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Art AND: Rosa Leff

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Rosa Leff hates fuzzy edges. They are a clear sign that the paper-cutter has not selected the right paper for cutting. Or worse, the cutter in question is a computer. Leff has no interest in learning technology to do her work. “There’s no fun in cutting yourself out of the process,” she says. Hand slicing, Leff believes, is the only way to get clean corners, which the self-described perfectionist considers the most important cuts in a piece.

Born in Philadelphia, Leff spent her later teen years in Middlebury, Vermont and then went to Sarah Lawrence College for her undergraduate degree. She got her Master of Science degree in elementary education at University of Pennsylvania and taught in Philadelphia public schools before moving first to Rockville, MD and then Baltimore last year. Leff still commutes on weekdays to Rockville where she teaches kindergarten, but she wanted to live in Baltimore for its art scene. “I think Baltimore actually makes it easy if you’re trying,” she says. “Anybody you talk to will give you the time of day if you’re polite. Everyone I’ve reached out to has agreed to take a meeting, even if they tell me, ‘I don’t think you’re a good fit for this,’ which is impressive.”

Leff is a hard worker whose doodles during staff meetings turn into papercuts at home. She cuts paper on her lunch breaks at the Orthodox day school where she teaches, first thing in the morning as the sun rises, and whenever she can find a spare 15 minutes to dash up to her third-floor studio in the Riverside rowhouse she shares with her husband and their pets. Her entirely self-taught paper-cutting practice began at her dining room table, “but it got out of control,” she laughs, gesturing around her designated art space, with precisely cut paper scraps littering the floor like confetti. 

Her paternal grandmother, Jacqueline Ziegler, was a professional painter and taught Leff many art techniques. Ultimately, though, Leff decided that painting wasn’t her medium. She found paper cutting when working on a children’s book while in graduate school for elementary education. She spent “way too much time on the illustrations” for the book and realized that unlike oil painting, “paper seemed to listen to me better.”

What’s especially impressive about Leff is that she’s had a steady roster of exhibitions since her first gallery show in 2017 without going through any formal art-school training or the network it typically provides. She was one of two Americans invited to exhibit last year at the Xianyang Papercutters Association conference, which is arguably the most prestigious paper cutting invitational.

She has accomplished all this because, in addition to being a paper-cutting maestro, she is a rare master of the oft-dreaded putting herself out there: she’s ready to fire off a cold email and walk up to a stranger at an industry event. An extrovert who still needs her down time, her coworkers describe her as a “Jekyll and Hyde,” wearing conservative clothing to her day job and then changing into her preferred vibrant threads while sitting in traffic on the Beltway on the way home.

To make the somewhat gritty urban landscapes she has become known for, Leff works from photographs she takes while traveling internationally—she’s made papercuts of her trips to Japan, China, Cuba and South Africa, among others. She steadily cuts away paper to reveal a second color or decorative paper which she calls “the light.” Similar to how a sculptor might cut away marble to reveal a form, Leff’s 2-D process is a reduction of a sheet of paper until it holds the scene in all the detail she can manage.

Working from what she identifies as the hardest part, which can be an unusual texture, intricate pattern, or elaborate lettering, Leff cuts from one side or corner of the paper to the other, making decisions as she goes, “cutting into it and hoping for the best.” Leff’s work always includes a hand-cut signature, and she is most often asked to teach other practitioners exactly how she achieves her very thin powerlines, which she adores capturing in her frequent sky-views. Part of her joy in this practice comes from never knowing “how a piece is going to look until it’s done; there’s always a big reveal moment.”

Along with her landscape works, Leff has been exploring the theme of adulting, a concept she struggles with as a 30-year-old artist who is also trying to be a partner and friend. These works, which she cuts into found paper bags, towels, and plates are Leff’s effort to branch out from traditional paper-cutting materials and subjects. Leff has an immense respect for both the history and the work of other contemporary paper cutters.

“I’m on the board of Guild of American Papercutters and we definitely have a mix of people that are practicing traditional Scherenschnitte and Papel picado and a few of us that are exploring urban landscapes and portraits,” she says. The style of her work, which feels simultaneously film noir and highly rendered graphic novel, stands apart. 

In her light-filled studio with panoramic views of the Baltimore harbor, Leff and I talked about eating too much on vacation, the ongoing friction between so-called delineations between fine art and craft, and why it’s important to make yourself laugh.

