You know that mess of blood and guts and tubes and nodules and organs and other science stuff that makes up our innards? Well American artist Lisa Nilsson has a lovely way of describing it – as “the densely squished and lovely internal landscape of the human body” – and she has has an even more lovely way of capturing it, by quilling Japanese Mulberry paper and the gilded edges of old books. When we came across her amazingly detailed Tissue Series last week we had to find out more, so we reached out across the water…
Tell us how the Tissue Series came about?
I was out “junking” and came across an antique quilled piece of religious art – it was a very fancy filigreed crucifix-gilt. I later learned that nuns and monks used edges of old bibles to make pieces like this, and I incorporated the technique in some assemblages I had been making that contained many different found and made elements.
Around this time I encountered a French hand-colored print of an anatomical cross-section. I loved the colours and shapes and felt that the way paper behaves when rolled and shaped in quilling could work very well in representing what I saw in the anatomical print.
How long did it take? Do you work in short sharp bursts or long stretches?
I take around two to six weeks to make a piece, then another couple of days to make the box that houses it. work for long stretches – thank goodness for great audio books. It is absolute heaven to be in the middle of an engaging piece and an engaging book simultaneously!
What draws you to the detailed and the intricate? Have you always been very patient?
It’s funny you should ask that, I’ve been trying to work that out myself! I think it has something to do with the way the detailed and the intricate slow things down – the hours involved in making something, of course, but also the viewers’ experience and ultimately, I hope, the longevity of the piece both physically and aesthetically.
I’m actually not very patient, or I should say, I have a certain kind of patience for things that steadily progress, however slowly. I can be quite impatient when something disrupts the flow, say when a CD of the book I’m listening ends and I have to put in another, or when I need to cut more paper in the middle of an interesting stretch of building.
It’s a very artistic approach to a very scientific subject – did that crossover intimidate you at all?
Gosh, I didn’t think about being intimidated, good thing! I did take a year away from art-making – the first in my whole life – just after completing my third piece in the Tissue Series, to complete a one-year program to become a certified medical assistant.
I thought perhaps working around other people could bring a certain type of balance to my life. Ultimately, I found I’m a better suited creature for the studio than the doctor’s office.
The kinds of details important in that setting (little numbers on medicine bottles, names and dates) are extremely difficult for me to manage and remember.
What are you working on now?
I’ve sketched out the pieces I want to make over the next six months to a year. I will be making some larger, more ambitious works involving multiple figures and commonly recognized gestures. I’ve started working on a transverse section toward the top of the head and there are some gorgeous sections involving the teeth that I’m eager to get started on.