Living on Scraps: The CraftStylish Interview with Jeffery Rudell

comments (2) December 22nd, 2008     

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Jeff_Rudell Jeffery Rudell, contributor
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Our paper blogger steps up to the microphone for a candid one-on-one with our editor.
(Of course, we asked him to MAKE the microphone before he stepped up to it.)
If anything, I hope my style is happy. That may not sound very
sophisticated, but its how I feel creating the work and Id very much
like it if thats what came through to the viewer.
Our paper blogger steps up to the microphone for a candid one-on-one with our editor.

Our paper blogger steps up to the microphone for a candid one-on-one with our editor.

Photo: Jeff Rudell

Editor's Note: For the holiday issue of CraftStylish magazine, we sat down with paper artist and CraftStylish.com blogger Jeffery Rudell to talk about Christmases past and present, where he finds inspiration for his work, his very eclectic resume, and all things paper. The resulting interview was much longer than we could accommodate in the magazine, but we are pleased to publish the complete version of it here for our online readers.

CraftStylish: With a paper mill foreman for a father, it seems that you were almost destined to fall for this medium. What was your first important paper project? Was there a pivotal project that made you decide, "This is it"?

Jeffery Rudell: When I was seven years old, I saw a picture of a children's typewriter in the Sears Christmas Wish Book (it was still called the "Christmas" Wish Book back then and not the "Holiday" Wish Book). I wanted that typewriter more than anything in the world—despite the fact that I didn't know how to type and had no use for it short of leaving notes for my parents along the lines of, "Dear Mother and Father, I have gone off to school and will return home at 3:15 p.m. this afternoon. Love, your son."

For weeks I pestered my parents for that silly machine and, shortly before Christmas—out of my mind with hope and worry—I snuck a look at the stack of presents that were hidden away in the bottom of their closet. I was crestfallen to discover that my parents—logical, loving, caretakers that they were—had opted not to splurge on a device I didn't need and wouldn't be able to use and instead had purchased me a pair of winter boots and a new (and wonderfully warm, it turned out) winter coat.

In a fever of desire and disappointment, I remember deciding that I would make my own typewriter, wrap it up for myself and put it under the tree. And that's what I did. Using a cardboard box and a large, inverted egg carton, I made a paper typewriter. Due to my somewhat meager engineering skills at the time, I only had room for six numbers and 18 letters (my egg carton being of the two-dozen capacity size, I placed a letter or a number on each of the egg-shaped protrusions but came up short). I made a batten out of a paper towel tube and a carriage return lever out of bendy paper-straws. It even had a slot that allowed me to slide a crisp white piece of typing bond into the contraption. For each key (well, the 18 letter keys, at least), I partially cut away a portion of the carton beneath the letter resulting in keys I could actually depress as if I were really typing. (Like my Smith-Corona years later, I had a nasty bit of difficulty with the letter "f" that insisted on jamming whenever I pressed it.)

My parents didn't know what to make of my efforts, but they allowed me to proudly display my creation under the tree alongside all my other gifts. Most of my relatives were polite enough not to press me for an answer when they asked, "And who bought you the typewriter?" I'm not sure if this was my "This is it" moment, but it certainly was the first evidence that when it came to paper, I was ruthless in bending it to my whim and will.

CS: Having spent most of your life with paper, have you encountered obstacles in keeping your projects innovative? Do you have advice for dealing with creative "road-blocks"?

JR: The best way I have found to keep my work fresh and keep the ideas flowing is, quite simply, to challenge myself. I am fortunate in that I have had the pleasure of working with many extremely creative art directors and editors. Added to that is my habit of frequently saying "yes" to the many harebrained projects they propose. This is not to say that I always meet with success (if only) but saying "yes" gets me past the "CAN I do it?" hurdle and then all that's left for me to figure out is "HOW to do it?" "Can I do it?" is fraught with emotion and doubt, whereas the worst that can be said of "How to do it?" is that it invites exploration.

CS: Where do you turn for inspiration for your window designs? Where would you recommend readers go for holiday decorating ideas this year?