SUBJECT: Rosa Leff, 30
WEARING: “I live in my Kate Spade Keds. This jacket I bought in Capetown, South Africa from a company called Wag Fashion and a basic white tank and jeans. Vintage porcupine necklace and vintage earrings.”
PLACE: Riverside

[Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in late January, pre-pandemic.]

 

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book you’ve read?

Rosa Leff: I’ve read Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros AT LEAST 15 times. My first copy fell apart so I had to buy a second one. It’s a coming-of-age story about a Mexican-American girl who learns how she fits in (and sometimes doesn’t) in both countries. My family moved from Philly to rural Vermont right when I started high school and I felt totally out of place for being both a full-blown city girl and a POC. This book got me through a lot!

What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best? 

A few years ago I was really feeling like I should be happier. I hit a point where I was happily married, had a job that I loved, a great apartment, unbelievably adorable pups—everything—but I still wasn’t happy. I have a very tense, kind of nonexistent, relationship with my father and I haven’t spoken to my mother in years. I was holding onto a lot of anger and hurt that prevented me from being able to enjoy the life I had built for myself. 

I am a huge advocate for the Woo Myung South Korean meditation method. Every meditation session starts with reciting, “I am grateful to the method of throwing away the me which is false and therefore must be truly thrown away.” I learned to throw away everything I felt about my memories so that all that remained were the memories themselves. It really helped me understand some of the choices that people in my life have made and literally made me feel lighter. I owe my happiness, in no small part, to my meditation guides, Jisu and Eunice of Rockville Meditation Center. 

There are a couple of standard questions or responses I get when people see my work for the first time and one of them is always “make prints so you can sell at a lower price point.” For me, that’s terrible advice. I know prints can be a great source of income, but it’s just not for me. I got into papercutting because I love cutting paper. I love owning things that are handmade so I never buy prints. I want to feel that direct connection to the maker. So much is fast and cheap; I think there’s a lot to be said for slowing down and investing in the things you really value. I just couldn’t sell something I wouldn’t buy. 

If you couldn’t live in Baltimore, would you live in either New York City or Los Angeles? Another city? 

I will always be a Philly girl at heart! I actually think that’s why Baltimore and I get along so well; the cities are very similar. No one takes themselves too seriously, unless they REALLY do, which I always find entertaining. Both places just ooze chill while still having all the restaurants, museums, and cultural-whatevers that make city life the best.

The first thing I think when I see your papercut work is, What happens if you’re going along and the worst happens and you end up cutting it more than you wanted to?

There’s a lot of profanity and sometimes crying. I either have to edit the whole thing out or I have to start over.

Thank G-d I’ve only ever ruined (and had to completely re-start) one commission. The others I’ve ruined have been things I did just because I wanted to. I worked on a cut of a forest for a full 80 hours before realizing that I had just done entirely too much detail in the tree bark and that the whole piece was going to be way too busy because of it. When a cut is beyond saving it usually goes straight in the recycling, but that’s one I haven’t been able to let go of yet. I’ve packed it up and moved it to two different apartments over the years.

The whole thing over? Is that because it’s not a paper cut if it’s not all cut from the same piece?

It is. Some people do repairs and glue and tape things down. But I don’t. I just like the purity of it; I want it all to be one solid piece. I’m very process focused. To me it’s not successful if it’s repaired.

I’ve met people who tape or glue things back together, and who glue every single one of their cuts to a background. It still totally counts as a papercut. I’m just a perfectionist. I’m always quick to point out the errors in my papercuts which probably isn’t the best idea from a sales perspective, I’m just too frustrated with myself not to…. And I’d probably feel guilty if I didn’t disclose a screw-up.

Have you always been an artist? How did you know? 

I was an only child who grew up in poor neighborhoods where it wasn’t safe to play outside. I spent all of my free time inside drawing, painting, knitting, sculpting, and making with anything I could get my hands on. It was the best way to keep me occupied. 

When they could afford it, my parents prioritized art classes because they really thought I had a talent for it. I remember one time we lied and said that I was 14 instead of 11 in order to get me registered for a painting class at University City Arts League in Philly. 

My grandmother, Jacqueline Ziegler, made her living as an oil painter. She mostly did very traditional still lives and portraits. That was like my summer camp. My parents would send me to her house in the suburbs and since she had paintings to get done she’d set up a second easel so I could paint alongside her. I learned to take a lot of (loving!) criticism early on which I think has been a big help since, no matter how good you are, artists face constant rejection. 

