Q&A with Isobel Napier about Laser Cut Paper Series

Graduated in Fine Art by The Slade School of Fine Art at University College London, Isobel Napier creates paper sculptures that resemble fabric, using archival paper and laser cutting technology. Developing digitally designed, machine-made sculptures that echo traditional weaving, she transforms solid forms into transient structures, with the hanging works becoming almost soft and flowing. Laser Cut Paper Series is a collection of laser-cut newsprint plotting paper sculptures made to resemble fabric. It is cut line-by-line, leaving strands of warp threads and revealing repetitive geometric patterns. We had the opportunity to ask Isobel a few questions about her ‘Laser Cut Paper Series’ to learn a little more about her work.

Through Objects: How did your ‘Laser Cut Paper Series’ project begin? Isobel Napier: I have always been interested in textiles. When I first started my Fine Arts Degree at the Slade I was working with repeat patterns using very traditional processes in the print room and darkroom. At the end of my first year, I was trained on the laser cutter to help out a final-year student who was installing their degree show. I was so struck by this technology and its potential. When I started back in my second year, I wanted to see how I could apply this process to my own work. From then it developed very slowly over many, many hours on the laser cutter; progressing through a long process of trial and error when playing around with its engraving capabilities and different materials. There were many flames and failures, but once I had developed the technique it was such a pleasure to expand on. It’s been fascinating to use a machine of such precision to create a material that is so fragile and fallible. I find the work most engaging once it has started to fray and deteriorate. Working with such a delicate material lead me back to printmaking and the darkroom as I experimented with ways to document and preserve the pieces. I enjoy the collision of traditional and contemporary techniques here. The historic process of the photogram, or contact print, is particularly effective at capturing the work with great precision, at a 1:1 scale. This process is used in the industry by archaeologists to photograph and inspect ancient textiles, whose patterning is no longer visible to the naked eye due to discoloration and deterioration. Through contact printing, not only the original pattern but also the warp of the fabric is revealed. In this way, my intricate sculptures are transformed into ghostly representations.

Through Objects: Paper is transformed into very sensitive and fragile structures. How is this transformation
important to you?
Isobel Napier: I take material and process as the starting point for my work. Paper is a very traditional medium to work with and is usually used as a base to work on top of. Originally I was working in this way, using the laser cutter to gently engrave onto the surface. It was when I started cutting through the paper and thinking about its structure, that my work really started to progress. The paper is transformed into an altogether different medium. Cut line-by-line to leave the strands of warp threads, a solid, coherent form, is irreversibly changed into one that is extremely fragile and transient. These machine-made sculptures resemble woven fabric, echoing traditional weaving and becoming almost soft and flowing. This material experimentation has therefore allowed me to expand on and learn from traditional textile production.

 Through Objects: The final pieces present a rich diversity of geometrical forms – where did you take inspiration
Isobel Napier: I have been collecting textiles and books on the subject for years now so have a lot of reference material that I draw from when designing my own patterns. My pieces have an antique quality that has also led me to engage more with archives. Most recently I visited the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford to see its collection of textiles and weaving apparatus from around the world. I also particularly enjoy the mid-eighteenth-century textiles preserved in the records of London’s Foundling Hospital. Each of these textiles reflects the life of a single child. They form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving from the eighteenth century.

Through Objects: What were the main challenges faced during the development process? Isobel Napier: The main challenge I faced during the development process was mastering the technology. I was used to working with very traditional, analog processes; so it was a sharp contrast to work with such a precise, digital tool. It was time-consuming to become proficient in the necessary programs and software to make my digital files and manipulate the machine. But the challenge of this learning period was important in the development of my technique. It was from the many mistakes that I made then, that my experimentation became more successful.

Interview with Isobel Napier | Photography by Oskar Proctor (Aésop Collaboration) and Isobel Napier.