Monday, January 30, 2012

Quilled Tissue Series - Lisa Nilsson

Before the internet, most of us didn't know anyone else who quilled... now it's a breeze to chat with, and learn from, many others on a daily basis. A few weeks ago a quilling friend from far away Romania sent me the link to an interview with Lisa Nilsson, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate who lives right here in the northeastern U.S. Lisa's Tissue Series was exhibited last summer at a Massachusetts gallery, and featured quilled human anatomy cross sections displayed in silk covered, wooden boxes she made by hand.

<span class=
head profile - detail

I wrote to Lisa to ask if she would share her thoughts on quilling and the process.

I had been aware of quilling growing up in the 70s, but hadn't considered it as part of my art making vocabulary until seeing a religious reliquary in an antique store. The first small quilled pieces I made were included in some box-type assemblages I had been making.

<span class=
head - cross section

My interest in quilling is mainly in its compatibility with what I see in anatomical cross sections. There is a strong thread of interest in the intricate, time-consuming, and the detailed in my art making, but I make periodic shifts in materials and techniques. The last piece I made was of a cross section of praying hands... I like the idea of recognizable gestures as an area to explore.

<span class=
head - detail

What is your tool of choice for quilling?

<span class=
head and upper torso - profile

I'll use anything close to hand that gets the job done - pins, needles, dowels, drill bits. I have a bona fide quilling tool, but often I don't like the little initiating crimp it makes in the paper, so I usually opt for a pin or needle.

<span class=
thorax - cross section

I've been experimenting with some of my husband's 8mm film editing stuff (not entirely satisfactorily) to roll some of the shapes that start with a very long - twenty feet or so- strip (I glue together smaller strips) that is loosely rolled, then folded in on itself. (Makes a great shape for brain tissue!)
<span class=thorax - detail

I have a burnishing tool that was made either for dentistry or for press type that is fabulous for pressing small pieces against other pieces that are already in place, much in the way you'd use the surface of your fingernail - though more precisely. Bone folders used for book making often come in handy too.

<span class=
abdomen - cross section

I like to work with Japanese mulberry paper for its strength, flexibility, and the colors available, but that means cutting the strips myself.

The attention to detail in Lisa's work is quite incredible, and I like that she also uses gilded paper cut from the edges of book pages, just as the earliest quillers did.

<span class=
abdomen - detail

Some of you may recall the anatomical series Sarah Yakawonis quilled that was featured here last year. A coincidence that Lisa has created a similarly themed collection? I find it unlikely that any artist would invest hundreds of hours on such an enormous project with the intention of stepping into the limelight of another. Just a few days ago, maker/blogger Pam Harris perceptively showed that through the ages, humans have often conceived of similar ideas independently. Her post brings clarity to the issue that comes up frequently now that images are so readily shared online.

Photography credit: John Polak


  1. hmmm... I have to say I've seen this kind of quilling before by another artist... in fact here is her blog:

    Some of Ms. Nilsson's work in fact looks almost identical, which makes me ask the question: did she steal her ideas, or just forget to give the other artist credit for her part in inspiring her, because I know the other artist's work came long before Ms. Nilsson's.

  2. I just can't buy into the fact that this Ms. Nilsson wasn't aware of Ms. Yakawonis' art.

    In fact if you google quilling, Ms. Yakawonis' art comes up quite a bit, it seems a little far fetched to believe that Ms. Nilsson didn't view the other artist's work at some point and thought, "wow, that's a good idea, I think I might try something like that."

  3. I would not want to cast aspersions on an artist's work without knowing the particulars. I've seen so much art that can be traced to being inspired or "appropriated" by another; a study of art history reveals example after example.

    A question to ask would be, how has the inspiration been made the artist's own? If nothing about it is original (can something hand-made and requiring such skill and concentration not be original?!), then one needs to ask questions, perhaps argue for explanations.

    Coming to that top photo and before reading that last paragraph and Michael's comment, I found myself using the word "awesome" as a descriptor for what's shown here. I think I used the words "terrific find" when I first saw Yakawonis's fantastic work.

