When Shelley Jo Isaak begins one of her paper-cuttings, she finds it hard to pull herself away from the delicate, dauntingly intricate art.
“I’m over them in my pajamas for two days straight,” Isaak says. “It takes a degree of focus that you’ve got to maintain.”
Isaak’s work – what hasn’t been sold yet – is on display at Ceres Bakery in Kalispell through the end of the month. And while she sells some of her work to a dealer in England, and sells pieces online, this is the first time she has shown her paper-cuttings in the valley. The idea that her friends and neighbors, stopping in the bakery for a coffee and scone, will see her art makes Isaak anxious because, she says, “People can see how particular I am.”
Isaak renders elaborate portraits, patterns and images of everything from a Blackfeet man to mandalas to a house filled with musicians – using only a scalpel to cut a single piece of paper. Sitting at Ceres on a recent afternoon, Isaak pulled out a work in progress: a line of people waiting to have their bowls filled at a soup kitchen, inspired by a conversation about a similar place that used to exist in downtown Kalispell.
The detail is astonishing, and the lean characters waiting with empty bowls convey weariness and hunger even through their silhouettes. “It cracks me up to put little Adam’s apples on people,” Isaak says.
Several aspects of paper-cutting appeal to Isaak. She likes the high contrast of black on white, and appreciates the universal nature of the medium: “Every major culture around the world has some kind of paper-cutting art or craft.”
Isaak is the mother of two young daughters and teaches adult basic education at Flathead Valley Community College. Paper-cutting provides an outlet to lose herself in the intense difficulty of the form. “I always have a lot going in my head,” Isaak says. “The exactness of it is meditative for me.”
Isaak works on archival quality art paper, because it has a stronger binding when cutting tiny details. On larger pieces, like the portrait of a 19th century Blackfeet man she did from a photo, titled “Dignity,” she begins with the most difficult section first. In this case, she started with the face, and then worked outward. On mandalas, she folds the paper in half to cut through two layers, then unfolds it, revealing perfect symmetry. In the future, Isaak would like to do a very large piece, and try something so small she has to work with a microscope.
Paper-cutting allows no margin for error. Although a shaky hand could ruin a piece she has spent days working on, Isaak doesn’t think too hard about it, simply cutting and hoping for the best. “I really like that unforgiving element of it,” Isaak says. “If I accidentally amputate something then I don’t finish the piece.”
Unlike painting, pottery or sculpture, the materials for paper-cutting are minimal and inexpensive. Isaak sells her pieces for similarly reasonable prices. A small nude titled “Diana’s Gift” is priced at $30, and the larger “Dignity” goes for $280, but Isaak will also barter or accept trades for her art in lieu of cash. Isaak says art should be accessible to everyone, and she doesn’t believe it should cost thousands of dollars.
“It’s just paper,” she adds, “just little scraps of paper.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.