Landscapes of Shadow and Line – Rosa Leff’s Papercuts at Boston Street Gallery

Evan takes a closer look at Rosa Leff's intricate papercuts, each one a dense and complex universe of line. – Artblog Editor

Rosa Leff’s papercuts push the boundaries of the two-dimensional world. Inspired by children’s books and political cartoons, her illustrations are painstakingly crafted shape-shifters that trick the eye, at times evoking a relief print with fine line work and deep contrast. It’s upon close inspection that the separation of the cut image from it’s backing creates a landscape of shadows that makes the work reside in neither the two nor three-dimensional realm.

Rosa Leff The Discomforts of Travel papercut
The Discomforts of Rail Travel, Based on an image from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 20″x16″, 2016

In conversation with Rosa at Boston Street Gallery on Saturday, June 11, 2016, the Kindergarten school teacher discussed the meandering path that led to her to papercutting. After drawing and painting off-and-on for years, Rosa came to the painstaking, exacto-tooled medium while in graduate school for education.

Not coincidentally for a woman who spends much of her work day reading to children, narrative is a clear driving force in her art, and her compositions are inspired by the children’s books that she so often reads. The quiet contemplative practice of cutting paper into images is a cathartic respite from long days in school.

Rosa Leff Real Housewives papercut
Real Housewives, Based on an illustration by Arthur Rackham, 16″x20″ 2015

Leff says it can take up to 80 hours to transform a single sheet of paper into an intricate and detailed composition. “A lot of people ask how I have the patience to make these papercuts because they’re so time consuming. It can be a really soothing thing at the end of the day, to just focus on the linework. There’s something about the tediousness of it that’s very relaxing. Although the entire papercut takes a long time, I can do it piecemeal, ten minutes before I leave the house or whenever I have the time.” The enormous time commitment pays dividends–each cut is so deeply considered, each misstep so high-stakes. As a result, her work is deft and dexterous, remarkable in both its craft and versatility.

Transformations of line

Leff, a Philadelphian for 15 years who teaches in the Philadelphia public school system, studied the arts in school intermittently, including a stint in Havana at the Instituto Superior de Arte in the fall of 2009 with influential Cuban artist Alejandro Cordobés, but largely came to making art through inspirations outside the traditional art educational realm. Her undergraduate degree is from Sarah Lawrence College (which does not have majors) in New York. She described the ruthless critiques in Havana that she managed to avoid: “He would line up everybody’s work from best to worst, and then make the people at the bottom justify themselves. It was so intense, I thought, ‘thank god I’m doing a one-on-one apprenticeship, so he’s not comparing my work to anybody else’s.’” About the impact the experience there had on her work, she explained that, “It was always just about progress. Resources were limited there, I ended up working with a lot of really strange materials like cardboard and Crayola crayons. Cordobés was the first person that really pushed me into line drawing more, which translates really well into the papercuts.”

Rosa Leff Not the Bourbon! papercut
Not the Bourbon!, Based on an illustration by Arthur Rackham, 16″x20″ 2015

The artist’s illustrations are often direct renderings of appropriated material (such as “The Discomforts of Railroad Travel,” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February 9, 1878, and the Rackham illustration “Not the Bourbon!”). The materiality and process of adaptation give them added dimension, depth, and new possibilities for interpretation.

About her transformations of appropriated source material Leff explains that the many cuts into delicate paper necessitate a restructuring of the composition to support the transformation into a lacy papercut. “I think they’re [the papercuts] always going to be different [than the source]–the texture and shadow adds an interesting element, and human error has a big effect in the way that I’m limited with the knife.”

Rosa Leff In the Wood of the Suicides papercut
In the Wood of the Suicides, Based on “Spendthrifts Running Through the Wood of the Suicides” by Gustave Doré, 20×30″ 2013

Darkness and line

While there is an inherent playfulness to Rosa’s work, derived from cartoons and narrative illustrations, the work is also imbued with a tinge of darkness. This is especially apparent in the nature of the works she chooses to replicate, such as “In the Wood of the Suicides,” inspired by the passage from Dante’s Inferno, a source which she draws from regularly. And similar to political cartoons and children’s tales, there is almost always a deeper meaning behind the light-hearted or graphic surface–a cautionary tale or a reminder of the trials that await in life. This dichotomy of light and dark speaks to the ability of narrative and illustration to make difficult-to-discuss lessons palatable.

Rosa Leff Boston Street Gallery
Rosa Leff at Boston Street Gallery.

At Boston Street Gallery in Kensington, Rosa’s work hangs as part of a three-person show titled Rhapsody in our Mind with painter Chabane Djouder and sculptor Bonnie Kornstein. The artists’ works are hung salon style in a room barely large enough to contain them, but the proximity of pieces enhances the energy of the space, and Rosa’s work stands out all the more for it. Be sure to visit the gallery, which has stood resilient through a constantly changing neighborhood under the steady guidance of gallery owner Jeff Har­ris.

Rhapsody in our Mind is up at Boston Street Gallery, 2539 East Boston Street,
Philadelphia, PA 19125, until July 23, 2016. Gallery Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 2PM-6PM or by appointment.