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The Angel in the Paper: An Interview with Artist Sara McMahon

By Silver Webb

Sara McMahon is a papercut artist from Seattle, who contributed several papercuts to Volume 6: Saturn’s Return.

Silver: For the most part, your papercuts focus on family scenes, ordinary everyday scenes. Doing the dishes, hugging the dog, taking a walk. Yet you create them in such a way that there is depth, and a question of what the person is thinking. As a point of comparison, Mary Cassatt is well known as an artist who focused on domestic scenes as a way to convey inner realities. Is this how you conceive of your portraits or is it more a point of a practicality, to weave your family life into your artistic endeavors?

Sara: I feel like it’s very much both. I love that you pointed out Mary Cassatt because I look at her work as inspiration and also Hopper, I love their work. They are so good at catching a glimpse of someone while they’re reading or sitting alone at a table having a sandwich. I just love portraying someone in an ordinary moment. And then I love portraying people who I know and love. You kind of have to use the models you have on hand. I'm inspired by moments of authenticity, when the veil drops a little bit and you get to see the person in a moment of truthfulness.

I mostly work from photos. I try to take them myself as much as possible, as then I am also designing it and deciding where things are placed. So I can do the composition to my eye and taste. But I’ve also done some where I’ve placed myself within a painting that I really liked. A couple I’ve done are based on artists like Sargent. I can be inspired by the mood or the feeling of a painting or an image I see in my mind and then I take a photo to work from. Sometimes I’ll take two photos and figure out how to connect them so they make the piece until I get what I want. I go by intuition.

Silver: Why papercuts? You are an improv actress, which suggests a tendency to be very spontaneous and off-the-cuff. But with papercuts, it seems to me that you must plan to some degree how you will portray the dark and light of your subject. It’s also a very exact thing, to patiently cut out the smallest bits of paper. What is the appeal in the art form itself to you?

Sara: I love the way papercuts look. To me, they’re similar to block prints. There’s something about finding the light and the shadows in an interesting and unique way. It’s old. The oldest surviving paper cut out is a symmetrical circle from the 6th century Six Dynasties period found in Xinjiang, China. Improv and papercutting are both very meditative and playful. And they’re both exercises in freeing your intuition and really being in the moment. Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” It’s like that with paper. I start with a blank piece of paper and I have an idea of where I want to go with it. But as I go, I feel like the piece also collaborates with me, and I’m going to make mistakes, and just like with improv, mistakes are a gift. It’s a way of embracing the idea that you’re being offered something in the moment that is not what you wished you’d been given, so it’s an exercise in being in the moment and accepting what is...The paper might have an imperfection in its surface that affects the cut, the blade might break as you’re in the middle of a line and make you veer off course, your dog might bump your chair. All these things are gifts. Offers. I love seeing the piece emerge. It feels like magic.

I did an improv show called “Found Objects” a few years ago, where we brought in things we’d found in our closet, on the street, whatever. It was based on the Martin Buber I and Thou book, the idea that objects have a relationship to this world that has nothing to do with you. You’re approaching the paper or the stage with your concepts and intentions, but you’re being changed on a minute level every moment that you’re participating in the art form. So much is accessing your intuition. Viola Spolin, the creator of improv, said, “My vision is a world of accessible intuition.”

Silver: When you say intuition, what do you mean?

Sara: You feel it in your gut, in your body, in your breath. And you trust that feeling. I definitely believe that creativity exists already, that we don’t have to force ourselves into it. It’s this big stream all around us, and when we allow ourselves to be connected to it, open-hearted, we are connecting to the larger creativity, whatever that means to you. When we step on stage for improv, by being in the moment, we’re plugging into a story that already exists, that is already going. When I go to the theater with my idea of what would be funny, it invariably flops, because I’m not present and listening to the other actors or the audience. Same with paper cutting, if I’m rigid and hold onto one very specific idea, I’m cutting myself off from the story. A sense of curiosity and playfulness is absolutely key to accessing your intuition.