JR: The artist Chuck Close has said, "Inspiration is for amateurs. I just get to work." While this may be at odds with the romantic notion of an artist tapping into some mysterious well of creativity, the fact of the matter is that nearly everything I do serves a purpose (mostly a commercial purpose) and as such, there are objectives to be met. When a client is paying you to do a job, they are rarely interested in whether or not you and your muse happen to be on speaking terms. Often, with window designs, there are also other members on the design team—an art director, a merchandising director, the owner of the company, even—all of whom have input and ideas to be considered and incorporated. You'll find clients will give you plenty of creative freedom if they feel you have their interests and objectives in mind in creating your design.

I find my holiday decorating ideas where I find most of my other ideas—in my cupboard, my garden, my neighborhood park, and on my shelf of art and design books. The process is less invention and more creative mash-up: thus French wigs come from a stack of French watercolor paper, or a Halloween lantern is constructed out of colorful, transparent Halloween lollipops, or giant orchids (those most sculptural and 3-D of flowers) are rendered as 2-D paper silhouettes. I try not to focus so much on inventing and turn my attention, instead, to reinventing. Whatever I see a lot of I try to avoid. Anything that strikes me as novel, clever, forgotten, or inspired I try playing with. Isn't this how it works for most people when they create? Idea leads on to idea until you arrive at something that seems totally cool and completely impossible. When I get to that point it's time for me to sit down and start cutting and folding.

CS: You have held a wide range of positions including work as a campaign manager, legislative aide, economic development officer, and now owning and directing a graphic design and consulting firm. How has paper crafting remained a part of your life in those positions? Is it something that helps distinguish you or do you keep it separate from your day job?

JR: Like many crafters, paper has long been my "plan B": Can't find a card I like? I make one. Don't have money for a gift? I make one. Forgot to buy wrapping paper and bows? I use a subway map, some Joss paper, and dental floss. Paper is the ultimate stopgap, interim measure, and safety net.

But, for a long time, crafting was a little too, well, "craft-y" for me to take seriously. Then, some years back, I was telling a friend how my days were divided between what I did for money (which was work I didn't much like) and what I did for fun (which was work I loved but from which I wasn't earning a living). She looked at me somewhat blankly and asked: "So why don't you just start doing what you love…but for money?" It seems like an obvious question now, but back then I hadn't a clue where to begin.

Then, 10 years ago, I started my own design firm and I suddenly found myself doing an occasional paper project for clients; nothing too special, mostly packaging or display items when I couldn't find someone else to do them for me. In no time I was doing more paper work than graphic design and now it is my primary work. The projects I've created have been featured in Elle Décor, Bride's magazine, Good Housekeeping magazine, and at Tiffany & Co. What started out as a respite from my day job has morphed into my day job proper and I couldn't be happier.

CS: You had a brief stint on "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart" in 2005 but were the first contestant to be told, "You just don't fit in." How did that experience influence you creatively? Did it cause self-doubt or increase your motivation?

JR: Being on that show changed my life in surprisingly profound ways. I auditioned on a lark and almost couldn't believe it when I was selected to be one of the 16 contestants. The irony of the matter was that some years earlier I had applied for a job with Martha Stewart's company and I was summarily dismissed as lacking both the educational and creative credentials to work there. Admittedly, I have a diverse and somewhat unusual resume, so it's not surprising I failed to fit into any of the predefined job openings they were seeking to fill.

My avenue to getting on the show, however, was completely the opposite. I had a body of work that was crazy creative but all over the map (and definitely didn't fit into any predefined job description), but the show wasn't reviewing my work for consistency; they were reviewing my work to see my skills and, apparently, I qualified.

Oddly enough, I trace the beginning of my so-called career in paper (as opposed to avocation) to an article I read in Martha Stewart Living about 10 years ago. The article was about quilling, or paper filigree as it is sometimes called, and it sparked my interest. That article led to my making a lot of quilled greeting cards, which led to me landing my first window display gig at Tiffany & Co., which I featured in my application to The Apprentice, which led, in a roundabout way, to my being fired. The day after I was booted from The Apprentice, I appeared on Martha's daytime show and I took her a gift—a picture of quilled flowers. When she'd "fired" me she said, "You just don't fit in," so I wrote her a note on the back of the picture that said, "I may not fit in but I hope I stood out! Thank you for everything, Jeffery."

