Interview with Mandy Smith about her incredible journey and aspiration as a papersmith
I walked into Mandy Smith‘s workplace on a sunny morning in late October. It was a sturdy desk filled with countless models, pieces of papers, knifes and glues. It’s a true battlefield of a creative mind and raw materials. Then I saw Mandy. I immediately understood how those tiny paper flecks could turn into marvellous visual pieces (check them out on her website, Vimeo, Instagram, or below). Her enthusiasm and passion for the craft is enormous. By the time we sat down, Mandy already properly informed me about her current project and her obsession with perfection. She would bite the bullet and make everything over again rather than settling on an ok-but-not-quite option. Considering the time it takes for shaping everything by hand, it’s incredible.
Read our chat below, get inspired by Mandy’s tremendous endeavour, and feel that gentle encouragement to pursue what you want in life.
What made you stop at paper illustration and think “I want to do this”?
I didn’t even think of anything else. I only thought of paper because I always used to make things when I was little out of papers. So it was the first thing I really tried. Also because there was a good paper shop near where I was working. They had lots of papers there, way more than in the shops I knew in London. I just thought that it could be something I could do at my desk. It didn’t take up a lot of space. With paper I can cut really tiny little details and put all that together. So it felt the best fit for what I was wanting to work with.
So you wanted to work with your hands on something really detailed.
Yeah, the first thing I made was that white one on my desk.
I just wanted to make lots of details because it’s really pleasing. It’s like meditating to work out how to build something that big. Then I just stuck with it. Because it was so versatile as well. There hasn’t been anything that I couldn’t make with paper. It’s not like “I reach the limit now”. I’m still learning new techniques to make bigger things, or small things. I made something that was 4 metres, and something that was 2 metres and a bit. So far it’s pretty good.
How long did it take you to make that first thing?
I did that while I wasn’t busy with my old job. It took me a bit longer because it was the first time I tried to work with paper since I was like 8. I just really wanted to get a feel for it. So I really laboured over different things to work out other things. Maybe I did it for a couple of 3 weeks, 4 weeks, or like a month.
Could you describe a typical process of making a commissioned paper illustration? After the brief, did you make a sketch in Illustrator and send it to the client?
Either in Illustrator or Photoshop. It depends on what I’m envisioning. I don’t really do sketch by hand. I used to be really good at drawing and really good at painting but I haven’t honed those skills for a while. So therefore, at least when I do it digitally, I can erase things and I’m not screwed.
That makes sense.
I just do basic things in Illustrator or Photoshop and write the treatment. So I find references, I find a colour palette, then I send them off with a basic sketch. If the client likes that, I’ll take things to the next level. A lot of things I’ve kind of worked out a little bit as I go.
Yeah, you can never know exactly from the beginning.
Noooo. Because the pink I’ve said worked in Photoshop. But when you buy a paper, you can’t get the exact colour and sometimes you’re like “oh I said it’s going to be pink, and the pink that they have is just slightly the wrong hue but it’s not quite working.” And also think about the light difference. I mean, you can spend time creating a proper 3D rendering – lots of time you hear – but that’s a full-time job as well. So sometimes if I’m building things out, I have to really get a feel for it, and then be like “oh that isn’t quite how it looked when it held the flat colours together once I’ve made them into a 3D sculpture.” There is a little bit of research and development in every job. Then I make slight alterations and send them back and get them approved and then the thing takes off.
So there are constant iterations back and forth between you and the client.
“It’s good just to keep going back to the paper shop. Paper shop is good.”
Yeah, subtle changes can make a big difference. It’s the most amusing when you’re going to the paper shop, and you don’t even think of a colour, and then they have this really gorgeous colour. When you see it, you’re like “oh that would really work!” Then you can take a photograph of it and send that off and say “oh I found something else. What do you think of that?” It’s good just to keep going back to the paper shop as well. Sometimes you’re just really stuck and think that the samples you’ve bought are all you have. Sometimes my samples aren’t quite working, then I just have to remember just to go back to the store because there are probably something else in there. Don’t just get locked in to what you’ve already purchased. Go back and find something else and fix that solution. Paper shop is good.
