Interviewing Jeff Nishinaka, World’s Premier Paper Sculptor

JEFF NISHINAKA, had his ‘eureka’ moment whilst experimenting with different media on assigned graphic and illustration projects, whilst studying at the prestigious Art Centre College of Design (USA).

His phenomenal 3D paper art has since been put to the service of high-profile clients such as Bloomingdale’s, Galeries Lafayette, Toyota, Coca Cola, Paramount Pictures, Harvard Medical School, Random House and Mattel, amongst many others.

His masterpieces range from 8in x 8in to 20 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Popular actor Jackie Chan owns, as a private collector, the largest collection of his work.

His artistry is considered to be so meticulous that is often regarded as close to “perfection”. In this sophistication, he manages to endow his pieces with such a beaming life force that is both captivating and intriguing.

Little else can be said about this worldwide renowned artist. An impressive portfolio of jaw-dropping, masterful art and over 30 years of experience, along with legions of admirers, have consolidated him as the indisputable World’s Paper Sculpting Master.

SRM: Jeff, thank you for participating in this Q &A. Please tell us a bit about your background, before your UCLA and Art Centre years. Did you show a clear vocation for the arts in your childhood, and, is there anybody in your family who is also artistic?

JEFF NISHINAKA: I remember the exact moment in my life when I knew I wanted to be an artist. I was in the 2nd grade. Our class assignment was to draw a mural on a large piece of paper taped to one of the walls in our classroom.

The theme for the mural was a California desert with all its flora and fauna. We were given an assignment to draw anything native to a desert before beginning work on the mural. We were told to vote for the best drawing in the class with the winner being awarded the title of “Mural Monitor”. I drew a desert box turtle and won the title! I didn’t do anything special after that. It was just a fun thing to motivate the students… and started me on a journey.

My Mom is really good at drawing. She once drew a Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur for me when I was a kid. I thought it was the greatest thing.

My Dad was always good at fixing and building things. He taught me how to make balsa wood biplanes from model kits. He was always good at working with his hands, from building science projects for my sister’s Junior High School science fair to displays for product conventions. As a kid, I would spend hours alone in my Dad’s garage workshop cutting, sanding and making things.

SRM: Paper is definitely not as manageable as other sculpting materials. How is that you preferred this medium above others? What do you feel when working on a 3D piece made of this material?

JEFF NISHINAKA: I don’t really think the technique of working with paper as challenging or demanding. The real challenge is in how to design the piece, what elements to include and from what angle it is to be viewed. When working with paper, I want to manipulate it in the least invasive way, to maintain its integrity and not overwork it. I want the viewer to see the texture and feel of the paper and its tactile quality. I feel like I’m having fun playing with a bunch of cut pieces of paper!

SRM: You cover a wide range of subjects in your sculpture, from Asian cultural elements such as martial arts or the dragons mythology, to entire cities and animal jungles and even 3D portraits of European celebrities. What is the theme that inspires you the most when creating a piece that hasn’t been commissioned by somebody else?

JEFF NISHINAKA: When I visited Tanzania, Africa, I found endless inspiration everywhere I looked. The people, the animals, the culture. It was truly a life changing experience and an endless source of subjects to choose from.

SRM: Your custom sets for the Barbie of Mattel have surely made many little girls, and not so little, very happy. What is the most challenging, working to create exquisitely detailed tiny pieces or giant art installations?

JEFF NISHINAKA: They both have their challenges. Tiny pieces need a bit more patience when cutting and gluing them. It can be quite difficult to manipulate and handle these tiny pieces with only a pair of tweezers. The challenge of working with giant installations is being able to keep everything in scale and stepping back from it to see the whole picture. It takes a lot planning and prep work to make it a successful piece.

SRM: You’ve made artwork for green companies, showing that using paper isn’t necessarily synonymous of harming the environment, for there is recycled cotton paper that can be used for this art. Have you, however, noticed any decrease in the request of paper pieces in relation to environmental concerns?

JEFF NISHINAKA: I haven’t noticed any decrease. The question of environmental concerns has never come up. I, on the other hand, always try to get the most cut pieces from a single sheet of paper. It’s not only good for the environment, it makes economic sense. I’ve always hated wasting anything. Very little paper goes into the trash, when it does, it goes into the recycle bin.

SRM: What do you think of digital and high-tech vs. traditional arts? Do you foresee the first impacting negatively and permanently the latter?

JEFF NISHINAKA: Digital and high-tech has definitely impacted the traditional arts. At first, it was negative and put a lot of really great artists out of work.

But I think that evolution is a natural process of life and that change is always hard, but usually for the better. I now see many artists using technology as just another tool like a paint brush or a hammer and chisel in their toolbox. It seems that the more we’re surrounded by technology, the more we wish to go back to simpler times. There is a trend going on for things that are handmade and tangible, not virtual. And yes, there is definitely a permanent impact on the traditional arts, but there’s also room for the two to grow together and coexist.

SRM: That’s very true. Your favourite piece from your early collections would be and is presently owned by…

JEFF NISHINAKA: There’s a sculpture I made based on the blueprints of a set design for a documentary about the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, ‘MGM: When the Lion Roars’, hosted by Patrick Stewart. It was used as a model and a guide for the set builders to refer to when building the actual sets. The producer of the documentary has that piece.

SRM: An artist is made by natural talent or by practice?

JEFF NISHINAKA: An artist is made by an ounce of talent and a pound of practice.

SRM: Can perfection be attained and if so, how, by precision or by patience?

JEFF NISHINAKA: Perfection is never attained. It is always elusive, but reveals parts of itself through patience.

SRM: Latest project release?

JEFF NISHINAKA: The book cover for ‘Slade House’, David Mitchell’s forthcoming novel, available from October 27th.

SRM: Jeff, thank you again, it’s been a pleasure.

’Slade House’, which inhabits the same universe as Mitchell’s latest bestseller ‘The Bone Clocks’, started out as a short story the British author published on Twitter last year. It tells a thrilling tale that opens in 1979 and tumbles towards a climax on Halloween 2015, days after the book will be published in the UK.”The Telegraph


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