What art material do you use so much that you should buy stock in it?

Paper! The paper I cut is Canson Mi-Teintes Drawing Papers. I try to buy them at Artist & Craftsman, but Blick has a better selection so I often end up there. I’ll use anything pretty for the backgrounds.

My work rides a fine line between fine art and craft, if such a line exists.

What mundane thing do you hope you’re remembered for?

I really struggle to say the word “womb…” I’ll say it, but then add an “-at” on the end to turn it into “womb-at,” like the animal. I think it’s a symptom of my refusal to fully grow up. Adulting is a struggle, I get my laughs where I can. I don’t need to be remembered for the wombat thing specifically, but I do hope to find the right balance of having my life together and enjoying myself! That seems like a good thing to be remembered for.

Do you have trouble getting people to take your work seriously because there is technology that is available that gives a similar effect to the untrained eye?

It’s not technology that is the problem, it’s getting people to take it seriously because people sometimes have a negative association with craft. My work rides a fine line between fine art and craft, if such a line exists. I feel like it’s arbitrary anyway, but of course, I’ve gotten some snooty comments from certain galleries that suggest I try out a craft festival instead. Because of the amount of time that goes into some of my pieces, they have to be at a certain price point and that excludes me from a lot of craft shows.

So would you say that this is craft, but discard your negative connotations with craft? 

I would say it is craft but craft is not a dirty word! I love paper cutting in part because it’s so minimalist in terms of materials to get started. It’s not a big investment. I can do a little bit and walk away if all I have in one evening is 20 minutes. When I was painting it was much more of a process of preparing things and waiting for them to dry.

What’s the best local restaurant and what is your go-to order? 

Can I have two favorites? I’m doing it. I love the monkfish with gnocchi, squash, and Brussels sprouts at Thames Street Oyster House. I rarely make it to “the clean plate club” when I eat out, but that one gets me every time. I also adore the breakfast tots at Captain Larry’s if I can get someone to split them with me! The order is huge and I will undoubtedly eat myself into physical pain if I’m not using the buddy system.

What advice do you have for someone who might want to get into papercutting?

I would say to people who are interested in papercutting—email me! Even if you don’t live in or near Baltimore, I am in regular contact with papercutters all over the country and can probably find someone in your neck of the woods willing to show you how they do things. For whatever reason, I’ve never found papercutters to be secretive.

I compete with myself, but we really aren’t competitive with each other. We are always emailing each other open calls and sending each other info on some new knife or paper we think folks should try. Maybe it’s just that there are so few of us, but we’re always happy to help recruit and support new talent. Also, if you’re looking for a book on the subject, Papercut Landscapes by Sarah King is a great primer. 

Do you have what might be described as an unusual hobby? What do you do just for fun? How did you get into that?

I’m a proud workaholic. My husband says I’m the most productive person he’s ever met. Anything I’m into I go at so hard that it basically stops being a hobby. Papercutting started as a hobby and look where that got me. 

When it’s nice out I love to sit on my deck and smoke a cigar. No one in Fed Hill seems to use their decks, but I take full advantage of the amazing view. My dad is a cigar smoker but I didn’t really get into them until I studied at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. People would try to sell me lower quality cigars thinking I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, so I’d ask my guest house’s security guard to go buy us a pair and give him some cash. We’d sit on the porch or deck and smoke, mostly in silence. It really is a great way to unwind, but people are definitely surprised when they find out about my vice!

Whose work would you want in your home or to wear on your body? Specific piece?

I just purchased a little mug from Roberto Lugo but I’d really like to acquire one of his more substantial pieces. Missing his show at the Walters makes the top 3 on my list of biggest regrets. I lived in Kensington, where he grew up, for a year and taught kindergarten there for five years. I love the way he makes otherwise-classic ceramic pieces reflect his life experience. I am doing that too with my move from traditional papercuts to urban, grittier scenes. 

If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the work you’d make.

I’ve been dreaming about building (or forcing my husband Asher to build) these large, free-standing float frames and creating life-size papercuts of things like trash cans, fire hydrants, benches, and other oft-overlooked but prominent features of city life. I get frustrated when my work is mistaken for laser cut or prints, but I see how it happens when people are looking at framed, wall-hung pieces.