The change that I took away from being on that show was that I stopped thinking of Craft as the ugly stepchild of "Art" (with a capital "A"). Craft is a multibillion-dollar industry that shows profits and predicted growth that the art auction houses can only dream of. My Apprentice experience was like a bracing slap in the face that if I have the interest, the drive, and the skills to craft, it was time to get off my duff (as my grandfather would have said) and embrace it.

CS: If you could choose any paper (color, size, texture, etc.) without price constraints and undertake any project without time constraints, what would be your dream creation?

JR: Pricey papers are a pleasure I already indulge in whenever possible. Of course, beautiful papers are now available in a very modest price range, too. No, for me, dream projects all pivot around time constraints. Since all of my work is handmade (and it's my poor hands that do the making) I find I never have enough time to just luxuriate in projects unless they are projects I'm doing for a client. On my list of things to (one day) attempt is 1) Re-create a miniature version of the Amber Room in colored paper; 2) Build a paper model of Rome's St. Ivo Church; and 3) Create an underwater seascape (a project I'm already 19 months into and which may never be finished). Despite this list of dream projects, I never seem to hesitate to set them aside when I have the opportunity to work with a creative client or an enthusiastic art director. Meeting my own expectations, it seems, is not nearly as much fun as exceeding the expectations of others. Maybe I need to find a client who wants a miniature Amber Room...hmmmmm...now there's an idea.

CS: As a contributor on CraftStylish.com, you have a way of weaving stories into your tutorials, helping the reader imagine each project, as it is a part of your life. You are also a distinguished storyteller. How often are your crafting adventures part of the stories you perform?

JR: I used to work days at the American Academy in Rome and spend my nights making things out of paper. Occasionally, I would go to a storytelling venue in New York (and New York is one of the few places on the planet that can actually support not just one, but a number of places that can fairly be described as "storytelling venues") and get on stage and tell a story. None of my writer friends knew or understood what I did for a living and my paper craft I did solely for myself. At work I was just the "administrative" guy.

My goal in the last few years has been to find a way to break down the divisions between these different facets of my life. Now I write and talk and blog and tell stories and craft and design and create, each part buttressing and enhancing every other part. I don't mean to suggest I'm living in some sort of paper paradise (with 600 handmade paper flowers due in three days it's feeling like quite the opposite of heaven). My point is that storytelling is nothing more than encapsulated information; and what is design but the same thing? It is my hope that to someone reading my blog or looking at my work, it would be difficult to say where exactly one part stops and another part begins.

CS: In some of your posts, you have mentioned tips for keeping scraps organized: How would you describe your "crafting style"?

JR: My work has been described (by others) as elegant, refined, unexpected, beautiful, and even extraordinary. Of all these appellations, only the word "unexpected" strikes a chord with me. Given the avalanche of images we all are bombarded with daily, part of my job is to find a way to arrest someone's gaze long enough to grab their attention and capture their imagination. As anyone anywhere who's ever created anything knows, this is not an easy thing to do. When you're working with paper (that most quotidian of materials) it can seem even harder.

Some of the ways I try to disrupt viewers' expectations are to, first, play with scale. Frequently paper items are small and, as such, they sometimes lack impact and appear twee. There's nothing like a six-foot-tall, white paper origami reindeer standing in the middle of your dining room to get your holiday guests talking among themselves. Another great approach is to "elevate the ordinary." Try making a clarinet out of an IRS summons, a headdress out of a movie poster, or a tribal mask out of a shopping bag. Finally, find out what's inside of you and then work with what's in front of you. Often I'll decide what I want to make first (e.g., an aardvark) and THEN I'll decide what I want to make it out of (i.e., paper straws). Starting with the material sometimes impedes coming up with a great idea.

Of course, while I strive to create work that's unexpected, the style of that work is something quite different. If anything, I hope my style is "happy." That may not sound very sophisticated, but it's how I feel creating the work and I'd very much like it if that's what came through to the viewer.

CS: What is your favorite crafting season or holiday and why?

JR: I craft all year long so, as a general rule, I take off the month of December. I find it a little exhausting crafting in December when the rest of the world is madly crafting as if their life depended on it. As well, I sort of feel there is too much competition from inexpensive (though sometimes, beautiful) machine-made or mass-produced items coming from overseas. So I treat December as a sort of research sabbatical. I look at what everyone else is doing, take note of the items or techniques that appeal to me, and make a plan how I might use them in the coming year.