Silver: Do you have mentors or teachers who showed you how to do papercuts and how have they influenced you?

Sara: The person who actually taught me was Nikki McClure, a Washington State artist. She had a workshop at the North Cascades Institute, and it was my “Year of Yes,” so even though I had never thought of myself as a visual artist, I’d thought of myself as a performing artist since I was little, I decided it would be cool, and I talked my mom into going with me. And we did three days, and I felt early on, “Uh oh, I’m in trouble. I can’t draw." And a lot of people were drawing and doing their pieces from that. But I did a couple and ended up cutting them. Watching them appear out of the paper was enchanting and lovely. Nikki was such a good teacher. She was also the one who said, “If you don’t enjoy drawing, do it with photos. Find what you want and take a photo of it.” She was amazing. The more that I take the photos, the more I see things around me that would make good papercuts. She taught us to pay attention, which is such a big part of the art form, really look at the world around you. I see most things as papercuts now, when I’m walking around. I look at the light and the shadow and wonder how I would make it as a paper cut.

Silver: You come from a very creative family, with artists, writers, and musicians abounding. How has that influenced your world perspective and your own art?

Sara: My mom, primarily a painter and a writer, is an art mentor for me. We have long conversations about art, light, color, composition. We love to go to museums together and talk about what we love and why we love it. That’s such a good art education, to not just look at it but discuss why you love it. And my dad makes art like he’s on fire, he is constantly making art, and always looking for new ways to experience the world through art.

I went to AMDA for college, the American Music and Dramatic Academy in NYC. It felt like a natural progression. I’d been doing performing arts for as long as I could remember, being an actor and entertainer. I never felt more alive than when I was doing that, singing, dancing, and acting. So college was a great learning experience, although we didn’t learn improv. Every actor, every human really, should have to learn improv; it’s an empathy-based art form that teaches us to connect with one another. I didn’t know how to do improv until 2010, my Year of Yes, when I took an improv class. My kids were old enough and I felt I could get back into acting. So that was the year I jumped into both improv and papercuts.

But being an artist in one way or another was a core value. It was important to me. At one point when I was contemplating career paths, my parents were talking with me about what I was going to do and told me “We’ll be so bummed if you become a lawyer!” It was so different from what other friend’s parents were telling them! The value was on making art, it was the language we spoke, a given that you would be someone who made art, experienced it, brought it to others. It was just the family ethos. Having adults in the house who spent their time paying attention to art, music, dance, theatre, or whatever, those were just what we did.

Silver: Did quarantine spark your creativity or was it a challenge to create during this time, and what are you looking forward to in the coming year?

Sara: Papercutting came out of nowhere for me during quarantine. I learned it in 2010, did it on and off during the intervening time. But during quarantine, there became space in my brain for it, and it took me by surprise. I had this image in my mind of an outline of a woman, and inside was filled with bees, and I couldn’t figure out how to get that out of my brain and onto a piece of paper, so I started taking photos of myself in ways I thought I could use for it. That piece never materialized. But it got me back to papercutting, and I started looking at paintings like Whistler’s Mother and Madame X and starting placing myself into old paintings. There’s that saying, “The muse likes to find you working.” So my idea was to keep working, no matter if it turned out well, just keep going. And some really cool pieces have come out and it’s been exciting to have that as a product of this time away. Improv used to be my main thing. I did performances every week, did trainings, taught classes, and I found so much joy in it. But it didn’t leave room for other art forms. And I didn’t really think of myself as a visual artist. But during quarantine I kept doing piece after piece and finally thought, “Maybe I am an artist!” My hope is that I will continue to do both.

See Sara's art in Volume 6: Saturn's Return on Amazon:

Sara is a classically trained actress with tendencies to fly by the seat of her pants, an improv instructor and performer, who teaches others how to enhance listening skills, playfulness, empathy, connectedness, and liberation from fear of failure. She is an emerging papercut artist, whom you can visit at IG @saramacpapercuts.

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