Designer Rob Ryan: Cut it out!

Once regarded as a pastime for children, paper cutting has become a coveted art form – thanks to Rob Ryan. Clare Dwyer Hogg meets the artist
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The narrow back streets of east London make an ideal wind tunnel on a cold spring morning. There is little to this landscape other than old buildings, a deserted park, and a corner shop or two. But this façade belies the mills of creativity that are churning away behind closed doors. This is studio land, where artists have set up residence, toiling away behind crumbling walls and rickety doors.

Through one such door is Rob Ryan's lair. And hanging from the walls, spread across huge tables, stacked on towering shelves, is the evidence of what goes on here behind the workaday entrance: paper cuts. Paper cuts with whimsical figures standing on mountains made of flowers, of clouds hung from the sky with strings, little birds (something of a motif) perched on houses with curly, fantastical roofs. And words. A lot of words. Some are poignant ("no minute gone comes ever back again" swirls the text in one image), others amusing ("Why are you so naughty?" a bird asks a girl. "Because I'm so happy!" she replies); all entwine around the scenes, language as important as pictures.

Rob, who cuts quite a figure himself – hair as wild as his stories – shies away from calling himself a writer but admits that as much as he tried to stamp out his affair with words, it was impossible. The paper cutting started only six years ago; before that, his discipline was (ostensibly) painting, but the words were vying for space even then. "I've always done quite a lot of writing in my work," he says. "It reached a point where the paintings I did were just pages of writing." He pauses. "People are funny about words in art. It's not that they think it's cheating... Well, I think some people do think it's cheating you know."

Some of that mentality filtered down to Rob, so he began paper cutting as a way of shutting out the possibility of including text in his work. "I thought if I did paper cuts that are folded and symmetrical then I couldn't write on them," he says. "Any words when you open them out would be back to front and it'd look ridiculous." That, of course, turned out to be a futile attempt. "I was inventing a way of not being able to write," he grins. "And then the words came back. I found a way of doing it." He stopped folding the pages, so while they look symmetrical now, they're not. The words won.

While his work is fanciful and decorative, this is, in a sense, a utilitarian device. "Paper cut work means you just strip things down," he explains. "And because everything is cut from one sheet of paper, that forces a form of decorative pattern. Everything has to link together. Hence you get the trees and foliage linking together, and it all kind of develops." He doesn't really paint any more, even though that's what he had been doing since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1987. "I never really painted much in the first place," he laughs. "I painted words. It was a very graphic form of painting." Now, the process is more involved: Rob creates a pencil drawing, and then every tiny detail of the illustration is cut out with a scalpel (often with the help of his assistant Hazel, an artist in her own right) and sprayed with colour. Specially commissioned paper cuts will be sold for upwards of £1,000, but prints are less expensive.

There's something about his work which has captured the public imagination. As well as commissions, the commercial work – book jackets, illustrations for Vogue, textile designs – is flooding in. "I still try to do work for myself and keep a balance," he says, surveying two large sheets of paper taped together on the desk in front of him, both pages filled with a list of jobs to do. It's a far cry from his days as a young painter, when he was scraping by. "I think my work became more accessible, easier to digest," he says. "I could do a painting that could be heart-wrenching, throwing my guts on the gallery wall, and it would just hang there. And then I could do a paper cut, a little flowery thing, saying the same thing, with the same imagery, and people can swallow it."

And they do. His book, This Is For You, raced off the shelves; one buyer was Paul Smith, who worked with Rob to reprint the book in a special edition. And yet it is a heartbreaking story, told through a series of thought-dreams knifed out of paper. "But do not despair," reads one page. Beneath the words winds a Jack-in-the-Beanstalk style vine, with assorted figures sitting between the leaves, staring out on to a fountain with miniature dolphins and seahorses held mid-air on paper-jets of water. Is the book autobiographical? "Mmm," he considers, "yes and no. I did a page a day for 60 days and tried to get a narrative to go along with it. No one writes a book like that." He shakes his head, ever modest. "I'm not a writer. I just try to use words to say some simple things."

Click here for an extended gallery of Rob Ryan's artwork