  4. While the argument for intuitive consciousness is a compelling one, and the mysteries of how two ancient civilizations happen to make strikingly similar art, is lost to the ages. It doesn’t hold up in the 21st century. Perhaps it is because I am younger, but before I start a project I do a fair amount of googling on the subject before I begin, just in case I am unwittingly engaging in intuitive consciousness. If Lisa Nilsson had made her work before I began my study of anatomy in quilling, I would have probably moved on to more un-explored territory. But thats just the kind of person I am, I strive to create work that is like nothing anyone has seen before.

    I’ll be the first to admit that work Lisa Nilsson is striking and different enough from mine that I think it lands closer to inspiration then imitation, but as Michael has pointed out, it is very close to the line. Jessica Hische wrote an article about Inspiration vs. Imitation that is a good read for anyone who is interested in being an artist.

  5. Wow, great artist and amazing artwork!!
    Nati from Brazil

  6. I rarely see such a beautiful thing great!
    Greetings Baukje

  7. I often wonder if any of us come up with "original ideas" anymore. I love looking at old craft books and often see things that have been reworked and dubbed "new" in the blogging world. We are all taking inspiration from each other and hopefully continue to grow our crafts. I think the quilling shown here is beautifully intricate...and time consuming!! It kind of boggles the mind to think someone would spend that much time cutting the paper and planning the design and then executing the design to just "copy" someone else...I'd like to give her the benefit of doubt.

  8. As a biology geek, I am in love with this stuff! I read through the comments here, and it brings up some interesting points. I made a mental note to read Jessica's article. But I think it's so hard in this day and age to have a truly original idea any more. We are exposed to SO MUCH stuff through magazines, books, TV, internet, etc., that it is impossible not to be influenced by the work of others.

    Perhaps the idea of this work isn't 100% original (who really knows), but the time and energy and effort that went into it is still rather amazing to me.

  9. Such brilliant work Ann, So much of planning and work has gone into it. It is quite remarkable how she has made the abdomen detail look so beautiful. I too believe that sometimes people do come up with similar ideas . My kids love this post and they also like Sarah's anatomical series .

  10. I have worked in fabric and thread all my craft life, both as a teacher, designer and maker. With a view to travelling I was stuck with how to use fabric in a caravan. Thinking laterally, I came up with a paper idea in late 2010 as a Christmas present and it was so successful that I decided to do some research with a view to making a lot more works. I did not find any person making what I had made at that time. It was only in May 2011 I found someone on Etsy making similar works and since then another 2 people making variations of that style.
    When I made my first paper work I had never seen it done before.
    Doesn't mean it wasn't. And certainly does not mean I have used someone else's style.
    There's nothing new under heaven...

  11. Ann,
    This work on the anatomy by Lisa was just incredible.
    I'm sorry that Ms. Yakawonis, (loved her work also), felt as if something was stolen from her. Maybe she was the first to come up with the idea, of using quilling to capture the anatomy,(that can't be proven), but does that mean nobody else is allowed to do it?
    I happen to agree with Sue Maynes, "There is nothing new under heaven"
    I would be really disappointed if I couldn't quill a daisy because somebody else has already done one.

  12. First of all, thank you Ann for linking to my post about intuitive consciousness in support of the question of idea ownership.

    I do not believe that anyone can lay claim to ownership of an idea. I DO believe that we are entitled to claim ownership of the product or artwork resulting from processing an idea through our own filters and personal life influences. But OWN an idea? No.

    I think Teddy made a very good point.

    However, I also recognize that feelings can be very strong when another person comes up with an idea similar to one we thought was completely original.

    Unfortunately, when people buy into the concept that they can own an idea, no amount of logic or proof can persuade them differently. I truly believe that it is not only possible but logical and statistically probable that two individuals working in the same medium could be independently influenced and inspired by the same idea or arrive at similar solutions. (The whole point of my post.)

    And yes, yes, yes, the internet is an immense window into the world through which we are all exposed to much more information and data than we can even process. But it does not mean that just because an idea is out there, every person using the internet has seen it. Nor does it mean that the first person to publish the idea in connection with their art owns the idea for all of perpetuity.