How long have you been working with paper?
5 years, maybe 6 years. But there were a couple of years where, just for personal reasons, I had a lot of self-doubts about things. Bad relationships and whatever. You can just loose faith in what you’re doing. It’s quite a leap of faith to be a real illustrator. So a couple of those years I wasn’t really motivated and doing what I was supposed to be doing.
How did you get out of that?
Change the relationship. Simple as that really. Now it’s really good again. Because with this type of work, you have to work 12, 14, or 16 hours a day. Sometimes you can’t plan holidays. “Oh great! I’m free now. Let’s go away for 2 weeks.” That’s how I work. But people are like “Let’s book something now 3 months away,” and I’m like “No, because I might get a big job. I can’t time it now.” So you have to be around the right kind of people, I think, just to keep motivating you.
So the problem you had in the past was only personal, and nothing in the work itself?
It reflects into your work. If I want to talk about an idea, I’ll feel encouraged or really excited. And if you’re speaking to people and they aren’t excited and they don’t want to hear and they’re kind of like “Why are you doing that?” Then that effects your thought process and the whole thing.
Right, it’s all interconnected.
Yeah totally. I think art, if you really love it, is not a job. Some people are like “It’s just a job,” and I’m like “It’s not just a job, it’s my everything.” It makes me so happy. If I couldn’t do this, I don’t even know what I’d do. I think the first time when you first start something, you don’t really know where it’s going. Then you really get into it and now after 5 years, I’m like “Holy shit!” Before I was like “Can I survive doing this?” and that was my priority. And now I’m really like “I can survive doing it,” but also “How can I make this more of a business? How can I survive for longer, not just like a really quick flash in the pan kind of thing and then nothing?” So that’s what I’m trying to work out and just take it a bit more to the next level. It’s really exciting because it uses both parts of your brain. It’s not just like “Oh this is pretty”, but you really have to think “how do I?” It’s pretty mathematical. There wasn’t really any other job that I was using both sides of my brain.
So it’s all positive for you when it comes to doing paper illustration? Even if you don’t have the right paper colour?
I do get obsessive with that. I’m lying in bed going “It’s not working!” and then I feel sick because it’s not working. I have to fix it and make it work. I’d never submit anything that I wasn’t happy with. You pour your heart into something and if it’s not working, you don’t want to give it to somebody who’s paying for it. It has to work and it has to be perfect.
What do you do with the models you don’t send to clients?
I just store them. I’ve been carrying my houses around since I made them 5 years ago. I’ve been moving them from location to location. Then I can’t keep them anymore and I started to just get rid of them and recycle them. Also maybe my friends want something. Once I made some monkeys for a job that is coming out recently and I kept only one. The client wanted a couple of it and my friends gave them to their kids to pin on the wall.
The journey to where you are now is hard.
It’s hard because you don’t know where the ladder is to climb. It’s not like I can get hired at this working for somebody. If there was a full-time paper-making company, I’d love that company. I’d go in, I’d work for them, then I’d just climb the ladder and I can grow being there to be a CD one day or be whatever. But there wasn’t that kind of structure with this stuff.
Would you make your own company now?
I don’t know. I wish.
What kind of advice would you give someone who has to go through the journey of being an independent artist?
“You’ll have to be kind of blind with self-belief.”
You’ll have to be kind of blind with self-belief. If you don’t have that, which was what I was losing at one point, you can’t do it. It takes a lot out of you, I think, to do something that is exhausting both emotionally and mentally. So it has to really be a passion. It can’t be just a job I suppose. Because you have to use your personal time as well as your normal working time. And if you have that, and you know that you want to do it, you’re there.
About the self-doubts during the way?
You can ignore them away, and think of the next project. When self-doubt creeps in, just think of something else to do. To think of another project, that is a positive thought.
The first thing you made was the white house, then a stop motion. How did you decide what to make next?
“always have another idea of the next thing you want to do.”
