Paper Trail, Papier Mashups: The Art of Quilling

by Maggie Lange

The first piece of quilling art I saw was a rendering of the twist dance scene from Pulp Fiction made out of coiled paper that managed to capture both the slinky wiggling and cigarette smoke wisps alike.

The Pulp Fiction homage wasn’t just the first quilling art I’d seen though; it was actually the first time I was ever aware of quilling. Quilling is fairly under the radar, which is strange for such a distinctive art. The process involves taking long thin strips of paper and coiling them into different designs. It dates back to European monasteries in the Renaissance and enjoyed a brief resurgence in the Victorian era as a hobby for ladies of leisure. In the 1970s, it also flew back for a moment as folk art.

The name quilling is misleading. It’s called quilling because the rolled pieces of paper were once wrapped around quill pens. Once you’re aware of the art, you see it crop up now and again — usually in “fun” advertising campaigns from Sephora or Target.

Sarah Yakawonis, the artist behind the Pulp Fiction piece, is helping to adapt quilling to the 21st century. She’s devised a way to photograph and reprint her images in a way that retains their special three-dimensionality. Her choice of subject matter (pop culture, creepy cool anatomical designs, and playful font imaginings) is also unusual — most quilling subject matter is floral or geometric, certainly not iconic figures of recent pop culture. Sarah’s subject matter particularly shows the intricacy, beauty, and weirdness of the craft itself. These aesthetic choices as well as her unique digital imaging inventions give the craft a contemporary approach.

I chatted with Sarah, whose art was just shown at the Anchorage Museum as part of their Body Worlds Vital series, about bringing quilling to a new, wonderful, hilarious, silly, goofy, complex and amazing place.

Tell me about your first quilling project. What subject matter did you choose?

I had just discovered quilling — and when I’m learning something I like to take something that’s really hard to do. When I was looking online for things to quill and saw what people had done with quilling, it seemed like it was all flowers and really easy stuff. I don’t like easy. My friend was in an anatomy class at the time and it clicked — quilling paper muscle structures of the body. I had to do it.

The first actual thing that I wasn’t copying — because you have to copy a bit when you first start out — was the quilled bone.

Tell me about starting to work with paper as the medium?

At my local art store, I think it was 2010 or 2009, I was at the Museum of Art and Design and they had a show called “Slash — Paper Under the Knife.” It got me really intrigued with paper. You think of paper as something you draw on, not the subject or the medium itself. After that, I played around with paper sculpting but I didn’t really find anything I really liked, until I went to my local crafts store and saw some quilling paper packs in the kids’ section. I bought all of it right away.

I brought them home and it was like love at first sight, honestly. I was so intrigued with it just had to get into it, to learn and explore, and figure it out. I learned about the tensile strength, the strength inherent in the paper, and how the fibers will either be with you or against you — I just love it. I love every little bit about it.

What quilling from other artists interested you at first?

I like that it has this really rich tradition and it’s so beautiful — even the simple flowers are really glorious.

Tell me a bit about the history of quilling.

I really like that it’s a craft that has always been traditional crafted by women, but the history of it is very vague. Probably because people didn’t really write things down women did until recently. There is a lot of debate in quilling forums — if it began around the Renaissance or before.

It definitely got popular in the Victorian era. People would take quill pens and put the paper in the slot and twirl that around to create the coils to make the structure. Then, all the hippies did all their macramé and quilling. I’ve heard from people who visited my website that they used to do it in ’70s. A lot of the things you’d consider quilling tools came around then, like pre-cut quilling paper.

It’s still a bit of an obscure art form, though?

A lot of fans don’t even know what it is. It’s an obscure name. People enjoy it and enjoy seeing images of it but don’t know what it is. I’d say mostly quillers know what it is, and its fans just know it’s that pretty.

Tell me a bit about your approach to art and quilling.

I really dabbled in a lot of stuff but I got my BFA with a focus in graphic design. I liked using the computer to make art. I think every artist has their medium in their brain — it may be fuzzy, but you can reach into it and pluck out that one thing. And for me it’s the computer: I can just reach in and have that fuzzy image of what I know it’s going to be and make it on the computer. It’s such a satisfying feeling.

I very much enjoy drawing. I always doodle. Now I have an iPad so I can doodle and cut out hours of steps, and put it on the computer. I’ve always drawn mainly repeating patterns, as kind of Zen meditations to draw something over and over and over and over.

Graphic design allows art to be accessible to everyone. A lot of people are put off by the price or snobbiness in fine art, but in the graphic world, it’s different. There are beautiful illustrations in magazines and advertisements and books. It’s a way to share art with the whole world rather than just rich people.

From sketching to completion, how long does each quilling piece take you?

It definitively depends on how complicated the piece is. Sometimes they would take a long time on the computer or they’d come together on the quill work, or sometimes it’s vice versa, and sometimes I have to experiment with the quilling. I don’t know how the paper will respond to the shape or the form. It’s a lot of experimentation. At the longest it would take me a week, maybe a little less. Each piece takes about 15 to 30 hours.

Where do you start?

I usually start out with a sketch unless I have a really clear idea. I lay out what parts are going to be printed and what parts are going to be quilled and what parts will be the cut paper. I draw out really rudimentarily what each part will be. Then I can design it on the computer and organize my layers to make it so that it’s something that’s doable. Then I get them printed out at my lovely print shop around the corner, then I quill. Then I’ll I do the cut paper, position everything, and finally I take the picture and make it into the poster. Having it look like it’s dimensional is one of my main goals with my printing. That’s one of things that I love about quilling: it lives between the 3D and 2D worlds.

You can see more of Sarah’s work on her website and her Etsy page.

Maggie Lange is a writer in New York. Her favorite thing is parallel parking. You can follow her on Twitter here.