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Q&A; with Paper Engineer Matthew Shlian

By Dwell @dwell
Apophenia: the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. Such is the title of Ann Arbor, Michigan based paper artist and engineer Matthew Shlian's geometric series for Ghostly International, a follow-up to 2011’s Tessellation Series. Presented in four distinct moments, each with an edition of 25, Apophenia reads like snapshots in the process of pattern creation. We recently had the opporunity to chat with Schlian to find out more about his creative process, influences, preferences, and why he is "sort of anti-decoration". Photo

How did this project first come about?

I’ve been doing a continutation of series with Ghostly International for about two to three years. I first met Sam, the founder, at a TED Talk and he said that we should be working together. This is now our sixth series together! They’re a record label, but are super supportive of their artists and are so open to any ideas you present to them. It’s funny, about ten years ago, Ghostly started in Ann Arbour, Michigan, but are now based in New York and also Berlin and San Francisco.

You work with the “increasingly nebulous space between art and engineering.” What draws you to each? Are there any challenges you face between the two?

My background is in art and I never took engineering classes, so I just had to learn as I went. In origami, it’s very traditional. You start with a square and create kinetic paper, like pop up books, things that move. I used to design pop up books. I also ended up working with a few scientists at the University of Michigan as a visiting research scholar. We were recently granted $2 million for research to basically fold things. For example, if you take forms and use silicone, you can create things like flexible solar cells, water filtration systems, and a whole hoist of things. For me, it’s just exciting to collaborate with people who think differently, especially with scientists.


You say you’re never really set up pieces like this series before. How is it different than your other works?

I’ve done work using multiple pieces of paper, but with Apophenia, it was different the way I started it. I usually draw and take a lot of time doing the blueprints, but not so much with this. I used a different method on gridding it, like a checkerboard—it just repeats and repeats. It has certain elements that repeat, but overall no pattern. It’s just a different way of thinking versus having and working off a blueprint. It was also a little bit of chance that went into it. Chance definitely guided this series.

Do you cut and fold every single piece?

When I was designing popup books, I learned all about AutoCad, a software for architects, which turned out to be not really user-friendly. It took me nearly 3 months to figure out! I also use flat bed plotter cutters, kind of like a prototype of a dye cutter, which makes things easier. I still design everything on the computer, but I still do fold. I think my work is both low tech and high tech.

Do you prefer smaller or larger scale works?

When I left the industry of popup books, I started making artist books. A critic once told me to go smaller and now I work on a nanoscale! For larger installations, I try to work with a few architects. I did an 8-foot installation piece for Levi’s recently and it was so cool to work at that scale. It’s a little tricky with studio space though, but I’d love to do more with bigger sizes.


Can you see yourself using other materials, such as metal or rubber, instead of the usual paper?

I could easily transition from paper to other materials like fabric. Large sculptural pieces with metal! There’s limitless potential, but I haven’t done too much yet. I’m completely open to it though.

Are the senses important when creating? Sight and touch? Are the pieces meant to be interactive or simply just visuals?

It depends on the piece. I feel like we forgot to know what it’s like to hold an object. Everything is digital right now, so sight and touch and time are definitely important when creating. The way they catch light throughout the day and the shadows that form, for example.

You studied Printmaking and Sculpture at the NY State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. How has both contributed to your work?

Each material has a way of different way of behaving and with my work, I like surprise and mystery. There are definitely those moments in printmaking and sculpture, like what will I see when I open the kiln door, you know? Like with block printing, what am I going to expect?


Have you ever thought about decorating your pieces? Embellishing?

They either all have to be in one color, but I’m not chromophobic, just sort of anti-decoration. I’m pro-repetition and if it ties together, I’ll do it. I go back and forth. There are those moments of happenstance, like washes of color, but I feel like a lot of the pieces are more about the form, geometry, and gradients.

Any infuences?

Surprisingly, my influences are not other paper artists. If I wanted feedback, I wouldn’t ask a printmaker. I would ask someone not in printmaking. There’s a lot more connection in different disciplines that affect each other. I also played the drums since I was 10. All of those little things influence the way I’m an artist now.

To purchase a piece from Apophenia, head on over to The Ghostly Store.

And before you go, make sure to also check out this video portrait of Schlian by Ghostly International below!

Ghostly International presents Matthew Shlian from Ghostly International on Vimeo.

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