For the last several months, the works of Monica Stewart, a graduate student at UofL’s Hite Art Institute, have been tucked away in a cool little corner of Revelry Boutique Gallery above some scarves and handmade earrings. Her art — intricately designed paper cut into the shapes of scenes, stories and fantastic tales — immediately catches the eye.
It has felt like a very long wait for the artist, but on Friday at the NuLu gallery, Stewart opens “Short Cuts & Paper Tales,” her first solo show. Insider sat down with Stewart to talk about her medium, her imagery and what to expect from her next.
Stewart’s first brush with paper cutting happened in high school.
“I was in a nonprofit arts summer program called Studio 2000,” says Stewart. “We had one visiting artist come in and do a paper-cutting demo, and I really enjoyed it and then never did it again … like, ‘This is great, but when will I ever be able to use this?’ ”
When the Louisville native started at Murray State University, she was only after a minor in art — but soon realized she needed more.
“I had always kind of dabbled in high school, and drawn, but had never been serious or had a lot of confidence in myself or my work,” she says. “I didn’t have a whole lot of exposure to different mediums … but I took a painting class, and that was it. I had to have a talk with my parents, because it’s all I wanted to do.”
She majored in art, exploring mediums like painting and drawing, but she wasn’t doing any paper cutting, other than a single project. Her professor urged her to continue, but Stewart didn’t shift her artistic focus until after she graduated.
“When my artist/family friend group dispersed from college, I started writing (to them), which is so old,” says Stewart. “No one writes letters anymore. But some people I write letters to, so I started making these paper-cut cards, and then I kept going.”
Time also was a factor. After she finished her bachelor’s degree, she worked full-time office jobs, and the labor-intensive process of setting up a pallet and an easel takes time. With paper cutting, Stewart could just grab an X-ACTO knife and a couple of sheets of paper.
As a graduate student, Stewart still dabbles in a lot of mediums, but she has continued working in cut paper.
“I just love it, I can’t stop,” she says.
Her tools are simple: a cutting mat, paper and a Number 11 X-ACTO knife, or sometimes scissors. She usually chooses which cutting instrument to use based on the kind of work she is trying to make.
“It depends if I’m being precious, or if it’s like I’ve just exploded,” says Stewart.
Her “precious” works are like the work she’s had available at Revelry — intricate, carefully planned in advance. As an example of her non-precious, more explosive work, Stewart flashes pictures of a recently completed 6-foot-tall installation: a multicolored … goddess?
“I can’t stand to take her down yet,” says Stewart. “She’s got, like, hairy legs and feet, and laser boobs. I don’t even know. She’s kind of this monstrous feminine lady. One of my critiques (from Hite professors) was to get weirder, so I’m trying to get weirder.”
While it will be exciting to see a big weird show from Stewart at some point, the smaller, more intricate work she’ll be presenting at Revelry taps into a childlike sense of beauty and more than a little wonder and fear. The paper cuts often contain images from lesser-known fairy tales, the images iconic even if the particular story is unfamiliar.
“The Golden Bird” features a boy in a wolf’s stomach, presenting a feather to a phoenix, which one can’t help but assume is magic, while in the back, a tree of golden apples waits to unveil its secrets.
Rigorous research accompanies Stewart’s process, as she finds unknown stories and links them to observations about the human condition, socialization and other big-idea concepts.
“They’re all based on fairy tales, and that was part of having to make a body of work. I’m also working with fairy-tale imagery in my school work, my thesis work,” says Stewart.
“I really love the grotesque imagery and the idea that these are super adult themes, but that our cultural relationship to them are so strange. There’s so much to mine — there are such strange places for women, and they are all about exchanges of power and hybridity. To become disenchanted, you’re becoming more yourself.”
“Short Cuts & Paper Tales” opens with a reception on Friday, May 11, from 7-10 p.m. at Revelry Boutique Gallery, 742 E. Market St. The show continues through June 6.