    Googling to see if an idea has already been done? Commentors on my own blog have at times remarked to me that they search google to see if something has previously been done and if it has, they refrain from doing it. I really hate to see this happening because there are as many different solutions or ways to interpret an idea as there are people on the planet. It seems to me that the work of these two quilling artists proves this point because to my eyes, their styles and artistic interpretations of the human form are quite different. Only the idea to depict the human anatomy through the use of quilling is the same. One artistic interpretation resembles "Body Worlds" while the other resembles a MRI scan.

    In closing, I would like to add this: advice I give my artist friends - stay off the internet. Create from your own heart and your own muse. If you do that, your work will be authentic.

    My friend Tsoniki put it beautifully - "if you are always watching what someone else is doing, how will you be able to do your own thing."

  13. This is absolutely mindboggling! I have read all the above comments and if the artist used the first artist's work as inspiration she should be very honored because this work is spectacular! I think even the simpliest things we do in life have a small amount of imitation in them of thigs we have seen or heard even though we don't realize it.

  14. Unreal, but most everything you find is out of this world, Ann :) I cannot get over the work put into these.

    This was just sent to me via email from my book editor, but was a link on LaughingSquid crediting your interview.

    Small world :)

  15. Honestly, if you are a quiller and looking for inspiration, the jump from "Dad's MRI" or a doctor's office model to "I bet I can do that in paper" is a short one. Even Darwin didn't come up with natural selection by himself. Alfred Russell Wallace had much the same epiphany at the same time. And, in fact, Wallace beat him to publication.

  16. The debate over whether this work is derivative is pointless. All art is derivative. There is no original ideas just as all those Italians back in the renaissance weren't born with the recipe for fresco deep inside their subconscious. Art is intended to be an exploration of a given medium and a given form to illicit a thought, emotion, idea, concept or just an image. In this case it comes down to two artists engaged in a similar exploration though by no means are their works in any ways copies of one another. They are merely explorations of the same medium As one would paint an oil landscape or sculpt a ceramic bust. No work exists in a vacuum and an artist who works without the benefit of peers to hold their work up against in measure is sorely lacking both professionally just for the value of having someone to critique oneself against and personally because it is in my humble opinion one of the most creatively inspiring thing in the world to see the work they move on to

  17. I used to have a loft in the same building as Lisa and if you knew her or had ever seen her studio you would have no doubt that she came to this work on her own. The studio she shares with her husband is a veritable museum of fascinating scientific and natural history artifacts. She also works as a medical technician for her day job.

    I'd also note that it's practically impossible not to duplicate anyone at any time. We all share the same world and none of us exists in a vacuum. I spent a lot of time worrying about this when I was starting out and dismissed lots of potentially great ideas just because someone at some time had already brushed up against them. Now, I no longer waste my time worrying about it because I realize someone has probably shared almost every thought I've had at some point.

  18. As a friend of Lisa's, I will confidently say that she is fairly internet illiterate, (and didn't have a website until a few months ago at her friends' insistence.) I don't know if she was aware of Yakawonis's work, but it wouldn't surprise me if she didn't.

  19. Perhaps some actual legwork should have been done before publicly casting aspersions about plagiarism? It's unprofessional at best and egocentric at worst. It's as if Mr Cote wanted to derail Ms. Nilsson before any gushing commenced. I wish Ms Yakawonis at least had chosen to completely stray from the fray rather than dip her toes into this conversation.

  20. As the co-owner of the gallery, Greylock Arts, that first exhibited this series, I find these accusations extremely disturbing.

    As for the chronology, I can assure you of the following -- 1) we exhibited the completed series in April 2011; 2) we saw some of the completed works in the artist's studio in the fall of 2010; and 3) first saw Lisa working on the original piece that started this series in early spring 2010 (she was working on it in our own studio). This piece, she discussed in an interview last year ( For the record, we also exhibited the artist's assemblages (which contained quilled works) in September 2009. Ms. Nilsson is an established mid-career artist. One can simply look at her own body of work to see the connections.

