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Béatrice Coron: Stories cut from paper

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I am a papercutter. (Laughter) I cut stories. So my process is very straightforward. I take a piece of paper, I visualize my story, sometimes I sketch, sometimes I don't. And as my image is already inside the paper, I just have to remove what's not from that story. So I didn't come to papercutting in a straight line. In fact, I see it more as a spiral.

I was not born with a blade in my hand. And I don't remember papercutting as a child. As a teenager, I was sketching, drawing, and I wanted to be an artist. But I was also a rebel. And I left everything and went for a long series of odd jobs. So among them, I have been a shepherdess, a truck driver, a factory worker, a cleaning lady. I worked in tourism for one year in Mexico, one year in Egypt. I moved for two years in Taiwan. And then I settled in New York where I became a tour guide. And I still worked as a tour leader, traveled back and forth in China, Tibet and Central Asia.

So of course, it took time, and I was nearly 40, and I decided it's time to start as an artist. (Applause) I chose papercutting because paper is cheap, it's light, and you can use it in a lot of different ways. And I chose the language of silhouette because graphically it's very efficient. And it's also just getting to the essential of things. So the word "silhouette" comes from a minister of finance, Etienne de Silhouette. And he slashed so many budgets that people said they couldn't afford paintings anymore, and they needed to have their portrait "a la silhouette." (Laughter) So I made series of images, cuttings, and I assembled them in portfolios. And people told me -- like these 36 views of the Empire State building -- they told me, "You're making artist books."

So artist books have a lot of definitions. They come in a lot of different shapes. But to me, they are fascinating objects to visually narrate a story. They can be with words or without words. And I have a passion for images and for words. I love pun and the relation to the unconscious. I love oddities of languages. And everywhere I lived, I learned the languages, but never mastered them. So I'm always looking for the false cognates or identical words in different languages.

So as you can guess, my mother tongue is French. And my daily language is English. So I did a series of work where it was identical words in French and in English. So one of these works is the "Spelling Spider." So the Spelling Spider is a cousin of the spelling bee. (Laughter) But it's much more connected to the Web. (Laughter) And this spider spins a bilingual alphabet. So you can read "architecture active" or "active architecture." So this spider goes through the whole alphabet with identical adjectives and substantives. So if you don't know one of these languages, it's instant learning.

And one ancient form of the book is scrolls. So scrolls are very convenient, because you can create a large image on a very small table. So the unexpected consequences of that is that you only see one part of your image, so it makes a very freestyle architecture. And I'm making all those kinds of windows. So it's to look beyond the surface. It's to have a look at different worlds. And very often I've been an outsider. So I want to see how things work and what's happening. So each window is an image and is a world that I often revisit. And I revisit this world thinking about the image or cliché about what we want to do, and what are the words, colloquialisms, that we have with the expressions.

It's all if. So what if we were living in balloon houses? It would make a very uplifting world. And we would leave a very low footprint on the planet. It would be so light. So sometimes I view from the inside, like EgoCentriCity and the inner circles. Sometimes it's a global view, to see our common roots and how we can use them to catch dreams. And we can use them also as a safety net.

And my inspirations are very eclectic. I'm influenced by everything I read, everything I see. I have some stories that are humorous, like "Dead Beats." (Laughter) Other ones are historical. Here it's "CandyCity." It's a non-sugar-coated history of sugar. It goes from slave trade to over-consumption of sugar with some sweet moments in between. And sometimes I have an emotional response to news, such as the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Other times, it's not even my stories. People tell me their lives, their memories, their aspirations, and I create a mindscape. I channel their history [so that] they have a place to go back to look at their life and its possibilities. I call them Freudian cities.

I cannot speak for all my images, so I'll just go through a few of my worlds just with the title. "ModiCity." "ElectriCity." "MAD Growth on Columbus Circle." "ReefCity." "A Web of Time." "Chaos City." "Daily Battles." "FeliCity." "Floating Islands." And at one point, I had to do "The Whole Nine Yards." So it's actually a papercut that's nine yards long. (Laughter) So in life and in papercutting, everything is connected. One story leads to another. I was also interested in the physicality of this format, because you have to walk to see it.

And parallel to my cutting is my running. I started with small images, I started with a few miles. Larger images, I started to run marathons. Then I went to run 50K, then 60K. Then I ran 50 miles -- ultramarathons. And I still feel I'm running, it's just the training to become a long-distance papercutter.


