OOAK Maker Spotlight: Light & Paper by Ali Harrison
Spring is just around the corner, and so is market season! There's something grounding about shopping handmade—it's in the simple act of shaking the hands that made the products you're welcoming into your life. It's not just another coaster produced in the masses, it's one hand carved by Ali. Shopping handmade facilitates a deeper connection between you and the "things" in your life, which encourages us to consume more consciously and preserve more mindfully.
Join us and shop handmade at the One of a Kind Spring Show (OOAK) this March 28th - April 1st. Every spring and holiday season, Toronto's Enercare Centre buzzes with energy as hundreds of artists and makers enthusiastically share their work. In anticipation of the show opening next week, we've teamed up with OOAK to spotlight 3 participating vendors—just a glimpse of the incredible talent you'll find at the show.
What did pre-papercutting days look like for you, and what led you to the medium?
I worked full-time in administration at the University of Toronto and was completing my Master's Degree in Community Development. I don’t have any formal artistic education, but wanted to experiment with more creative endeavours, so I was trying out different crafts in my spare time. I had seen images of papercutting online and decided to try it out. I used a box cutter and cutting board, which I totally destroyed. Even so, it was really satisfying to create a papercutting.
I’ve never been good at drawing, so I hadn’t gotten that same satisfaction from sketching or painting anything on paper before. With papercutting, I found that I could make something that looked striking and beautiful using just a blade and paper, and it came fast to me.
How has your craft and business evolved since then?
I didn’t expect to be able to take my business papercutting full-time, but after doing it for just over two years I decided that I wanted to give it a shot. I knew it would be difficult to make a living just selling hand-cut paper work, so I decided to reproduce my pieces as lasercuts. I like being able to work with different materials, not just paper. Reproducing papercuttings in wood is really fun. This allows for my pieces to be more than just artwork you can display on the wall—they can be functional, usable artworks displayed in different ways. It's satisfying to know that my artwork can be used as a functional object.
I was inspired by your video with the Art Gallery of Ontario in which you speak about finding light in darkness. Can you talk to us about the name Light & Paper—what’s the notion behind it, and how do these words represent your work?
What my business name means to me has evolved along with what my business has become. When I first started, I actually wanted to make lights along with papercuttings, which inspired “light & paper”—a name that I chose on a whim. But “lightness” is something that I want to communicate through my artwork; I try to give my pieces and my brand a bright, airy, whimsical feel, and “light” describes that to me. It also ties in with the physical medium of papercutting. Natural light is highlighted in papercut artwork, in the sunshine that streams through a piece hung in a window, or the shadows that the light casts behind a piece hung on the wall. For a name that was chosen without much forethought, it really encompasses a lot of what I'm trying to evoke with my work.
Can you walk us through the process of converting a design from paper to a functional object?
I scan the hand-cut paper piece, and then convert it using Adobe Illustrator. The conversion isn’t always perfect, so I actually take some time to make the digital version look more like the original piece. Depending on the piece and its intricacy, this can take several hours. Once it’s all touched up, the digital file can be used to make lasercut replicas in different materials. Some of the pieces I lasercut the exact same size as the original into paper, so they could be framed just like the original paper piece. But with the more functional products I am usually using the papercutting piece as a pattern—for example, within a circle for coasters. I really like being able to make a variety of products that all represent my original pieces and my aesthetic.
I imagine a bulk of your time is spent enveloped in the little details. To give us a gauge on time, how long did it take you to carve your popular anatomical heart?
The original hand-cutting of the heart took about 40-50 hours. I don’t usually time myself, because I tend to cut for varied amounts of time. Sometimes I’ll sit down and cut for 6 straight hours, and sometimes it’ll be 10 minutes here and there. Once I scan the hand-cut piece and convert it to be lasercut, I can see how long the lasercutting machine will take to cut it. That’s always surprising because sometimes I feel like pieces that didn’t take me too much time take longer for the machine to cut!
I love learning of the little narratives that breathe through an artist’s work. In your Organ Collection, you put human anatomy onto paper with a great depth of detail. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind this collection?
My partner Mike is doing his PhD in Epidemiology, and when I was first experimenting with papercutting he was taking anatomy classes. He kept telling me that the patterns I was using in my designs were very natural and organic looking and reminded him of the body parts he was studying. This inspired me to create the anatomical heart piece. It was so meaningful to see how many people connected with it—it’s an iconic motif—so I decided to make it the start of a collection of different body parts. I still get so much feedback about these particular pieces, and I love hearing about people’s personal connections with them. I’ve been told many stories by those who have bought the pieces and am always blown away by the connections people have with them, and the occasions that they choose to give them as gifts: the heart to celebrate an open-heart surgery, the brain to a neurosurgeon who saved someone's life, the uterus to a midwife. I didn’t expect so many people to have these connections to the pieces, so hearing those stories really drove me to expand this collection further than I had originally intended.
With spring around the corner, you must be getting excited for the OOAK show! When do you start preparing for a show of this scale? As a returning vendor, what keeps you coming back for more?
OOAK prep really happens all year—I’m always stocking up the inventory I’ll need for these shows. More specific planning usually begins in late January, when I’ll plot out my booth design, any new products I want to bring, and my plans for promoting the show. I really enjoy designing my booth, so I usually switch things up and try to do something new for each show. The best part though is connecting with all the different makers. Most days I’m working alone or with only one other person in my studio, so I enjoy the 5-day socialization high. The best time is going for celebratory drinks with my vendor friends on the Sunday after the show ends!
Aside from the OOAK Spring Show, what’s next for Light & Paper? Are there any exciting projects or happenings you can share with us?
I’m applying for a few shows outside of Ontario, which would be a first for me. It’s such a great experience to connect with the community at OOAK—whether new makers or new clients—so I’m excited to be able to do that in a different city as well.
Let’s close it off with a couple wild cards, ‘cause they’re always fun! What's something you’ve always wanted to try but haven’t yet?
Wheel throwing pottery - but I actually tried it for the first time last night! I just began a pottery class and so far I am truly terrible at it! I try to take an art class every year to expand my artistic skills, particularly because I’m self-trained, and feel like an inexperienced fraud. It’s also easy to get wrapped up in the administrative/production side of my business, so I like giving myself a chunk of time to have fun with a craft and create for the sake of creating.
If you could hop a plane tomorrow and travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
Japan - 90% for the food, and 10% for the stationery shopping.
For more of Ali's work visit lightandpapershop.com, or meet her in person at the show! We've got a set of tickets to give away! Join us Friday March 23rd on @makersmovement Instagram stories for contest details.