Acid-free archival paper and an X-acto knife. These are the only materials that artist Jacky Cheng requires to create extremely detailed and intricate works of art. Having initially studied architecture at university, Jacky has always had a love for creating and making. She just decided that she preferred creating on a smaller scale. Going off of that theme, Jacky is also concerned with the idea of “less is more” or “God is in the details,” which she explores through her simple yet complex hand-cut pieces.
“I do not try to cut or imitate the perfect lines of a mechanical machine, but try to gain personal satisfaction by experiencing the cutting process, which conveys emotions, behavior and the rhythm of one’s experience.”
Originally from Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, Jacky moved to Sydney, Australia in 2001 to complete her degree in architecture. In 2006, a short holiday to Broome in the northwest region of Australia turned into a permanent relocation! The artist learned more about Australian aboriginal culture as well as her own Malaysian/Chinese heritage, and works as an art lecturer in addition to her paper cutting practice.
How did you discover your love for paper-cut as an art form?
My Ah Ma (grandma) was the first person who introduced me to paper manipulation. When I was a young child, I was not allowed to play whenever I wanted to. No cycling, no running around, no laying around doing nothing! “There is always something to do,” my grandma would say. Whether it was in between meals, praying, or any other cultural duties, I would be sitting by my grandma’s side folding joss paper sheets used in traditional Chinese worship ceremonies during special holidays or funerals.
We would never fold just one or ten or even forty. We would usually fold into the hundreds! The paper we used was a lightweight bamboo paper and our fingers would be so tuned to the texture and delicacies of the paper to make the right curl or fold. Grandma would usually leave me to do the joss paper folding and she would fold red pieces of paper a certain way, snip, unfold and refold differently, and after a few rounds would reveal a Chinese character! My only regret in life is not asking her to teach me how to do that!
Fifteen years later, my field of study required lateral thinking and problem-solving skills through model-making to realize my concepts in 3D forms. I struggled to buy good quality materials to build these models and resorted to using discarded materials from packing boxes, recycled printed papers or sometimes leftover materials from other students. These were the best learning mediums I ever encountered. I was forced to challenge myself further by learning about paper as a medium.
What type of paper do you use for your works?
It ranges from 110gsm Acid-Free archival grade papers, yupo papers and sometimes ordinary 80 gsm papers. It is imperative for me to use archival grade papers for exhibitions and commission works due to their preservation purposes. Every piece speaks of its individuality and no one piece is identical. Many hours have been invested in the journey, process and creation of the meticulous paper cuttings. Hence, I take much pride in using only top quality materials i.e. acid-free archival papers, archival glue, museum quality mounting (alkaline buffered) and most importantly museum archival acrylic glazing as it is designed to offer a high level of UV protection.
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How does your creative process usually begin? Are the works meticulously pre-planned or do they happen more naturally?
It could start from a large sheet of paper layering inwards. It could start from a very tiny piece (most often an off cut piece from previous work) and work its way outwards. Or it could be a combination of both – inwards and outwards depending on what the design needs – scale, proportion etc.
All designs require advanced planning. My planning requires the appropriate play of form and shape – basic shapes and/or a combination of shapes. My visual diary is filled with shapes and patterns and hardly ever any detail drawings. I’ve gotten comments from people believing my work is machine cut. Initially, I was quite defensive but it is actually a huge compliment. When one’s brain refuses to collaborate with their eyes, it usually causes a beautiful paradox such as, “How did she do it?” or “Where did she start?” But it is the cutting process that takes me on a journey. I usually have an idea of how I would like to see the artwork finished but most of the time, a single twist and turn of my cutting knife decides how I should cut on the next sheet. Some pieces just happen naturally and others demand some thoughtful process.
Most of your pieces are pure white or white with a small amount of color. Is there any particular reason behind this?
Color is a beautiful gift. We are attracted to color because of the emotion it creates and the instant gratification it gives to our brain. We are able to tell when some colors are just not suitable when placed together because of how the composition makes us feel. As I see it, white is non-judgmental. Instead of creating a piece with many colors, I invite my audience to have a conversation and really look at my pieces. This usually makes them ask internal questions – How? Where? When? Why? The play of light and shadow gives a sense of depth. When looked at closely, the intricacies of the pieces evoke emotions where we instantly feel awed and calmed at the same time. My work invites my audience to truly question form, shape, balance and beauty.
I predominantly only use one color, sometimes the same color with different hues. This is my mark-making. For example, red is a significant cultural color for me. It represents prosperity, longevity and all things good and rich in our lives, such as family and community. Sometimes I use other colors, but it would be an artistic approach in breaking the monotony of the white lines.
What concepts do you want to convey in your art?
I am particularly drawn to the simplicity of ethnomathematics – the cultural activity (memories of home/country/relationship) I shared with my grandmother and taking the experience and skills I gained in my latter years to evoke a sense of romanticism, belonging and recognition – of who I am. Basic shapes play an integral start in every piece. Everything around us is made of some sort of shape. It is an amalgamation of all those inspirations that gives each piece its rightful story. The shapes and patterns developed is a process of initial ideas that I did not see the end of – not knowing the final image is rather exhilarating.
ABC Arts created a short video about Jacky and her process entitled “The Paper Cutter.” The video aired on Australian television arts programs and gives us a lovely insight into the artist’s journey from idea to realization.
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