And running gives me a lot of energy. Here is a three-week papercutting marathon at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. The result is "Hells and Heavens." It's two panels 13 ft. high. They were installed in the museum on two floors, but in fact, it's a continuous image. And I call it "Hells and Heavens" because it's daily hells and daily heavens. There is no border in between. Some people are born in hells, and against all odds, they make it to heavens. Other people make the opposite trip. That's the border. You have sweatshops in hells. You have people renting their wings in the heavens. And then you have all those individual stories where sometimes we even have the same action, and the result puts you in hells or in heavens. So the whole "Hells and Heavens" is about free will and determinism.

And in papercutting, you have the drawing as the structure itself. So you can take it off the wall. Here it's an artist book installation called "Identity Project." It's not autobiographical identities. They are more our social identities. And then you can just walk behind them and try them on. So it's like the different layers of what we are made of and what we present to the world as an identity.

That's another artist book project. In fact, in the picture, you have two of them. It's one I'm wearing and one that's on exhibition at the Center for Books Arts in New York City. Why do I call it a book? It's called "Fashion Statement," and there are quotes about fashion, so you can read it, and also, because the definition of artist book is very generous. So artist books, you take them off the wall. You take them for a walk. You can also install them as public art. Here it's in Scottsdale, Arizona, and it's called "Floating Memories." So it's regional memories, and they are just randomly moved by the wind.

I love public art. And I entered competitions for a long time. After eight years of rejection, I was thrilled to get my first commission with the Percent for Art in New York City. It was for a merger station for emergency workers and firemen. I made an artist book that's in stainless steel instead of paper. I called it "Working in the Same Direction." But I added weathervanes on both sides to show that they cover all directions. With public art, I could also make cut glass. Here it's faceted glass in the Bronx. And each time I make public art, I want something that's really relevant to the place it's installed. So for the subway in New York, I saw a correspondence between riding the subway and reading. It is travel in time, travel on time. And Bronx literature, it's all about Bronx writers and their stories.

Another glass project is in a public library in San Jose, California. So I made a vegetable point of view of the growth of San Jose. So I started in the center with the acorn for the Ohlone Indian civilization. Then I have the fruit from Europe for the ranchers. And then the fruit of the world for Silicon Valley today. And it's still growing. So the technique, it's cut, sandblasted, etched and printed glass into architectural glass. And outside the library, I wanted to make a place to cultivate your mind. I took library material that had fruit in their title and I used them to make an orchard walk with these fruits of knowledge. I also planted the bibliotree. So it's a tree, and in its trunk you have the roots of languages. And it's all about international writing systems. And on the branches you have library material growing. You can also have function and form with public art. So in Aurora, Colorado it's a bench. But you have a bonus with this bench. Because if you sit a long time in summer in shorts, you will walk away with temporary branding of the story element on your thighs.


Another functional work, it's in the south side of Chicago for a subway station. And it's called "Seeds of the Future are Planted Today." It's a story about transformation and connections. So it acts as a screen to protect the rail and the commuter, and not to have objects falling on the rails. To be able to change fences and window guards into flowers, it's fantastic. And here I've been working for the last three years with a South Bronx developer to bring art to life to low-income buildings and affordable housing. So each building has its own personality. And sometimes it's about a legacy of the neighborhood, like in Morrisania, about the jazz history. And for other projects, like in Paris, it's about the name of the street. It's called Rue des Prairies -- Prairie Street. So I brought back the rabbit, the dragonfly, to stay in that street.

And in 2009, I was asked to make a poster to be placed in the subway cars in New York City for a year. So that was a very captive audience. And I wanted to give them an escape. I created "All Around Town." It is a papercutting, and then after, I added color on the computer. So I can call it techno-crafted.

And along the way, I'm kind of making papercuttings and adding other techniques. But the result is always to have stories. So the stories, they have a lot of possibilities. They have a lot of scenarios. I don't know the stories. I take images from our global imagination, from cliché, from things we are thinking about, from history. And everybody's a narrator, because everybody has a story to tell. But more important is everybody has to make a story to make sense of the world. And in all these universes, it's like imagination is the vehicle to be transported with, but the destination is our minds and how we can reconnect with the essential and with the magic. And it's what story cutting is all about.


Video Details

Duration: 17 minutes and 55 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 339
Posted by: tedtalks on Oct 28, 2011

With scissors and paper, artist Béatrice Coron creates intricate worlds, cities and countries, heavens and hells. Striding onstage in a glorious cape cut from Tyvek, she describes her creative process and the way her stories develop from snips and slices.

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