Cardboard or at least a form of it has been with us since about 1817. However, it wasn't until 1890 when Robert Gair, a Brooklyn printer and paper bag maker, experienced a machine malfunction that things really took off. Whilst Robert was printing an order of seed bags, a metal ruler used in the production process slipped and instead of creasing the paper cut it! Clearly an ‘Out Of The Box’ thinker (excuse the pun), Robert quickly realised the potential in the accident and set about developing his new idea. You see by cutting rather than creasing the paper, he could now create prefabricated paperboard boxes. In the world of cardboard, this was a big discovery but we will spare you the history lesson and just say that his ingenuity helped create what we now know as the cardboard box.
Although very useful, but annoyingly tricky to get hold of when you really need one, the humble cardboard box is not really thought of as a thing of beauty. Until that is you see the work of artist Rachel Williams. Self-confessed cardboard geek, Rachel from Sompting in West Sussex, creates beautiful 3D sculptures from corrugated cardboard and has recently exhibited her work at Colonnade House in Worthing. The exhibition was called ‘Moths, Mushrooms and a Mother'. We caught up with her in the seaside town to find out more.
Nothhelm Interview - Cardboard Sculptor Rachel Williams
Hi Rachel, Have you always been interested in craft and 3D work?
I grew up in a very creative household. Dad enjoyed making things out of wood and Mum loved dressmaking, so I was always encouraged to create things. When I went to college as a mature student I already had a lot of practical skills and so decided to hone in on my skills and concentrate on prop making rather than design.
So you became a freelance prop maker?
Yes, I started working as a freelance prop maker and over the years have worked on commissions for the retail industry, the English National Ballet and in situ at Pinewood. A lot of my work has also been home-based for theatre companies and local groups and organisations.
Do you still work as a prop maker?
Any freelancer will tell you its tough working for yourself and although I found irregular but exciting work which I really enjoyed, after a while, I came disillusioned with it all. I needed continuous work and income and so took up working in the care industry, which spared me time to continue trying out new ideas in my shed. I also had the good fortune to be offered work with a local, not for profit company called Superstar Arts who, as the name suggests, offer experience, guidance and support in the Arts to adults with learning disability.
So how did you first come up with the idea of using cardboard?
I was assisting in a project with Superstars to create a maquette for a public sculpture, and it needed to be fairly large. The most available and cheap material we could find was cardboard, so with the help of two of our participants, I quickly set about building the 3d shape, which took a remarkably short time to achieve. Afterwards, I was thinking ‘this surprisingly looks pretty damn good, and its really very strong!’ I loved what we had created and decided I was going to work on the idea of using cardboard.
How did you develop the idea?
So after literally messing around with some old cardboard and a hot glue gun, I decided I had to work on the idea further. Having a small studio (shed) in the garden I set about creating more sculptures in my spare time. Although the first sculpture was really simple and quick to create, each new project would become more complex, more time consuming and intricate.
The sculptures are beautiful and the detail is amazing, how long does each piece take you to make?
It takes too long! If I'm honest I haven’t tracked precisely how long it takes me. I can build the main structure quite quickly but it’s the finishing details that really take a long time. When I’m working on the very detailed sections it takes me ages, in fact, after a while, it starts to drive me a bit bonkers!
Do you just use cardboard and glue?
Yes mostly. .. cardboard tubes, cardboard boxes and hot glue. Although I have had to add some other materials like steel and wood just for integrity and counterweight purposes. I have been known to stop my car whilst driving through Brighton and grab some discarded cardboard I have spotted in a skip before now.
When you are creating your work do you use photographs, books or film as a reference to inspire you?
It’s a mix really, a lot of the time it’s from my own imagination. I walk my dogs a lot in the countryside so I’m always looking at things. However, I use photographs or image results as a reference. I get as many pictures as possible to help me gauge proportions and scale them up, I do a lot of research to make sure the dimensions are correct.
Your sculptures seem to be inspired by the natural world but also by texture?
It’s both really, I am an enthusiast of texture in Art, to me, it’s more important than colour, depending on the subject and medium. I really love monochrome photographs, so the almost sepia colours of the card please me, and work really well with the textures I discover I can make, all from just one material! I also love the fact the majority of the cardboard I use has been recycled. I do like to create something just because I want to, but am open to suggestions and can work to a brief. I enjoy the challenge of making it and then finally seeing it finished. This is why it feels slightly uncomfortable using the term 'Artist' to describe what I do, I consider myself to be a craftsperson first and foremost with a little artist thrown in. Sometimes in my 'Eureka' moments of troubleshooting a challenging problem, I think of myself as an intuitive engineer!
Thanks so much for talking with us. One last question, what’s next for you?
Thanks, I really enjoyed it. It’s great to be able to share my work with a wider audience. I’m currently working on a four and a half foot high rooster which has become too large for my workspace, and another project in the making is a small ‘tree house’ which is full of character with shingle roofs and crooked windows. I’m also formulating a plan for my next exhibition on a theme of homelessness.
Rachel is available for commissions and more of her beautiful 3D cardboard sculptures can be seen on her facebook page.