The Art of Paper
Works not on, but built from, paper
In 2000, a turning point came as Laurie Krasny Brown, Ed.D. ’78, sat in her studio on Martha’s Vineyard, holding a contract to write two more children’s picture books for Little, Brown & Company. Starting in 1986, she had collaborated on 14 such books with her husband, Marc Brown, the prolific children’s-book illustrator and author (best known for his Arthur the Aardvark series). The couple had created nonfiction books explaining health, death, divorce, travel, and more through the eyes of dinosaurs (e.g., When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death), plus similar books on sexuality (What’s the Big Secret?) and friendship (How to Be a Friend: A Guide to Making Friends and Keeping Them). She wrote the books, and he illustrated them.
But Krasny Brown, too, has a lively visual imagination—“You have to picture what is on every page to write these books”—and always provided art notes that her husband could use as he saw fit. She had also done a solo book, The Vegetable Show (1995), that presented its subject in the guise of a vaudeville show starring zucchini, tomatoes, and other vegetables. She illustrated it with her own cut-paper collages, and took a special satisfaction from that project.
She decided not to sign the book contract. “I needed to do art full time,” she explains. “I would feel remorse if there were things lurking in me that I never tried.” So she turned to making art in her favorite medium: paper.
Her abstract, tightly organized, colorful geometric collages and assemblages of cut paper call to mind quilts, basketry, weaving, and often boxes and other containers. “Paper is a material that is accessible, flexible, beautiful, and sometimes forgiving,” she says. “Paper can be full of mystery. I like dyeing it, painting it, manipulating it.” She buys rolls of white French archival paper and colors it with gouache, typically immersing a sheet in a bath until it turns the desired hue. Krasny Brown also makes her own paper, and this fall is part of a show, The Art of Handmade Paper, at the Featherstone Center for the Arts on Martha’s Vineyard, where she and Marc have long had a home.
The notion of “making art in an informal way” appeals to her, and she has always drawn inspiration from American folk art, which is often anonymous. Nineteenth-century piecework quilts, for example, gave her the idea of executing similar designs two-dimensionally in paper. In 2009 she had a solo invitational exhibit at the American Primitive Gallery in Manhattan, which specializes in folk and “outsider” art (works created outside the “official” art culture). “I’ve been begging to be considered an outsider because I’m self-taught, and I love a lot of the outsider work—it’s less self-conscious,” she says. “But the gallery owner at American Primitive says I’m not an outsider, because I know too much!”
She enjoys simplicity and repetition with variations. A pianist who attended the High School of Music and Art in New York City and remains a student of classical piano, Krasny Brown says she takes “clues from composers like Bach and Beethoven—the way they do variations on a theme. The simplest melodies can be modified over and over again, and the piece as a whole becomes greater than the sum of its repetitions. I find that brilliant, and try to bring some of that sense of subtle and worthy variations to my art, working with simple shapes: the circle, square, cube, sphere, triangle, cone, pyramid. Why not notice those small changes?”
Krasny Brown studied child psychology at Cornell and then earned a master’s degree in educational psychology at Columbia. She worked as an educational toy consultant to FAO Schwarz and had a consumer-research job for children’s goods in New York. But there, the goal was always getting the child “to ask Mom to buy this,” she says. “I felt that this was going to rub me the wrong way ethically.”
After decamping for the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she joined the staff of Project Zero, the research group on learning and creativity, and co-directed a grant with Hobbs professor of cognition and education Howard Gardner on how media affect children’s learning. Her book Taking Advantage of Media: A Manual for Parents and Teachers (1986) describes research comparing storytelling media—voice, radio, picture books, film/television—to discern what each medium can distinctively contribute to children’s cultural education.
Her husband, though, has called Krasny Brown “an artist in psychologist’s clothing,” and at their 1983 wedding, remarked that he could tell she was an artist by the way she had arranged objects in her refrigerator. (“It’s all art to me,” she says.) Indeed, she often uses “things you surround yourself with and use every day” in her works (www.laurenekrasnybrown.com). For example, Plugging Away (2011) rings the changes on a series of small woodenplugs that the artist sanded, painted, and mounted on a board. Strain and Sip (2008) combines metal sink-drain inserts with tabs taken from to-go lids for coffee cups. During her 2010 residency at the Apothiki Art Center on the Greek island of Paros, Krasny Brown created a “paper café” that had a table set with paper cups, grooved plates, and paper cookies she had made. Her current work involves whimsical variations on boards for games like Parcheesi or checkers, and “game tracks”—pathways that players take around the board for Monopoly or Chutes and Ladders.
“Paper is not so durable, and people get nervous about it,” she explains. “But it holds up pretty well.” And paper remains her Muse. “If I worked in fabric,” she says, “I would make it look like paper.”