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If you sent or received a Christmas card last year, chances are you’ve seen a piece of Helen Musselwhite’s work. Even in the tiny dimensions of a postage stamp, the improbable intricacy of Helen’s hand-cut paper artworks drew the viewer into tiny worlds full of suggestion. You could feel a tiny lantern flicker, hear the chirp of a red robin and see a star twinkle on top of a Christmas tree.

Paper, when intricately cut by Helen, is miraculously animated into complex, 3-dimensional scenes. Families of deer browse in lush woodland; magical cottages are silhouetted in moonlight; foxes prowl amidst long grasses. There’s little drawing or painting here, no machine-cut patterns: just a pair of hands, some treacherously sharp scalpels, a vivid imagination and a lot of concentration.

The line between artist and illustrator is a blurry one and Helen is happy to keep it undefined. When taking commercial commissions from big-name corporate clients, Helen considers herself an illustrator. Working on pieces for her own pleasure she pushes the boundary into art. In these pieces she turns first and foremost to the natural world for inspiration. Living in the suburbs of Manchester, Helen and her chocolate Labrador Earl are well placed to explore the Cheshire countryside. Here she absorbs the intricacies of plants and the details of wild animals. Then she goes home and cuts it out in astonishing detail from paper.

In the Beginning

Helen grew up the daughter of a farm worker and remembers the influence the seasons had on her father’s working life. Delivering his lunch as he worked the combine at harvest and playing in the fields are fond childhood memories. The creative gene was passed down from a mother who was handy at making things – from fabric, clay or wood. Helen’s rebellion against rural life came in the act of escaping to art school to study graphic design. She thought this would be her long-term career, but redundancy intervened. So Helen turned to what she knew: making things with her hands. Even for an arty type, cutting up paper may not be an obvious technique to adopt. The eureka moment came when Helen was working with a jeweller friend. Cutting templates for jewellery designs, she saw the expressive potential of paper. As an added bonus was it was cheap, abundant and recyclable: certainly more accessible than making jewellery.

Like many artisans, Helen started out selling handmade pieces online. Having been invited to show her work in various exhibitions, she was scouted by her current agent. “It was in the days before social media – so I got in touch with blogs and persuaded them to feature my work”, says Helen. “It snow-balled from there. People found me on the Internet in all sorts of obscure ways. Now, Twitter and Instagram are hugely important in getting and keeping attention, but it’s easy to get lost. A lot of any illustrator’s success depends on being seen in the right place at the right time.”

When she got her first magazine cover Helen felt she might be getting somewhere. These days her work features in ads for huge corporate names, as well as in high-end window displays and on book covers.

The Heart of the Art

Whimsical, intricate and intriguing are the words Helen uses to describe her work. She doesn’t want it to be political or confrontational, she wants it to be escapist. The gothic influence of the brothers Grimm is apparent and Helen’s symbiosis of people and nature reflects old-school Disney. This is work that sparks the viewer’s own imagination. The woodland floor rustles with unseen creatures as we peep through the trees; flickering fires voyeuristically illuminate the windows of miniature houses.

The constancy of nature is where Helen turns again and again for inspiration. Her daily walks with Earl let her observe the changing seasons: tiny wild cyclamen pushing through the earth, ferns unfurling overnight, blackberries festooning the hedgerows or a tiny robin’s nest built precariously in the tangled branches of a tree. Mesmerised by the colours and shapes of nature, Helen takes joy from seeing the improbable roundness of a tiny wren or the unBritish vividness of a jay’s plumage. She tries to stay true to nature’s palette but can’t always be bound by its constraints, often giving free rein to her love of colour. At the other end of the spectrum she’s fascinated by the possibilities of monochromatic work, the dimension that shadows bring to pieces cut wholly from white.

The expressiveness of Helen’s animal characters – foxes, owls, deer, and birds – is one of the most engaging elements of her work. These aren’t exact portraits, but they’re not cartoonish either. Helen takes pictures on her phone when out walking or refers to her extensive collection of reference books to ensure the shapes, features, proportions and colours of her creatures are as accurate as possible. But expressions come from somewhere less definable. A fox may come out benevolent one day, bloodthirsty the next, for no apparent reason. Tiny details like the dot of reflection in the eye make all the difference to the character or mood of the animal. Helen observes, “Sometimes it just looks right, other times you can try too hard and it doesn’t work. I can’t force personality onto the animals – it just comes.”

Paper, Cutting Mat, Scalpel, Scissors

Helen describes her technique as one any child would recognize from school: cutting out paper shapes and sticking them together. Her tools are basic: paper, cutting mat, scalpel, and scissors. But it’s not quite that simple. To start, Helen sketches a thumbnail to set balance and proportion. This is enlarged on a photocopier, detail is added and elements defined on tracing paper. Then colours are chosen and each piece is traced onto paper before being meticulously cut out and curled, folded or scored to add texture and dimension. Every element is painstakingly positioned before being glued in place, with foam board adding depth to a model that Helen describes as “not quite 3D – more two-and-a-half-D.” Inevitably it doesn’t always come out exactly as anticipated, but that’s the organic beauty of such handmade pieces – they take on a life of their own.

While artistry and imagination are clearly vital in producing such detailed and studied work, lots of practise and a very, very steady hand are also critical. Precision can only be achieved with the sharpest of scalpels. Helen is her own harshest critic and rejects anything that’s not exact. But she knows she has to temper that impulse for total perfection. What’s the point of it being hand made if there’s no evidence of the hand in the work?

Being an artist seems like it should be a glamorous life but Helen Musselwhite isn’t so sure. There are gruesome scalpel-inflicted injuries and the ache of RSI to contend with, as well as the inevitable introspection that comes from working alone. Deep in concentration, with just the radio for company, hours fly by unnoticed. It’s then that the outside calls and Helen sets off with Earl to see what new sights nature has to offer. Which is something that’s good for all of our souls, every so often. 

Red Shed publishes A Walk in the Woods, a children’s book illustrated by Helen Musselwhite and written by Louise Greig, in May 2018

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Helen Musselwhite - Drawn from Nature: Latest Work
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