What I lack in holiday crafting, I make up for when it comes to birthdays. For me, there is no better reward than making something utterly gorgeous (and utterly frivolous) for someone you love: It's personal, it's one of a kind, and over the years a small collection of items can accrue. What could be better than that?

During those months when birthdays are slim, I'll keep a close eye on the Obscure Holidays list (http://www.buzzfeed.com/buzz/Obscure_Holidays) to see what under-appreciated celebration could benefit from a little of my attention. If pleasure lies in the unexpected (and clearly, I think it does), then why not have guests over for Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day (last Monday in January) where one might wrap a table and chairs in bubble wrap and encourage relentless popping? Other favorites include Pi Day (March 14th as in 3/14 as in 3.14 being Pi), National Doughnut Day (June 1st), and Monkey Day (December 14th). Trust me, your crafts are much more likely to stand out and get noticed when the stage isn't so crowded with competing décor from the manufacturing giants of the world. Best of all, you won't have to wait to the end of the year to enjoy your celebration.

CS: Any expert advice for readers who want to incorporate paper crafting into their holiday decorations this season: Favorite brands to use? Tips for picking a color scheme? Should snowflakes be avoided at all costs?

JR: Okay, this is the third time you've brought up holiday decorations. I give up. Uncle! If I have to offer holiday suggestions, then so be it.

Go large or go home: Whatever you're planning on making out of paper, make it twice the size you originally planned. If you're making origami snowmen, make them out of 12-inch squares of paper instead of 6-inch squares. If you're building a paper crèche for a side table, supersize it to command the fireplace mantel, instead. If you're preparing to make a bouquet of paper flowers, don't stop at one dozen blossoms, do two or three or even four dozen. Shoot for lush and luxurious projects that are detailed and intricate and interesting. If you're going to put hours into crafting things for the holidays, you certainly don't want someone to mistake it for a paper foldout you bought at Wal-Mart.

Eliminate either red or green: I'd like to suggest eliminating both colors, but I suspect the suggestion might cause a mutiny among crafters. My point is we rely heavily on these colors to convey things about the holidays that could just as easily be conveyed using different hues. A few years ago, I made a holly wreath out of paper where the leaves were all purple and the berries all blue. It was sensational and festive and no one ever asked me where I bought it.

Try an analogous palette: Do a range of reds, or pink through orange, or green to teal. Analogous colors are those hues that lie next to one another on the color wheel. Imagine a snow scene where the trees are all dark blue, the snow is periwinkle, and the horse and carriage are aquamarine. Beautiful! Canson has a lovely line of papers in a wide range of colors (and they're inexpensive, too). For a substantially more expansive palette, check out ColorAid papers (online at www.coloraid.com). Be warned, they're also more expensive, but you can order full-palette kits or sheets of only the colors you want (18-inch x 24-inch and 24-inch x 36-inch sheets).

As for snowflakes: Yes, yes, by all means yes. But, let me remind your readers that in nature, snowflakes (like geese, tadpoles, bees, and flamingos) are usually found in large numbers. Nothing is less festive than a lone snowflake taped to a window. If you're going to do snowflakes (and how can you resist doing them), I suggest a minimum of 100. That is just enough to hang one every 12 inches or so (using white dental floss) across an average-sized dining room ceiling. If you want to do the entire house, I'm guessing you'll need about 1,100. (Well, that's how many it took to do my house.) Craft on!

Editor's Note: Readers can hear Jeffery telling his story Animal Husbandry by logging on to the iTunes Store and searching the Podcast Directory for "The Moth Podcast" or by going to www.themoth.org and clicking on "Podcast."

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Comments (2)

dany4bec writes: Wow... Thanks for this peek into your brain/life:) When I was a kid my parents said I made people, animals, and a town out of lint balls and junk...ha
Posted: 2:25 pm on December 24th
MichaelaMurphy writes: Animal Husbandry is one of my faves and it was such a treat to hear it again. You are a marvel, J--love that mic too.
Posted: 2:29 am on December 23rd
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