This is what I’ve learned while I’m on a job: to always have another idea of the next thing you want to do. Sometimes you work so many long hours and you give everything. If you don’t have something to move on to next, you can just be really tired and emotionally drained. It’s not just the job, you’re not just giving normal job hours, you’re giving everything and you’re so tired. Then you need to have a little bit of excitement back in your life again. I think the only way I’ve learned to do that is going “Ooh I can make this now!”, then I take a few days off, ground myself again, and I can get excited because I know what I want to start making and I’m working towards that. Now I’ve got a journal where I have a list of all the things that I want to start doing – 4 personal projects. I’m good now.
I can see that thinking up the next projects helps, instead of finishing one assignment and wondering what will come next.
Exactly. I did that for a while. It’s hard to find inspiration when you’re struggling for inspiration, whereas if you confidently keep thinking then you keep the momentum.
After the stop motion, why did you decide to send your work to a production company?
Not many people were working with paper at the time and I thought paper would be good for stop motion. And there wasn’t a load of paper stop motions around. That’s why I invested in creating a bigger stop motion. That stop motion was pretty big and I was just in my living room as a one-man-making band. People shot it and I was so lucky to have a good production company just finish it off, which was amazing. I thought it was good enough to talk to some people. There was an amount of companies and not lots of people got back to me. But just the right person has to get back to you and give you a job and it’s all worth it.
So you just keep knocking on doors until the right one opens.
Yeah exactly, because if you don’t knock, they’ll never open.
Here comes the last question: What is the wildest thing that you want to make with paper?
I think making a full functioning guillotine is pretty wild. I don’t know if I can ever go more wild than that really. I think it’s pretty out there. This film about Amsterdam is weird. I love to make things that are a little different, more complicated, and have more ‘wow’ factor. So I want to keep making things slightly difficult for myself. If I make a replica, I find it boring because it’s really simple. A few people can have a similar style to me, but I think the best thing to do is trying is to stay more unique and weird.
Not until recently do I realise what my strength is while remaking my website and going through stuff and I’m like “Oh I need to add that type of work again.” It’s good to review yourself and see “What was the most successful? Why was that successful? Oh because I did really put all that effort into making that super unique instead of just trying to churn out work and trying to compete with people.” This is what I’ve only just realised this year. You always have to keep living and learning what your strength is. Now I think that my portfolio is looking ok now. I think it represents who I kind of am and the direction I want to go in. So now to take it further, I need to just keep grabbing that essence of what I’m doing before. I’ll still keep being weird.
I know how to build a lot of things, but to not know how to build something and then to learn how to build something, that keeps me enthusiastic. I set a rocket to the Stratosphere last year.
“not just being an illustrator but being more storytelling and finding more interesting ways to use papers in unexpected ways”
That was pretty cool. We put that on a weather balloon and they just went out there in the atmosphere. It survived going 35000 feet! I never thought that I could send something paper through the clouds that would totally survive. I’m really hoping that I keep getting more collaborations like that – scientific or weird. That’s what I think I want to keep being in an essence, not just being an illustrator but being more storytelling and finding more interesting ways to use papers in unexpected ways. Things like that excite me, things that are just unexpected and that I can learn from. I love learning.
Thank you Mandy!
Scroll down to see the absolutely gorgeous paper artwork Mandy has made:“Tonkatom” – Mandy was invited to create a sculpture using the magazine as inspiration for an exhibition with a variety of paper artists including Ingrid Siliakus and Richard Sweeney. The dress itself is made from over 650 cocktail umbrellas that are covered with sections of the magazine to create an intricate coral like dress. “Actimel” – This visually exciting piece was to showcase all the good things that can be found in Actimel. The art direction was to be exciting, and dynamic to show off the new recipe of Actimel. Mandy had to mix lots of different textures and colours to highlight every unique ingredient and capture their own personality. All was brought to life by photographer Sam Hofman.
“Paper Cuts” – This is an interactive paper sculpture that invites people to experience the world’s most recognizable instrument of death, head first. This experience brings a new twist to this infamous apparatus while arousing people’s natural fascination for the macabre. It will transform a powerful and oppressive symbol of death into a thing of beauty. Delicate, inviting and something people may even line up for. Voluntarily this time.
And every time the paper blade falls a camera will be triggered to capture the expression of the those who have put their neck on the line for an art experience like no other. Each fearful facial expression, forever immortalised on the PaperCuts-Exhibtion.com.
