Looking at Ali Harrison’s breathtakingly detailed, absolutely frame-worthy cut-paper compositions, it would be easy to assume the Toronto-based maker had a long history (and solid formal training) in the arts. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. “I actually have no artistic training or background,” Ali says. After receiving a masters in community development and adult education, she stumbled across paper cutting while searching for DIY Christmas gift ideas online and decided to give it a try.
“The first paper cutting I did, I used my kitchen cutting board and a borrowed box cutter,” Ali recalls. “It didn’t turn out amazing, but I fell in love with the craft of doing it.” The primary selling point? Her natural (if unanticipated) aptitude for the art form. “Honestly, the thing that most appealed to me about it was the fact that I immediately felt like I was pretty good at it,” Ali says. “It was satisfying to be like, ‘Oh, I’m making something that looks good.'”
Less than a year later, Ali opened her Etsy shop, Light + Paper, and today she’s expanded her range of undeniably good-looking products to include laser-cut wedding cake toppers, pop-out 3-D cityscapes, and greeting cards, in addition to the original freehand-cut art pieces she has made since day one.
Read on to learn more about how Ali’s business has grown and shop the collection.
What was the first piece you listed for sale on Etsy?
I can’t remember the first item I listed, but the first item I sold was a paper cutting of an anchor with an abstract design in the background. The person who bought it was shopping for their one-year anniversary, which is the paper anniversary. I remember being like, “Oh, somebody thinks this is special; it’s a really special gift for them.” It was so satisfying.
That’s no joke for a first sale! And your shop has obviously come a long way since then. Will you tell me a little about how your work has evolved over time?
When I first started listing on Etsy, everything I created was cut by hand. Once I decided to transition into doing this full time, I made the decision to invest in a laser cutter for the studio. I knew that if I wanted to produce and sell my work and get it out to a good number of people, I wouldn’t be able to do everything hand-cut anymore.
Once you got the laser cutter, did that open up new possibilities for you? Did your designs change, or the types of things you were making?
For sure. Once I began working with the laser cutter, I could work with wood in addition to paper and other materials. That allowed me to expand into other categories, so now I’m able to offer coasters and housewares, Christmas ornaments, cake toppers—things that I wouldn’t have been able to make with just paper. It’s still really important to me that I do all my designs first as a hand-cut paper cutting, though. I do all the originals with an X-acto blade and paper, and then I scan them and convert them for laser cutting. Working within that technique lets me maintain the aesthetic that I’ve created.
How long does it take you to make an original paper cutting, and what’s your process like?
For a simple piece like one of my little ornaments, the cutting could take me just a couple of minutes. For my larger pieces like the anatomical heart, it takes well over 40–50 hours. But I don’t usually time myself.
In terms of process, when I first started I would draw the designs and then cut them out. As I’ve developed confidence in being a paper cutting artist, I try to do all of my designs, especially my new designs, completely freehand cut. It creates a more whimsical aesthetic than you’d get with all straight lines and perfect fonts and things like that.
That sounds kind of scary. Have you ever gotten really deep into something and then just…botched it?
Because I’m doing it all freehand, I don’t really know what a piece is going to look like until I start cutting it. So the good thing about that is that if I extend a line too long or cut a hole too big, I can just make that part of the design and keep going. Except for anything with words in it, that is.
What are some of your sources of inspiration? Do you ever check out historical paper cuttings or other contemporary paper cut artists’ work?
I have definitely researched historical paper cutting and looked into other artists that inspire me, but I try not to confine my inspiration to just paper cutting; I find that I’m inspired by many different types of artwork, and that helps me form unique new ideas.
I also get really inspired by my own maker community. I have a studio in an industrial building in the West End of Toronto that I share with another local maker. We host monthly meetings with other Toronto creatives; that’s been really helpful and inspiring, brainstorming and developing ideas together and keeping each other on track.
Your pieces range from really sweet and sentimental stuff to cheekier items, like the raccoon and trash can ornaments. Which approach is closer to your personal style?
I think I’m a bit of both, but definitely more cheeky than sweet—especially when it comes to designing things for weddings. One of my newest projects is a line of cake toppers, and I’m trying to include some that could appeal to different kinds of people. I also want to create some stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily see in other shops. I have some geometric-looking pieces, and I’m also trying to incorporate my hand-cut fonts, which I create freehand to give the letters a more whimsical, fun look, as opposed to a more flow-y calligraphy style.
What are some of the most popular items in your shop, and which ones are your personal favorites?
My most popular paper cutting piece is definitely my anatomical heart; I think people really connect with that iconic image, and I’ve tried to make it in my own aesthetic with the repeating patterns that I use. Now I’m getting a lot of requests for other organs, so I created a set of lungs and a brain piece as well.
Personally, I really like the stand-up sets that I’ve created where you can pop the little pieces out and put the legs on the bottom; I really like interactive stuff like that. My favorite is probably my stand-up winter village.
Do you ever get stuck creatively, and what do you do when that happens?
Since I’ve started my business, I find that I don’t have as much time for creating as I want, because there’s always so much to do. So when I am able to give myself that time, I never really feel stuck in it—I’m just happy to be able to create and design something.
I have been trying to experiment with new patterns in my paper cutting; I don’t want to repeat the same patterns that I’ve used before. But when I’m hand-cutting them, my hand naturally wants to do those patterns that I’ve done so many times. Forcing myself to think outside of that and experiment with something new can be tough, but that’s something that I try to push myself to do.
How do you break free from that impulse, when you’re sitting there with your tools and your hands just want to do the patterns they know?
I always want to cut the kind of natural-looking pattern that the heart is made out of—that’s what comes most naturally to me and is the easiest for my hand to follow. It’s harder for me to do geometric shapes with hard lines, so when I have downtime sometimes I try to force myself to do that—to cut repeating patterns I haven’t cut before, just for practice. When I’m creating a new piece from scratch and don’t know what it’ll look like, so often it starts to turn out like one of my patterns from before and I’ll have to scrap it and start again.
You did a big window installation for the Art Gallery of Ontario last year—what was it like working outside of your normal scale? Had you ever done a project like that before?
That was the first time I did something like that, and I enjoyed it so much that one of my goals for the coming year to try and do something similar. It was way harder to work with something that was so large and three-dimensional and not the kind of thing that I do every day. But it was so inspiring to experiment with different patterns and materials and hanging techniques. Although it’s not something that I’ve been able to translate into the items I sell on Etsy, I think it’s important to get out of my comfort zone, if only for my own creative development. In fact, I was so inspired by the experience that I’m now taking an art class at the Art Gallery of Ontario to help me develop my skills in drawing and painting.
So you’re going to be drawing and painting and maybe doing more large-scale paper works soon—what else is on your agenda for the year ahead?
One of my goals for this year, other than doing another large-scale installation or commission, is to integrate some kind of community development or community outreach with my business—it’s important to me to do something with that, going back to my masters degree. I currently have a co-op student from a local high school working with me in the studio every other day, and I’ve just done some speaking at my alma mater at U of T for some alumni events. I want to make sure I’m making time for that kind of thing and not just focusing on the business side.
Photographs courtesy of Curtiss Randolph and Light + Paper.