Meet Ellen Sandbeck, a Papercutter who Goes with Gmund

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layered paper art by Ellen Sandbeck using Gmund Color System papers

Here at LCI, we talk a lot about cards, envelopes, and printing, but our customers design far more than just stationery with our specialty papers.

Today we hear from the talented Ellen Sandbeck of Duluth, Minnesota who created the intricately crafted piece shown here using Gmund Colors paper. Ellen is an artist, a writer, an organic landscape designer, and a papercutter, a form of artwork she has been perfecting for nearly forty years. Learn more about Ellen and the story behind her beautiful artwork below.




(Check out the photo of the whole piece at the end of this post!)


The History Behind the Papercutting

Please tell us about your creative background and how you got started with papercutting.

My formal art career began in 1979 with a degree in studio art from the University of California, Santa Barbara, but I have always been entranced by the natural world and have been making nature-based art since I was a toddler. I began making papercuts in 1985, the year my son was born, when the constant distraction of tending an infant made it difficult to do any form of artwork that involved drying time. I soon realized that papercutting was my true medium. Though every papercut I started during that first year fell apart in my hands, I persisted. After that first year, I began sending samples to publishing companies, and within a year had landed my first book contract for a stencil book. Ten other books of original graphics followed. Though papercutting could be considered rather limiting, and even clumsy, I find its limitations a challenge, and tend to regard it as a game or a sport, as well as an art.

What inspires your pieces?

Most of my work deals with environmental and human rights. I always include detailed texts about the pieces in my shows, because my goals are not just artistic – I also strive to inform my audience and perhaps inspire them to take positive action. I like to work in series, in order to more fully explore a topic I am interested in. My current series: “As Long As The Rivers Shall Run,” is an exploration of major rivers of the world, depicting some of their endangered, and/or recently extinct species, as well as some of their invasive species.

About the Piece: Carefully Crafted with Gmund

How was this piece created? Will you share your process?

The piece I submitted to the 2021 Gmund Award, “Mississippi River Headwaters,” is the first really large papercut I have ever done. It is 27″ x 39″ and is composed of eight sheets of Gmund text weight matte paper layered over each other. Each color showing in the piece is part of a single sheet of paper, with the design cut through with scissors. In order to enable me to work that large, we had to basically redo our living room, getting rid of two large pieces of furniture, in order to make room for an oversized drafting table.

Papercut created with gmund colors matte finish paper

I use multiple sheets of high quality colored paper for my pieces, cutting through them with scissors so that the underlying sheets show through. I have to be careful about what kind of paper I use, because if the paper is not strong enough, it will tear too easily, thus wrecking many many many hours of work, but if it is too heavy, cutting it can damage the muscles of my scissors-wielding hand. So far, the only paper that I have found in a very large size that works for me, is Gmund matte text weight paper, which comes in a large variety of lovely, saturated colors. This paper, though relatively lightweight, and thus easy to cut with scissors, has really high tear strength, and I have been able to do some very intricate cuts, leaving extremely thin bridges, and they have not torn, not even when I have accidentally banged into the corner of a wall while carrying a papercut. The first few times that happened, I was certain I had caused irreparable damage to more than a month’s worth of work, but when I put the papercut down and inspected it, I found zero damage! PHEW!

This piece is the first installment of my “As Long As the Rivers Shall Run” series. So far, I have completed pieces about the Mississippi River’s Headwaters and Upper reach, and am now at work on the Middle Mississippi. After I complete the Lower and Delta parts of the Mississippi, I plan to work on pieces about the following rivers: Yangtze, Mekong, Ganges, Nile, and Amazon. Because I am also an environmental writer, I do a lot of research while planning and working on my pieces, so when I show these pieces, the show will include fairly extensive wall texts which will include information about the river, the environmental challenges faced by the river, and the species I have depicted. As I am doing this research, I have discovered some really interesting interrelationships between these rivers, and I hope that I am able to convey a feeling of these rivers interacting and communicating with each other.

The Perks of Using Gmund

How did you choose Gmund for this piece?

Layered papercut art - as long as the rivers shall run series by SAndbeck Art

I first chose it, because it was the only line of paper I found that offered a good selection of colors in a really large size. In 2020, I bought 18 different colors of these large sheets, I was very, very lucky that it turned out that this paper is so very well suited for papercutting! (I was horrendously nervous about it, until I began working with the paper…) It cuts really well, does not require a huge amount of exertion to cut, and is very strong. The ease of cutting is a big deal… I once tried cutting a mandala type pattern out of thick cardstock, and halfway through the piece, I had to scuttle it, because it was obviously damaging my cutting hand. This piece, mind you, was only 8 inches square!

I was lucky enough to get a Minnesota State Arts Board grant for 2020, and the major part of my proposal was that I was going to start working on very large pieces for the first time. If I had not managed to find a paper that worked, I might have needed to return the money. I recently bought six more colors of these large sheets, because as I have been working on the river pieces, I realized that I needed some specific colors to help depict muddy water.

Learn More about Ellen Sandbeck Art

Ellen Sandbeck’s work has been shown at the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) in Duluth, MN; at the College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN;the Minnetonka Center for the Arts, Minnetonka, MN; 33 Contemporary Gallery, Chicago, IL; Gallery 724, Alexandria, VA; Arts Unbound, Orange, N.J; The Edge Center, Big Fork, MN; Pyle Convention Center, Madison, WI; Unity Unitarian Church, St. Paul, MN; and the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office. Her work is part of the permanent collection of the Pyle Center.

Be sure to visit Art by Ellen Sandbeck to learn more about the artist and view her portfolio.

The Whole Picture: As Long as the Rivers Shall Run by Ellen Sandbeck

As Long as the Rivers Shall Run by Ellen Sandbeck

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