This piece is the first collaboration between artists Mandy Smith and Hal Kirkland. What began as a simple creative sit-down in an Amsterdam bar eventually manifested into the 3.8-meter behemoth it is today.
Mandy had always been disturbed by the idea of capital punishment since she was young and had begun to play with the idea of creating a series of deadly devices while juxtaposing them with the fragility and beauty of paper art. Hal suggested creating one at full-size, transforming the piece into a sculpture that allowed paper art – an art form usually too delicate to touch – to become inherently interactive. Both artists unified their craft, interactive skills sets and before long Paper Cuts was born.“Gramophone” – A personal piece showing the alternate end to the played cartoon notes. “Sand Paper” – In a twist to break away from conventional paper, Mandy chose to work with a paper more familiar to builders and DIY enthusiasts – sandpaper. Working with photographer Bruno Drummond, they brought to life all the textures to make this series into slightly uncomfortable creations. Innocuous everyday objects took on a new sense of menace in the series that balanced a playful sense of humour and a slightly sinister undertone. “The Move” – the first stop motion Mandy made. Inspired by moving house in Amsterdam. “Glass Worlds” – This is a personal piece to explore the idea of repeated paper animations. The whole project was crafted by hand with the little men’s sizes range from 2mm in the octopus scene to 6mm tall in the kite scene. Each world has it’s own contained repeating story and looping soundtrack. “Velvet” – This is a stop frame animation made out of paper, toilet paper and tissues. Each layer was lit with different green acetate to create the rich green gradient and each layer was hand cut to create 9 layers of separate animations that were hung and shot. This piece is part of a two part series, all can be found on Vimeo along with the making of. “Toyota – Stories of Better” – This was a very exciting job with hundreds of replacements and props built to bring this epic stop motion to life. Finding the right papers to make realistic, accurately shaped Toyota cars but keeping that handmade style was the biggest challenge. The piece was to be played as their central brand film for the Paris Motor Show. So getting a sleek car feel without being a graphical interpretation was important. Having strong dynamic shapes and colours and with everything shot in camera shows the versatility of the medium to create such a strong piece of branded content. “Kelloggs Storybook” – Collaborating with pop-up book engine David Hawcock, Mandy created a an ambitious paper craft construction for Kellogg’s first master brand campaign for the UK, showing “seed to spoon” story in reverse. Director Yves Geleyn wanted to create a book with intricate moving parts and characters to create rich worlds springing from the pages from start to finish. “Oddka Frocktail” – Vice asked Mandy to produce a dress of odd and imaginative art direction to launch the story of Oddka’s Milkshake vodka. She dreamt up the solution by telling the story of “Oddka Production” through layers of a live animated storyboard. Each layer showcased a different stage of the “Oddka Production” process from strawberry eating cows, to a milking carousel, though to flavour infusing windmills. To bring the dress into a 2m tall, 250 moving part reality, Mandy teamed up with production designers Herbert Luciole. “PNC Georgia – Russian Dolls” – The world of banking receives a charm filled make over in the form of a ATM Russian dolls stop motion animation.
“De Volkskrant – Verboden Boeken (Forbidden books)” – Using stop motion and animating up to 80 individual elements of 2mm thick, Mandy meticulously brought to life the fitting book titled “Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis” and reversed the act of censorship in an eerie and stand out TV spot for the national dutch newspaper, De Volkskrant.
Translation: De Volkskrant presents (“the people’s newspaper presents”) forbidden books. The 20 best books you were not allowed to read. They caused havoc and controversy because they shocked people in a political, religious or erotic sense. Part 1 by Franz Kafka comes free with tomorrow’s Volkskrant.“Special K – The Box” – Mandy art directed this stop frame animation that was released to celebrate Special K’s first recipe change in over 30 years. It was a product of literally spending hours folding paper to try and find new ways paper can animate, combined with traditional origami patterns. Mandy even got to bring to life and recreate the famous Special K lady with the classic red dress, out of paper. The animation took it’s shape through intricate folds, creases and pleats to symbolize Special K’s transformation.