicting anatomy. thalo talked to quiller Sarah Yakawonis about how she got started.
thalo: Let’s start with the basics. How did you get into quilling? How long have you been quilling?
Sarah Yakawonis: I started quilling a few years ago. It all started with a trip to my local art store where I noticed a few packs of quilling paper in the kids’ section, and I was drawn to it. It was the closest thing to love at first sight I’ve ever experienced. I subsequently bought all of the quilling paper they had in stock, went home and started quilling and I’ve never stopped. I of course did tons of research online and learned the basics, and saw the work of some of the masters of the art. That inspired and challenged me to push the limits of what I could do with such a beautiful medium.
th: Your educational background is in the arts. How did you become interested in quilling human anatomy?
SY: Going to the Maine College of Art gave me a go-big or-go-home attitude toward all of the art I make, not only with regard to technical execution but also form and content. When I decided to get good at quilling I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to make the traditional motifs of flowers or letterforms.
With that in mind I was searching for a project that would take me from an alright quiller to a master of the craft. I was on a trip to Monhegan Island, Maine, a place artists have gone for a century or more to find inspiration. It was there that I was hit with the idea for my anatomical quilling series. The similarities between the coils of paper and muscle structures in the human anatomy became apparent to me on that trip.
th: How medically “accurate” are your renderings? Do you do a lot of research before quilling?
SY: I used a lot of old medical textbooks. Google Books is an invaluable resource for me. The Free Google eBooks are all old, but for anatomy they worked well really well. I looked for illustrations that used cadavers as a source for the etchings, so that my work would reflect what is going on underneath the skin. I also looked up photographs of the particular subject that I was quilling to get the colors right. I’ve heard from people who are in medical school that my interpretations in quilling paper are very accurate.
th: You’ve quilled a brain (as seen in photo 3), bones, and a variety of muscles. How do you decide what to quill?
SY: When I was working on my anatomical quilling I wanted to select subjects that would be recognizable. So much of the human body is unrecognizable, and that would be compounded when transferred into paper renditions.
That was actually a big factor in why I choose to end my series. I felt like I had covered a large portion of the recognizable features of the human body and I didn’t want to do the same thing over and over. My goal when I started the anatomical series was to become really good at quilling, to become comfortable with manipulating the paper, and pushing it, and myself, to the limits of what such a wonderful medium can be.
th: How long does it generally take for you to complete one of your anatomical quilling pieces?
SY: Oh, well it has been about a year since my last anatomical piece was completed. But if memory serves me I’d say between 20 to 60 hours.
th: You have a BFA with a focus in graphic design. Do you ever have difficulty moving from the computer to rolling and curling paper?
SY: I have always loved working on the computer. I think I first started making work on the computer when I was about 13. The computer I had back then came with CorelDraw pre-installed, and I spent a lot of my youth playing with that software. In college I learned how to use the Adobe Creative Suite. My favorites are Abode Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign.
All of my work now is a complete combination of quilling and new media tools (as seen in photos 4 -5). It feels so right to me; my two loves combined so inseparably. Now my work is constantly in and out of the computer. Of course it all starts outside of the computer with an initial sketch of the idea. Then I go to the computer to rough out the composition. Then it’s back out to work on different elements, like calligraphic flourishes and paper textures, back in to create the “final composition” refining the shapes and illustrations, back out of the computer to create the quilling elements and cut paper elements and finally back into the computer for any final touches and polishing. Now that I’ve broken my internal border between art created in the computer and outside, a floodgate has opened. There is no border for me anymore.
Combining the two also allows a much wider subject matter. Not everything will look good in quilling paper. Some things work well, like muscle structure, draped fabric, and of course swoops and swirls. But things like skin textures, or really anything that’s smooth, doesn’t translate well in quilling paper. Combining quilling with new media and cut paper opens up the world to me. I’m confident that there is nothing I couldn’t illustrate now.
th: What are the advantages and disadvantages of one medium versus the other?
SY: Well of course the computer has the most wonderful feature I know of, the undo command. You can also change a dark red to a light yellow with the click of the mouse, which is something that’s truly time-consuming if not utterly impossible to accomplish in any other medium.
But the computer has its disadvantages as well. The program you’re working in can unexpectedly quit, and you can lose hours of work. It’s also a constant effort and expense to stay up-to-date and learn the latest versions of the software.
The greatest advantage of quilling paper is that it is inherently beautiful. There is magic in the beauty of it. Quilling lives in-between the second and third dimension, which draws the eye in. There is a definite appeal in the perfection of its imperfection, the way a coil springs open that reflects the beauty in nature. I also love the meditative nature of coiling and looping the paper, over and over; it’s peaceful, and so rewarding.
A disadvantage of quiling is something that happens in a lot of mediums, and that is that my first idea is seldom an effective solution to a problem. It takes a lot of time to try anything out, even if I’m just doing a test section. I’ll make 6 to 10 sample shapes to try out an idea and if that doesn’t work, then all those shapes go into the scrap box. And that goes for color combinations as well, I have about 60 colors of quilling paper, and finding the perfect combination is very much an exercise in trial and error.
A disadvantage to both is that they are both very time consuming. It’s a common misconception that art created on the computer is somehow easy and fast. Let me tell you, it’s not. I spend as much time creating inside the computer as I do outside.
th: What is the biggest challenge about quilling? What would you suggest to someone looking to get started quilling?
SY: Hands-down the perpetual challenge of quilling is getting the right amount of glue. It is amazing how little glue you need to make a piece stick. But if you don’t use enough hours of work can just pop off. It’s also a major challenge to hide the glue in more delicate structures; because quilling is essentially drawing with a strip of paper on its side there isn’t a lot of room for error when it comes to the placement and amount of glue you use.
My advice to someone just starting-out quilling is to just go for it. Don’t be afraid of the paper, it looks delicate, but it’s actually very strong and resilient. I would also recommend a slotted quilling tool; it will save you countless hours of work. Be open to tools wherever you find them. Some of my most useful tools in quilling have come not from a quilling supply website, but from my local art supply store, kitchen and bathroom.
th: Other than anatomy, what are your favorite things to quill?
SY: I’m just in love with quilling. Finding new ways to combine quilling, new media, and cut paper is thrilling to me.
th: Anything else you’d like to share, about quilling, art, inspiration or anything else?
SY: Have fun with it, enjoying your work while you’re making it because that will always show in the final product. Be open to inspiration wherever you are; you never know when it will strike.
To see more of Sarah's artwork, viist her website and blog.
All photos courtesy of Sarah Yakawonis.