    A simple google search of the artist would have yielded some of these results before these accusations of plagiarism

  21. All art represents images we take in throughout our lives. Inspiration and replication of an artists style marks the progression of art through the ages. Any period of revivalism is a testament to the art form in it's past glory. In this era of communications technology the element of fame as a marker of who "did it first" has changed because the recognition isn't from the masses. In many instances in the past a "mid career artist" will only be recognized in as a famous artist post mortem because that is when their pieces went truly public. While both women have many some stunning images I do feel that recognition is a necessary platform to expand the art-form, revivalist period, whatever, regardless if onevartist was aware of the previous intention and production of another. Otherwise how, in this technological world, can one ever truly become a great. I think it unfortunate that neither artist was aware of the others work until this debate was started, but it is a debate for credibility which is something that any artist strives for in its essence. I for one can attest that I personally had tried to commission Ms. Yakawonis for a quilled piece after seeing her anatomical works as early as 2008. Hope this helps.

  22. Lisa and I were close friendsin the 1980's, when she was an illustrator. We talked nearly every day about everything. The ferocity and integrity with which her mind and heart approach ideas, inspiration and work rule out the possibility of derivative work for me.
    But all you have to do is look at the two bodies of work and read Lisa's remarks- her language is precise and positions the work in a lifetime of fascination with anatomy. The only similarity is that both did anatomical interiors. Their quilling techniques, goals, materials, approach and results are quite distinct.

    Perhaps saying that I know her character rules me out as biased, but the implication of imitation IS a matter of character when it comes to art. I just realized why I am absolutely sure this is not even a matter of ' inspiration' - if Lis had seen the other work, and taken any inspiration from it, she would have said so.

  23. I've known Lisa for eight years, and, as a former research physician, have had many discussions with her about anatomical imaging. As pointed out earlier, she's been doing this for some time. She is a remarkably generous, open soul, and I can guarantee that, had Lisa known of Ms. Yakawonis' work, she would have enthused about it to one and all. Hard as it may be to believe, Lisa spends little time on line, and people do come up with similar complex ideas all the time. Just ask any scientist who's been "scooped."
    Fortunately, art is more synergistic than competitive. Lastly consider this: I, who spend a great deal of time on line, but know little about quilling, have now been introduced to Ms. Yakawonis' work. I quite like it, and can now recommend it to others.

  24. This work is nothing short of STUNNING.

  25. It may be that as art students everyone is influenced by drawing internal anatomy, though it is seldom spoken about, we had Gray's anatomy for students. In so far as this, all artists might think to do an internal, and Gray has been a great influence on practically all artists. I love both works, and surprise, neither looks so much like Gray's other than they are all anatomy, "of sorts" :), very nice!

  26. There are many quilling artists, hobbyists and crafters out there. Quilling has been around for a long time.

  27. What a painful line of discussion. The work is truly excellent and extraordinary. Once upon a time I knew Lisa personally (we worked together years ago) and I can assure everyone this is truly truly her own work. She has long been interested in all things anatomical and has long standing interests biology. This series of work is very much her own and it makes perfect sense to me having known her in the past. Please enjoy and appreciate this unusual, thoughtful and provocative art just as it is.

  28. Wow I did not know of quillings existence until i saw work from li hongbo and its very sad that my first experience is with a writer that made damn sure mrs.nilsson's work would not get its do regard my first thought was the writer is either a friend or backer of ms.yakawonis an its interesting to me ms.yakawonis commented on an artical written a year after hers was done

  29. I just came across this article about Lisa Nilsson's exquisitely quilled anatomical art pieces. They are clearly constructed with great care and attention to detail, and are the work of a fine craftswoman and a fine artist. Absolutely awesome! Thank you for sharing her work with us.

    BTW, I scrolled through and skimmed the comments and came across a disturbing line of discussions about whether Ms. Nilsson's work might have been, in some way, derivative of another quilling artist. I googled and looked up the other artist and found her work to be not only strikingly different from Ms. Nilsson's work, but also frightfully inferior--without the precision and grace that Nilsson's work displays. The other artist appears to be a crafter, while Ms. Nilsson is clearly a fine artist. Was this discussion intended to be a joke? One should not joke about such things!!


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