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Paper artist Gannon cut his own niche

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Patrick Gannon admits he loves puzzles. As a literature major and aspiring writer in university, he delighted in deconstructing ideas and consciously pulling together disparate pieces to make a whole. Twenty years later, as a “cut paper” artist in Japan, Gannon, 40, employs the same intellectual techniques, albeit with a different artistic medium.

Cut paper art, or kiri-e as it is known here, originated in China in the early second century, along with the invention of paper.

“When you look at Japanese paper art, kiri-e is the traditional form that came over from China,” Gannon explains. “It is typically one layer of paper, usually a black sheet, laid on top of either white paper or with bits of colored paper behind it.”

A picture is formed by cutting out the top layer, allowing the empty or negative space to reveal an image. “What I do is essentially kiri-e, but contemporary kiri-e — kiri-e with more layers and with more colors.”

Gannon’s work is steadily gaining attention, piece by piece. He was one of the artists featured at the Kiri-e of the World in Japan 2011 exhibition held last summer at Fujikawa Kiri-e Art Museum in Minobu, Yamanashi Prefecture, and a followup show in Tokyo in late December.

Gannon reduced his professional illustration work three years ago to concentrate full time on cut-paper gallery pieces, but his career has progressed, like his artistic process, in creatively aligned increments.

After he graduated in 1993 from Providence University in Rhode Island with a bachelor’s degree in American literature, his carefully etched literature career was abruptly nipped in the bud. His promised job at a university in Massachusetts disappeared a week after graduation, and with no other opportunities, Gannon returned home to New Jersey.

“It was a recession, and when I was left with nothing, I just went back to my parents’ home and found part-time jobs.” Then his older brother, who was in Japan at the time on the Japan Exchange and Teaching program, invited him to come over. “It seemed like a good temporary alternative.”

He traveled to Imabari, in Ehime Prefecture, in 1994, teaching at local schools. His brother returned to the United States in 1996, but Gannon stayed on and kept teaching English, not knowing one part of his daily routine would lead to his future.

“I was always drawing visual aides for class, cartoons to teach words and phrases in English. Although drawing had long been a hobby, I had never really comprehended art as a viable career,” he recalls. “I had a friend in high school who was going to be an artist, and we would hang out and sketch and draw — I would help him out sometimes with his projects, but I only took a couple of art courses. He was the artist, and I was the writer.”

Little by little, his in-class artwork framed a new career. “One day, after teaching a few years, I decided to make a board game for my students, and I spent ages on it. When I looked at the finished game, it kind of hit me like an epiphany — Wow! This is professional-level work. Which jumped to ‘professional.’ And I realized that people actually do this for a living. I started looking into ways to become an illustrator.”

His connections as an English teacher ensured a smooth fit, and Gannon was soon hired by a large language school chain to illustrate their first English textbook.

“We worked 12-hour days, but it was fantastic, really cool to be working in a room with a bunch of writers behind me and the three artists, bouncing off, comparing ideas with each other,” he recalls. “I learned so much from the other artists there, who were all more experienced than I was.”

After finishing the textbook project, Gannon decided to head back to the U.S., unifying his new vocation with solid education. He enrolled at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia in 2000. “It was a really interesting experience, since I was coming into graduate school only having taken one undergraduate art course. Meanwhile, all the other students had just gotten out of undergraduate art school, and they knew about color theory and the different painting techniques, but I was going in and basically could use a pencil.”

Gannon’s lack of an academic foundation in art unwittingly led to his discovery of cut paper art.

“At the time I was doing pen and ink and my professor suggested I cut out the pen and ink drawings and glue them, collaging them down on simple colored shapes in the background, instead of using various color techniques I was not yet comfortable with,” he says. “Something about cutting the paper just felt right. It was one of those moments where it all feels natural to my hand. After that, for the next two years I started using paper more and more, combining paper with other media, like acrylic or water color or cut paper and scratchboard.”

Gannon graduated in 2002, and stayed in the U.S. a few years, building up his experience as an illustrator. His work has appeared in such publications as Cricket, Time Asia, Create Magazine and in an illustrated astrology text by Sky Publishing.

Japan was still an important piece of his life, however, and he returned in 2006 to marry his Japanese girlfriend and refine his art.

“For three years, I had been doing illustrations with simple techniques, not a lot of decoration. The point of illustration is to punch you in the face with an idea — to make it blatantly obvious, to grab your audience’s attention so they read the article. There’s not a lot of subtlety to it. In that way, it is quite freeing, since it lets you be as blatant or shocking as you want,” he says.

“Coming back to Japan, without even thinking about it, my art style started absorbing something from the culture. I became a lot more subtle, and a lot more interested in group dynamics and group relationships, the parasitic or symbiotic relationships that we form.

“Of course, I also got married when I came back over, which is a completely different way of existing. Moving to the city, with people on top of each other so often and the Tokyo train lines and how crowded they are — it really gave me a lot to think about.”

Gannon continued his work as an illustrator in Japan, but began exploring Japanese kiri-e and re-evaluating his own approach to cut paper art. “One of my professors gave me the best advice I ever received — ‘Let the paper be the paper.’ So that’s what I do now.

“I don’t alter the paper in any way — I cut it, of course, but other than that, I use it in whatever way I find it. I like to think of the paper as found object art. There are Japanese experts out there doing such beautiful work in paper-making, and there is something just really fun about taking their art and turning it into something new.”

Gannon’s something new fits together well with the ancient cut paper art tradition. Delineating both ancient myth and contemporary culture, Gannon’s work continues to draw critical success.

Now living in Fukuoka, Gannon was recently featured in several international art and media publications, from Spain’s “20 Minutos” to Canada’s “Trendhunter.” After completing an exhibition in Tokyo, he is working on an original piece as part of the global artists’ project “Landfill Art” and finishing up several private commissions.

Somehow, the disparate pieces all fit together. “It’s like what I am doing with kiri-e in general. I like to take the traditional themes, the traditional technique of kiri-e, the traditional Japanese mythologies to create a dialog between the traditional universal mythologies and techniques of kiri-e and contemporary art and thought; to create or clarify a connection between the past and the present and how we, as human beings, relate to each other regardless of the boundaries of time, culture or nation.”

For more information about Gannon’s art, see www.pgannon.com