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Artist Clark Britton's Unique Papercuts Go On Display For The First Time

A collection of unique and finely crafted papercuts are currently on display at the Reuben Saunders Gallery in Wichita. KMUW’s Abigail Wilson visited with artist Clark Britton to learn more about him and the reason he has waited so long to display his tiny paper creations.

Clark Britton, Professor Emeritus in Art and Design at Wichita State University, is a well known and widely shown artist. His works--including paintings, prints, book designs and film animation--have been in exhibitions worldwide. He even has a piece in the Smithsonian's permanent collection in Washington.

Credit Abigail Wilson / KMUW
Some of Clark Britton's supplies in his home studio. One of his recent endeavors is making rod puppets for his grandchildren.

But for the past few decades he’s been at work with an X-acto knife and an exact eye, making papercuts here in his tiny home studio in Wichita. The fragile cuts were stored in drawers and boxes until recently when he lent them to the Reuben Saunders Gallery.

“It wasn't my idea to show them," Britton says. "Actually, I think I would never have sought to exhibit them... I have sold my work all my career, but I don't think about selling the work as an end in itself.”

Many of the pieces are no bigger than an index card. A single piece of colored paper delicately carved to reveal a hidden world within: birds, slender trees with twisting branches, puppets, and entire villages. There are even a few self-portraits. And save from an occasional sketch, they’re done totally extemporaneously.

“They’re so fragile," Britton says. "They’re like lace. It’s like a butterfly wing when they’re all cut like that. They’re light as air.”

Credit Clark Britton
One of Clark Britton's papercuts is a self-portrait depicting him with a cat in intricate detail.

One of the works on display is a self-portrait complete with folds in his clothing and happy wrinkles by his eyes. A cat sleeps nearby, fur on its back and stomach illustrated by miniature slits in the paper.

“The thing that enjoy the most is I enjoy the process of creation and working out the problems," he says. "After I'm done with it, they just sit around until I throw them in a drawer and forget about them.”

Credit Abigail Wilson / KMUW
In addition to papercutting, Britton has started making 3-D theater scenes. These works are not on display at the gallery.

Britton’s papercuts are delicate and filled with complicated detail. Objects overlap and get smaller with perspective. And although time has passed since he first began paper-cutting in the early 1990s, he has continued to work in very small formats. 

“Well, I have pretty good eyesight with trifocals and my hands," Britton says. "I'm 85 years old and my hands don't shake yet."

I think the reason I've always worked small with my images is that I can't relate to a big image," Britton says. "I like the more intimate size image because I can see it all happening. I don't have to walk back and forth to get a view of it or use a glass to diminish it to see what's happening. I can see it all right there.”

Credit Abigail Wilson
A panoramic view of a papercut entitled "This Land" by Clark Britton. The entire piece was done extemporaneously.

Britton says he initially would use the papercuts as a pattern for prints. He scans them into the computer and adds layers of color in Photoshop. He makes small bound books pairing the cuts with poetry. The entire process is about building something from nothing--seeing what could possibly happen, using a knife as a drawing tool.

“Once it's done, that no longer has much fascination for me," Britton says. "I can relate to the image, but once the problem is solved it doesn't hold a great deal of interest for me. It’s how to make this, how to take a simple piece of paper and turn it into something that wasn't anything to begin with except a flat piece of paper."

Clark Britton’s boxes and drawers full of papercuts has been pried open for the public to see at Reuben Saunders Gallery in Wichita. You can see the paper cuts on exhibit until December 31. An opening reception with Britton present will be held Friday Dec. 4 from 5 to 7 p.m. and Saturday Dec. 5 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.


Follow Abigail Wilson on Twitter @AbigailKMUW.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.