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1/10 — Bovey Lee in her studio.



In The Studio With Bovey Lee: Modernizing The Ancient Chinese Art of Cut Paper

Quite literally cutting her own path, Bovey Lee is transcending time and culture by modernizing the ancient Chinese art of cut paper. Over the past decade, Bovey Lee has created intricate miniature worlds with an overwhelming amount of detail, using simply her two hands, an X-Acto knife, and a large piece of rice paper.

Bovey’s cut paper works play with the coexistence of urbanism and nature; her characters are most often skyscrapers and highways juxtaposed amongst mountains, animals, and tsunamis. The detail is so precise that the pieces are breathtakingly fragile—seriously, I held my breath in fear of breaking the thin paper—and both literally and in the stories, they tell of mankind’s delicate relationship with nature. Milk visited Lee’s sunlit LA studio to see what she’s working on (most recently, she just signed on to a partnership with Absolut Art), and to reflect on hitting a 10-year milestone as an independent woman artist.

Tell me about cut paper art and when it was first introduced to your life.

Cut paper has been around for a long time, since the invention of paper. So I’ve known about it since I was really, really young. In my adult life learning art, we didn’t put a focus on cut paper because it is considered folk art and instead, we focused on scholarly art: Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting. So it favored high art over folk art.

At that time, my work involved interactive digital media and my heart just was not in it. I love using technology as a tool, but I missed doing stuff with my hands and physically creating something that’s tactile. Digital art is a bit ephemeral for me because it’s on the screen and when you turn the computer off, your work is gone. It’s not there. You can only touch your work through the mouse or the stylus. It’s never touching the art itself. It’s not intimate. I was ready to try something new and go back to working with my hands. 

And back to your roots.

And my roots, I think cut paper came into my life really at the right moment because I was trying to combine both technology and hand craftsmanship in my work. I wanted the best of both worlds because I have a master’s degree in painting and drawing from UC Berkeley prior to my digital art degree. I don’t believe that you need to specialize in only one area, it’s good to combine all the skills you have and see what comes out of it.

In 2004, I went back to Hong Kong, where I was born, to visit and I spent a lot of time with my father who loves art. He took out his collections of traditional Chinese paper cutting, and I was fascinated. But this was art for tourists, and only about typical Chinese motifs: the Great Wall, Temple of Heaven, zodiac animals, and so on. So I wondered if I could make this beautiful art myself, and if I were to do it, how would I do it differently? How could I make this new? My concerns now, my issues are not the same as the village women hundreds of years ago. My life is different, so my work must look different. That first year I did a lot of research on the history of traditional Chinese paper cutting before creating my own cut paper. In these works, I looked back at my familial history, at being a Chinese woman in America. What really attracted me to cut paper and why I decided to just give it a go was because it’s a beautiful tradition passed on by women.

Generations of women gathered together in villages and they would teach each other: grandma taught mother, mother taught daughter, and so on. That really drove me to it, because if you think about the art of the world, what of it can trace all the way back to being created by women? As a woman in the 21st century, I feel like I have a responsibility to bring cut paper to contemporary times. 

Let’s talk about your process, where you start and how you get all the way to the finish.

I usually start on a computer right off the bat making a digital composite. I find images from all different sources: the internet, books, magazines, pictures that I take myself. And then I put the images together in Photoshop. It takes a really long time to do this because on a given template, there are hundreds of layers. Every single little motif is from a picture somewhere, I take that subject out of context from its original setting, and put it into my work creating a new narrative for it. It’s considered a postmodern approach, so to me this motif no longer has its origin and now is one of my characters. I stitch images together to create a big narrative. This first step on the computer could take a week, two, even a month just going back and forth changing it around which would be nearly impossible without a computer. I really feel that the computer is the greatest tool that I could use in helping me build the image, but I do not want to laser cut it at the end. That’s not the statement I want to put out there. Today, virtually everything is made from a machine. As an artist, I’m not interested in contributing more to that.

I want my work to show that we still have the ability that we think we’ve lost, which is our hand craftsmanship. A lot of people look at my work and say that it must be cut from a laser. That it’s such a radical thought that I cut it by hand. People do not even believe in our own abilities anymore, we have become too dependent on what machines can do for us. That’s why in the beginning I use the computer, but only as an assistant in the process. In the end, I want to cut by hand to show that the value is really in the hand craftsmanship. There’s a collaboration between man and machine, but I want the value and the emphasis to be put on the artist. The created product is with my hands, and it’s intimate. When people know that it’s cut by hand, they are extremely curious about it. If you say it’s cut by machine, they lose interest and just walk away. It’s not interesting to them anymore.

You’ve printed out your template from the computer, what’s next?

And then I put it on top of Chinese rice paper and start to cut. I’ve done this for ten years now, I used to work very long hours nonstop but I can’t do that anymore. Cutting is physically a lot; it hurts my neck, I’ve developed arthritis from it in my hands and arms. I rely very heavily on my eyes, I go from looking at the computer and then focusing on the paper to tiny details—it’s very straining. Now, I try to pace myself and not go too crazy. I do six to eight hours a day, more if I’m in a hurry for a big show with a heavy workload. But I make myself stop at some point when I can take a break and completely walk away from it.

