Paper engineer Matt Shlian started out dissecting pop-up books. Now he collaborates with scientists where his paper folding abilities have helped researchers to visualize their work in nanotechnology. Shlian shares with us insight behind this work, and what is next for the artist.
Where are you from and where do you currently live?
From Norwalk Connecticut, and currently live in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
How did your career as an artist begin? Are you formally trained?
I have a BFA from Alfred University (2002) and a masters from Cranbrook Academy of Art (2006).
I began as an undergrad: I originally went to school for ceramics, but realized early on that I was interested in everything. I studied, glass, painting, performance, sound and by the end I had a dual major in ceramics and print media. I wasn’t making traditional print or ceramic work at that point. Instead I would create large digital prints and using a series of cut scores and creases create large scale pop-up spreads. I was making these 4 foot v-folds or strut fold pieces. I really had no idea what I was doing. I wanted the work to be interactive and for the image to relate to the folds. I loved the immediacy of paper as a medium. I also loved the geometry. Figuring out the pieces was like solving a puzzle. I understand things spatially; I have to see something to make sense of it. One of my faculty advisers, Anne Currier, started buying me pop-up books and I started dissecting them and figuring out how they worked. It took off from there.
How has your work developed from when you first started out experimenting with paper to now?
When I first began working with paper I saw it as limitless. I have worked with it for almost 20 years and still see it that way. I’m asking new questions now but the same curiosity drives the work.
Can you talk a little bit about your process of creating a piece? How do you determine your configurations?
My process is extremely varied from piece to piece. Often I start without a clear goal in mind, working within a series of limitations. For example on one piece I’ll only use curved folds, or make my lines this length or that angle etc. Other times I begin with an idea for movement and try to achieve that shape or form somehow. Along the way something usually goes wrong and a mistake becomes more interesting than the original idea and I work with that instead. I’d say my starting point is curiosity; I have to make the work in order to understand it. If I can completely visualize my final result I have no reason to make it – I need to be surprised.
What are some of the necessities you require when creating your pieces?
I need a quiet space and music. I love being in the studio, I have no problem losing track of time and being focused in the work. There are a number of tools I use: bone folders, X-acto knives, tweezers, creasing tools, AutoCAD a Flatbed plotter cutter…
What do you wish the viewer to experience when looking at your work? Is there a meaning behind it?
Analyzation is more like the job of the viewer than the artist. The artist asks questions, I am not really interested in answers. So for characterizing my works or explaining their uniqueness – this is your job. My pieces are made from folded paper inspired by multiple sources (this is the “what”).
The “what” is not the important question. The important questions are how/ why?
I don’t look at one specific thing and make a piece about it. My work is not didactic – I am not seeking to explain or present one specific idea in my pieces. I assume a viewer with limited knowledge of my work/ process / intent. I want the work to stand without written explanation.
I am 100% uninterested in classification. My work is not easily contained in predefined categories. It doesn’t neatly fit under an umbrella.
You have had some interesting collaborations in the past. Can you talk further on that?
I love working with people that think differently. In the past I’ve worked with record labels, Apple, P&G, Architects, Scientists…Most artists work in a fluid not linear path and are omnivorous in terms of inspiration. I’m wary of artists that only look to people working in similar fields for inspiration. We need to get out more. The best work in my opinion is being done in the fringes, in the nebulous space between disciplines between science and art, between architecture and engineering, between science and math.
Who do you admire or draw inspiration from?
I find inspiration in just about everything; Solar cell design, protein misfolding, Islamic tile patterning, systematic drawing, architecture, biomimetics, music etc. I have a unique way of misunderstanding the world that helps me see things often overlooked.
People wise – I look to musicians, performers, writers, visual artists, producers, makers and thinkers… Brian Eno, Matthew Goulish and Lin Hixon, Simon McBurney, Christian Bök, Jonathan Blow, Chris Gethard, Annie Dillard, Kay Ryan, Annie Albers, El-P, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Daniel Libeskind, Dondi White, Christina Cordova, Christian Marclay, Marian Bantjes, Tauba Auerbach, Ren Weschler, Buckminster Fuller, Anne Currier, George Hrycun, Edward R. Tufte, Nervous-System, Charles and Ray Eames etc.
What is next for you?
Today, I’m working on a few large commissions and installations. The big project this year though is making a book. Its not a how to, but a what if. More monograph / art object than tutorial. I have a publisher and we are gathering material and research to fill it. It will be filled with images, have a ton of behind the scenes / sketchbook, DIY section, 2 essays + interview… I’ve got two amazing writers on board and a few musicians for a limited edition record that ships with it.
To learn more about Matt’s work, see “Matthew Shlian: The Future of Paper Engineering or Saving the World with Folding” video below: