Updated: Oct 1, 2022
Our October artist of the month is Rosa Leff whose fresh and complex paper cuts breathe new life into this paper art tradition.
Baltimore, MD USA
"I try my best not to 'clean things up.' I want to show just how gritty and wonderful city life is."
Where do you make your work?
My studio is in my home in the Riverside neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland.
How long have you been working with paper?
I first tried papercutting to make illustrations for a class project while working on my Master’s in Elementary Education in 2012. I played with the medium for a bit but turning it into a career was just a daydream. I decided to exhibit for the first time in 2016 and was hooked! By 2020 art was consuming so much of my time that I decided to quit my day job.
How would you describe your approach to paper art?
I’m a drive-by photographer! I don’t spend a lot of time setting up the shots that become my reference photos. I just see an interesting power line, a bizarre brick pattern, or a good old sign and instantly know I want to cut it. I try my best not to “clean things up.” I want to show just how gritty and wonderful city life is.
Where do you find inspiration?
I love to travel and it’s so fun watching people guess where the reference photo for a particular papercut was taken. The most common mistake is folks thinking that my images of China are based on Chinatowns in the US- Which is reasonable since I cut a lot o Chinatowns too! Sometimes I see a rundown adult book store or a particularly chaotic bodega and I know instantly that it’ll make for a great cut. Other times, I look back at pictures I took years before and notice some new theme emerging across countries.
Describe your work to us in three words:
Gritty, delicate, homey- Though I realize it doesn’t feel homey to everyone!
What are your favorite papers to work with?
Canson Mi-teintes are my absolute favorite papers to cut into. I’ve also been working with Tyvek a lot so that I can create larger works. Tyvek is great because it’s so forgiving. You can roll it, splash water on it, drop it on the ground and it’s fine. And it cuts like butter! I just wish it came in more colors
What tool could you not live without?
My Fiskars Fingertip Detail Knife and Excel #11 blades are the dream team. I’d be lost without either.
What is the best thing about working with paper as a medium?
It’s a relatively cheap medium which means you don’t have to feel guilty for experimenting. There’s no high tech, schmancy equipment in my practice. And it’s pretty easy to clean up when you’re done so you can do it even if you don’t have a lot of time or a designated studio space. I think that’s part of why I was so drawn to it when I was younger, broke, and living in tiny apartments.
I love working away at a single sheet to reveal a scene. There’s something really powerful in the simplicity of it. I find the challenge very meditative. I even cut my signatures so that the end result is truly just a piece of paper with holes in it.
Who are your favorite paper artists?
What an impossible question! I met Yoko Imbe (IG: @yokoimbe) when we exhibited together in Xi’an, China in 2019. She collages the tiniest pieces of paper to capture everything from a back alley full of cats to the thundering of a rushing river.
I also love Taketo Miyakita’s (IG: @taketomiyakita) portraits. His line work is delightfully dramatic and I adore his aggressive use of color. I hope to collect work from both artists soon!
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got shows opening at The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Artspace in Raleigh, and The Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art in Virginia Beach on October 7th. I wish I had clones so I could attend all 3 openings but it’s just me so please send pics if you’re able to attend any of them!
Now that the work is done for those shows I’m building an exhibit for Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens that juxtaposes street scenes from all over Mexico with images of Mexican businesses in the United States. As someone who loves authentic Mexican food just as much as I love a cringeworthy storefront, it’s interesting to explore the idea that something can be wonderfully inauthentic. This is also the first exhibit where I’ll be displaying work made with a hammer and chisels in the traditional papel picado style.