By placing these clear float frames in the middle of a room, viewers would be forced to walk around them, would see each other through them, and would be unable to mistake the medium for anything other than what it was. Plus, graffiti and sticker-covered parking meters (the old-school ones you have to stick quarters in) really have never gotten credit for being as cool looking as they are.

What advice do you have for someone in the arts who recently moved to Baltimore and wants to network? 

Go to everything. Talk to everyone. Read BmoreArt. If someone sounds interesting to you, email them and ask if you can hang out. Everyone I’ve reached out to here, from gallery owners to artists, has been more than happy to give me a chance. It’s good to know people even if it seems like nothing will come of it. I “cold call” emailed a gallery owner some pictures of my work and said I wanted to meet him. He invited me to his gallery, said he loved my work but couldn’t represent me. But it was a great conversation and he gave me lots of ideas for people to connect with in the area.

I recently attended the inaugural Friends With Studios event at Monument City Brewing and it was awesome. The founder, Katie Pumphrey, calls it a social club for artists. Everyone came with the intent of meeting new people and it was a super relaxed way to do it.

Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?

I’m a Capricorn and yes, I think astrology is totally silly. But that may just be part of being a Capricorn. When I Googled it the first two traits that came up were “AMBITIOUS (read: workaholic)” and “PERSISTENT (read: relentless)….” so yeah, that’s pretty spot on! Maybe there is something to this stuff.

Is there a project you give your kindergarteners that you think has art-world assignment prompt potential? An example would be the famous RISD cardboard chair assignment or something equally easy/impossible sounding.

At the end of every school year, each class in the lower school does an intensive unit on one topic and presents it to the community at an event we call Showcase. Essentially, we spend weeks learning everything we can about dinosaurs or space or whatever, and then transform our classrooms into a one-night-only museum of sorts.

Two years ago I challenged my class to make the biggest dinosaur they could out of recycled materials. The design was entirely their own. It was really impressive to see 30 five-year-olds working together to construct a dinosaur that was taller than they were. In all, I think this fellow was around 10 feet long. It was a tremendous engineering challenge for them, they learned a lot about how to communicate their vision to each other, and they had fun. For me the challenge was guiding them without just telling them how I would do it.

What would your teenage self think of you today?

I think teen Rosa would be stoked to see my closet. I have always loved vintage, clashing patterns, and loud colors. She’d be excited about my travels in an aloof, NBD kind of way. She’d be proud that I still kvetch to my superiors (and now know how to do it productively and respectfully) when I don’t like something and that I never shy away from making my opinions known.

She would definitely be excited that I finally found a medium I could master. I tried so many different art forms and had fun doing it, but never found the perfect fit until I tried papercutting. I think I’m winning, and I hope she would think so too. Plus she’d be super happy that I married the guy I had a crush on at 13!

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?

My first job was working at a five-and-dime-type store in Middlebury, Vermont. I worked there on and off throughout high school and college. It was great! Most of the customers were super friendly and the work was easy. 

I remember one time some Middlebury College students came in to buy fabric for a toga party. They unwound dozens of bolts of fabrics to try them on and just left everything balled up. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I do know I more or less politely told them they could clean up after themselves. I wasn’t always the best with rude people, but my boss Larry would just watch me and smile. I took it as an unofficial endorsement of my behavior. I think his tolerance helped me learn how to advocate for myself.

What have you learned recently that kind of blew your mind?

Baby warthogs are the cutest animals on the face of the earth. I saw a family of them while on safari at Kruger National Park and got full-belly-laughed at by our guide for cooing, “Oh honey, let’s get a baby warthog!” I checked, and there are pygmy warthogs, but they aren’t as cute as the babies. If anyone can figure out how to “forever-puppy-ize” a warthog they can have all my money. They just don’t make for attractive grown-ups, and Baltimore rowhomes are too small for that anyway.

.   .   .

 

Rosa Leff has a solo show at Soapbox Arts in Burlington, Vermont this July that is expected to open as scheduled as Vermont reopens. She has two solo shows in the DMV region in October, Expectation/Reality at the Torpedo Factory and The Pursuit of Happiness, at the Washington County Arts Council in Hagerstown. Leff is in a group show with DaVinci Art Alliance in PhiladelphiaColors of Hope, which will open virtually on June 10 with a Zoom reception from 6:30–7:30 p.m.

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