Thursday, November 18, 2010

A world made of paper

Sherri McDonald says she's an artist with a paper problem.
"I have an addiction to paper - I make books or do art so I can buy more paper."
Luckily, McDonald's paper landscapes and her company, Paper Mountain Studio, have been well-received, allowing her to keep the addiction alive. Her intricate landscapes are made using scraps of colored and textured paper that are bound by non-toxic adhesive. Two of her pieces, "Blueberry Hill" and "Douglas Harbor," were selected for the All Alaska Juried Art Show in 2008. She has a show at Annie Kaill's opening Dec. 3, for Gallery Walk, and is working toward a solo show opening March 4 at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center.
When she isn't preparing for a show, McDonald is known as "Wild Bird" on Juneau's Roller Derby team.
Drawn to paper
McDonald received her undergraduate degree in art at the University of Minnesota, with a focus on printing and papermaking. After graduating, she apprenticed for three months with Japanese-style bookbinder Karen Saro in Washington state, whom she met at a Saturday market in Oregon.
"I fell in love with bookbinding during the apprenticeship and the craft - it just connected," said McDonald. "It's the physical act of tearing the paper and laying it down that connects to me, I guess I'm more of a physical artist."
She began creating landscape collages for her book covers, but soon became hooked on bigger works.
"That's when I started to challenge myself and do more complicated collages."
McDonald said the art form combines aspects of two- and three-dimensional work.
"Paper is like sculpture and drawing at the same time," she said. "It's two-dimensional but at the same time there's a three-dimensional quality to it because you are cutting and shaping it. It's very forgiving - you can layer it."
Creating space
After apprenticing with Saro, McDonald moved to Austin, Texas to work in a hand bindery. She met her husband, Mick, in Austin, and he got a job in Juneau two days after their wedding. While shopping for houses, McDonald and her husband agreed they had to find a home with a studio and a garage.
"We weren't going to stop until we found a place that would offer both," she said.
They found a place with a large basement crawl space on Douglas Island that fit the bill, but it took another two years before renovations began and about eight more months before they were complete.
"It was just a basement when we moved in. It was very dungeon-esque with dirt floors, visqueen, plywood and a single light bulb."
The project accelerated when her father, who came out to help during the birth of their second child, ended up doing electrical work and installing sheetrock. They used gravel to raise the floor, put in floor heat and concrete and had stairs put in.
Now the studio has a large window overlooking Gastineau Channel providing natural light.
"It's great as a landscape artist to be able to look out at a gorgeous landscape that's constantly changing."
McDonald says she uses her art to deal with the dark winters and wet weather.
"Part of the reason I do the art I do is to help me get through the winters, and a view helps me see the beauty during weather that normally makes me depressed. If you capture that weather in art, then it becomes something different, it isn't your enemy as much."
Having a separate studio also allows her to flourish in a home with two young children.
"I like to come down and work on things and then leave things and know that I will find things exactly as I left them. I don't have to clean stuff up every time I walk away."
The creative process
McDonald says her time in her studio is not always productive. She sometimes procrastinates by pacing, checking e-mail, and figuring out music to play while she waits for inspiration to strike.
"In the beginning of a project you are filled with uncertainty, you don't know exactly what you want to do, whether it is going to be a good choice and worth spending any effort on or not. At a certain point you just have to say, 'Okay, go for it.'"
Once she has an idea, she starts to give it form before it eventually takes off.
"When it starts to come together - after making critical early moment decisions which are the hardest - if you make good choices, then it starts to take on its own life. Everything seems more clear, where you are going to go next ... it's just a flow from the brain to the paper or to the art."
The challenges
Although McDonald's art is primarily done in her studio, where she has a 16-drawer flat file filled with all types of paper, she has gone out with Juneau's Plein Rein artist group - with mixed results.
"Any bit of wind blows the paper away, if it's raining it gets wet. But there's a certain aesthetic to an immediate application of when you are looking at something and doing it right away that you can't really get in studios."
For those who are stuck or just starting out on their creative journey, McDonald suggests seeking out an encouraging person. For her, it was Rie and Juan Munoz, who bought McDonald's first prints to resell in their gallery. Their belief in her helped her accept that she was an artist, a major epiphany for her.
McDonald has learned that when she creates art that speaks to her and isn't created with a profit in mind it turns out better.
"For me it's really rewarding to create something that's not expected with paper, constantly trying to make it look like something beyond just a piece of paper - more of a painting. That's the challenge for me."
To read more about Sherri McDonald visit
Courtney Nelson can be reached at

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