That seems very demanding, both physically and mentally. What do you do to clear your mind while you’re working? And for your body, how do you unwind from that stress so you can keep a steady hand?

It’s easy to say you work tirelessly to prove your level of dedication. But for me to get that high level of focus and concentration, I have to sort of empty it out from time to time. Every day, I go for a long walk to center myself.

Night time really is when I thrive and my creativity comes out. There are no distractions, it’s dark outside and I’m in my studio by myself, it’s quiet. I don’t play any music. I work in silence. I tried to play music but sometimes I made mistakes. And I also don’t like that different songs make my emotions vary too much. I need to block everything out, mainly to hear what is in me when I cut; I’ll ask, what needs to be cut next and how? And then the work will have a dialogue back with me where it wants to go. I mean—it sounds crazy—but it does do that. And you need to not have distractions in order to really find that voice in yourself.

You spend a lot of time making extremely precise cuts, have you ever made a mistake far along in your process? 

There was this one piece early on in my career. I spent over sixty hours on it, and then at the very end, I cut too much paper away. So I had to start over, and I did. It’s no fun, but what it tells me is that I’m not a robot. That’s the difference between machine and human, that we can make mistakes and learn from them. It’s humbling, and thank goodness for that humanity.

I notice many different themes intertwining in your art: agriculture, industrialization, urbanism. What message do you want someone to take away from your work?

That I don’t think we think about nature nearly enough. Through modernization, we escaped from what nature is and our relationship with it. As advanced as we think that we are, we cannot control nature whatsoever. Winter will come, earthquakes will happen, we can’t control it. We also romanticize nature as it’s not something that’s in our everyday life anymore. People only think about it as, “When I get married I want to go somewhere beautiful, like Tahiti!” as if enjoying nature is only for special occasions.

We have removed ourselves far from nature, which is what we have existed with since the beginning of time. Now, there’s a separation of us versus nature rather than a coexistence. If we can bring humankind back as a part of nature, then everything would change for the better. I’m interested in pushing that agenda in my work. I’m not a supernaturalist, “Oh, let’s move to an isolated island and hunt and fish ourselves.” That’s unrealistic. I’m more concerned with the balance of city and nature, and to bring a sense of nature back to modern life. 

When I see your pieces, I don’t even want to breathe because they’re so delicate and fragile physically, all the while portraying stories that have such fragile balance and vulnerability. History aside, why choose to work with such vulnerable material?

I think relationships are fragile in every scenario whether it’s people to people, things to things, people to things, people to nature. The reason I’m drawn to cut paper is because of that fragility. I believe that all things connect, which is why all the characters in my work connect to each other on one large single piece of paper. They’re not collages, not one piece on top of another separate piece. All the details become one, joining together to form the bigger picture. That connection is very important, but also very fragile, it’s hanging literally by a strip of paper as thin as thread. The stories I tell can be just as fragile.

What’s a piece that you’re proud of right now that you want to tell me about?

It’s so hard to pick one piece that I’m proudest of. I mean, I’m proud of being able to do what I love so much for as long as I have. In May, it will be ten years that I’ve been doing this full time, so I’ve been reflecting a lot on my career. I find that cut paper keeps opening doors for me, my work has been so generous in giving back. So to say there’s one piece that I am proudest of isn’t fair to all my work. It’s important to express gratitude for knowing that your hard work can be well received, and can pay off, all the while really resonate with people. That hand craftsmanship is still very much appreciated, I think that’s the most rewarding thing about doing what I do. So I’m not going to pick one work over the other.

I respect that, I guess it’s like asking a mother to pick a favorite child. It’s not a nice question.

Well, for art it’s a fair question. Certainly, I like one piece over another sometimes. Usually, it’s the work that really kicked my ass that I like the most. It’s good to be challenged, you don’t want to just go through the motion. Your most shining moment is probably the same as your most challenging one, because you’ve gotten through it. A particular piece of my work took me four months to make. It was my first largest work, and it was really challenging. But I finished it, I got through it. I know I’m capable, I can push myself further, and do even greater works.

Reflecting on your approaching tenth anniversary as a professional artist, what have you learned?

Doing art full time is not easy. I don’t have a steady paycheck or the security of a nine to five lifestyle. It’s been an uncharted journey but I’m quite proud of myself for not settling, for not coming home from a job I don’t like to sit on the couch and escape watching hours of television. It seems almost easy, right? But to do what you really love, it’s vulnerable. When you’re that passionate about something, it can be very scary. You fear rejection. What if they don’t like it? What if they think I suck?

Overcoming that though, it makes you a much stronger person. You don’t back down easy because of what is comfortable. I think that’s what all these years have given me, knowing I’m not going to give up easily. This is something that I know I can do, and no one can take it away from me. So to me, that really is a big deal as a woman and artist in the 21st century. The times that we live in now are tough. There’s been progress for women but we still have a long way to go. But we’re made of steel, you know.

Or maybe paper?

Right! Or maybe paper. Resilient, beautiful paper.

Images courtesy of Kristen Jan Wong

Stay tuned to Milk for more from inside artists’ studios. 

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