Find one thing and be the best at it

In a garage in central Los Angeles, emerging from a flurry of cutting, folding and sticking, you’ll discover paper sculptures that stun the world. Join Jeff Nishinaka as he opens his carport for Iggesund.

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On a street just off Melrose Avenue lives Jeff Nishinaka. Soon these grounds will have significantly fewer hours of sunlight than they do today – his neighbours are building an extra floor, which will cast long shadows over the garden where Jeff has just dusted off his furniture and poured two cups of coffee. But for now, the sun stills shines. It’s 3pm and the working day has just begun. A project for Ronald MacDonald House in northern California needs to be finished soon. As always in the final phase of a project, this means long days for Jeff Nishinaka.

“Recently I’ve been working up to two or three in the morning, three or fours days in a row. I usually have the TV on when I work. I can have the same film rolling in the background while I work, over and over again. I’m so distracted by the work that I don’t notice. I listen, I don’t watch. It keeps me company and raises my adrenaline.”

It’s in a tiny garage at the edge of the property that his lamps shine long into the night. But the main house, where our coffee was brewed, is traditional in style — cosy, with a showroom-meets-warehouse feel.

Nishinaka’s ambitious and often-playful creations adorn the walls in both the lounge and bathroom. But equally ubiquitous are the sheets of paper that cover every flat surface, sheets of paper that sooner or later will come to be displayed in public places, photographed and disseminated across the internet. Jeff talks fast. He’s in full flow. He points to the street.

"You know, I grew up just about six miles south from here. I spent my childhood here during the sixties, early seventies. At that time L.A was very quiet, very sleepy, no traffic and no such thing as rush hour. At the weekends we jumped on our bikes and split, and we didn’t come home before dinner. It was safe here in those days. If I had kids today I’d never let them take off like that."

He grew up with three sisters, two older and one younger. His mother still lives on the street where they grew up. His father made meters and gauges for aircraft and the Apollo Space project, and in their yard was a garage that also served as a creative workshop. It was there that Jeff discovered his artistic talents. By seven years old he’d decided that it was art, in whatever form, that he wanted to focus on full time.

“My father let me play around with his things in the workshop in our garage. And since he had that workspace, it felt like a natural thing to have a workspace here as well. It brings back a lot of memories”

Your father passed away in 2011. In what ways did losing him affect your work?

“Dad’s death has affected me in more ways than I thought it would. His work ethic rubbed off on me. He could work 16 hours a day, even on the weekends. During some periods of my childhood I didn’t see him that much. My father once told me to find one thing and one thing only, and to be the best at it. I work hard and specialized in one thing and it’s paid off. I’d say I’m at the mid-point of my career now, it’s taken 35 years but I’m grateful that it’s paid off.

The majority of my school friends staked out their futures early, as scientists or doctors. They were curious and asked me insistently: ‘why do you want to be an artist?’”

After high school Nishinaka went to UCLA…and hated it. There was a ceramics teacher in high school who advised him against becoming an artist, suggesting that he “be a dentist or something.” And he admits that there have been times when he questioned his choice of profession, there have been some tough years and Jeff has never shied away from less exclusive ventures that help support his passion. “Anything to make a buck.”

“The first 25 years of my career have been up and down the entire time. I could have the occasional good years and then have 3-4 years when I could barely make a living. It means I have a fundamental respect for everyone’s job, whether it’s in fast food or whatever, I respect them, they’re working.”

After high school Jeff applied to UCLA, only to discover that he had no talent for maths or science. He decided to take his childhood dream seriously, applied for Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and was accepted at once. Three years later, in 1982, he received his bachelor’s degree in fine arts. It was at art school that he first discovered paper sculpture.

“I discovered paper sculpture by accident when I was at the Art Center. It was just an assignment they wanted us to do so that we could try new mediums. And it was just something that…came naturally to me. After my degree I decided to give paper sculpture three to five years and see how far I could take it. And if it didn’t take off I’d quit and find a real job. But of course, me being stubborn, it took 25 years (laughs.)” 

When you look at the pieces you created way back, how do you feel about them now?

“A lot of my older pieces from the ’80s still work. There’s a piece I made of a guy, his typewriter and a lamp, I’ve made five versions of that since then but I still show the original to people.  Then of course there are some pieces I just want to set on fire when I see them.”

You recently did a wintery project for MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York. Tell us about it!

“It was a campaign for their duty free shop, a window display. It was all pretty non-formal. Their brief was simple: we want snowflakes, we want icicles and we want glaciers. We don’t want the snowflakes to look like typical snowflakes, we want them to be more angular, a bit more modern, pretty much like that. But we want to show some dimension. They made a few changes to the samples I showed them, they wanted to tweak a little bit, adjust it, but I pretty much nailed it from the first prototypes, so it felt really good.”

You worked with Invercote Duo on that, right?

“Yes. Since it’s coated on both sides, which worked beautifully for that project. And because of the straight scores I didn’t have to curve anything. So thanks to that it worked perfectly. In other kinds of work that I do, if it concerns a lot of rounding of edges, it doesn’t work so well with Invercote, but things that are flat and big, broad surfaces, you know where I have to worry about the paper – buckling and humidity - Invercote works great for that."

Jeff Nishinaka, like most paper artists, doesn’t have a lot of return customers, it’s usually a one-time thing."

Customers want something unique for a special project. But finding new customers hasn’t been a problem these last few years, partly because he now has an agent and partly because of the internet, but mostly because good craftsmanship is now back in fashion.

“What I keep hearing time and again is: we want something handmade. We’re tired of digital design. We want to look at and feel something that’s actually real. I’m really old school, for me everything is about cut and glue, cut and glue. I worked on a campaign for Starbucks three years ago, we made 11 big sculptures for print ads. We had the photoshoot in New York and suddenly two people walk in, they’re my age, maybe a little younger, and they’re like: “Who is that guy making things by hand? We haven’t seen one of you guys in years!” (laughs.)” 

Do you ever tire of paper?

“Sometimes I get physically tired of my work, but it’s the only thing I can do so I describe it, jokingly, as a curse. It’s a love-hate relationship, but you know, I’m still here cutting and gluing like I did when I was four years old.”

Jeff Nishinaka was one of 7 artists who took part in Iggesund’s Black Box Project 2011.



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