In the last three years, artist Rob Ryan has quietly become a household name. His intricate papercut designs pop up everywhere from the Paul Smith catwalk to the cover of Stylist, and sell like hot cakes in his Ryantown shop and card shops countrywide. He talks about finding fame late in life...
There are key stages you remember in your career.
And I remember the first time I turned down a job. I thought at the time: I’m never going to work again. I had this idea people would think I was fussy. But it doesn’t work like that. It was about a year ago and I’d got to a point where I was doing 80% collaborations and commerical commissions and only 20% my own work. People know what your style is and they want the same thing over and over again. So I thought: I’m going to turn this back to 20/80, how it used to be. I’m going to book in a show because then I’ll have to work for it. And I thought: what the hell, I’ll book in two shows.
I’m from a fine art background; I didn’t do design at college. But more than anything, I’m a drawer. It’s why I worked in printmaking for so long – it’s a more graphic medium. Papercuts are really just drawings, too. When I’m doing them, I’ve lost perspective, I’ve lost tone, I’ve lost bright colours. But what I have got is this single plain where words and pictures operate on the same level. There isn’t a particular order: sometimes it’s the words first, sometimes the pictures. But there’s a finite ending. Like sculpture, it’s what you take away that makes what there is. You start with a piece of paper and you can either cut it away until there’s nothing left or stop.
Even when I painted, my work was very decorative, lots of borders and flowers. At college, I liked the English illustrators of the 1940s and ’50s, all those Edwards and Erics. At the same time, I liked Italian and German painting, the 19th-century romantics like Caspar David Friedrich. I don’t get up in the morning and think I’m going to do a really romantic picture today. It just kind of happens. My new work is quite dark. Not as in heavy dark. As in a lot of pictures are night-time pictures! But there’s also a hint that things are not always that easy. The medium of papercut has that mixture of sentiment and something more sinister in the shadows.
I’m asked, “What did you do before people knew who you were?” – like there’s a missing 20 years. I left college in 1987 and you know, I kind of struggled. But I always made sure I had a studio I was working in, Monday to Friday, like a job. I used to take my kids to school and be there to pick them up after I’d finished. I’d work on a show for six months, maybe sell two pictures, one for £500, one for £400, and the rest would come back. I don’t do anything different now, only more people know about it and the work has somewhere to go. It goes out and stays out!
It’s a bit more of a business, obviously. I used to do it all on my own and now I have people to help. But I like that. They’re friends as well as colleagues. And fundamentally, it’s still me. You’re still a footballer, whether you’re a kid playing in the park or you’re playing for Man United. And I don’t differentiate between things because of their usage. It’s my work, whether it goes onto an eggcup or becomes a 10ft square papercut. It’s all part of a bigger picture.
Rob Ryan has exhibitions on at the Shire Hall Gallery, Stafford (13 November to 9 January 2011) and The Air Gallery, London (until 20 November). Visit TAG Fine Artswebsite for more details.
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