Caterina Crepax was born in Milan in 1964, the heir to a family profoundly connected to art. She grew up in an evocative, imaginative and creative environment, which would prove a crucial asset in her education and training. But Caterina has always been an impassioned lover of paper. The daughter of world-famous artist Guido Crepax, she inherited her father’s great manual skills and imagination which led her to create an entire three-dimensional structure out of a paper leaf.
Tell us about your story.
I was born into a multi-talented family, which included a pianist great-grandmother, a grand-father who played first-cello at the Scala Theatre, a grandmother who was a skilful “painter” of fabrics and a father who became an internationally renowned cartoonist and illustrator. I found it easy to create a world encouraging me to invent stories with fabulous places and characters. I made artefacts that would create a sense of wonder, and take centre stage and speak in my place. In the Nineties, thanks to a lucky opportunity, I was able to raise the curtain over my little fancy theatre. My plain paper flower decorations intrigued designer Nicola Gallizia, who submitted my name to an important company for a Salone del Mobile set up: I was asked to create paper clothes with customary paper such as sales receipts, envelopes and shredded office papers. It led to an unexpected result and amazement at those lightweight, ironic volumes, sculptures, and three-dimensional clothes with no bodies inside, yet looking like bodies. It aroused curiosity about those strange paper creatures and won me my first requests for collaborations and earliest exhibitions. Now, I bring my art to schools, theatres, and companies, I collaborate with artists and photographers, and set up fashion shows and events in Italy and abroad, from Sweden to Brazil, from Holland to the United States.
I felt an instinctive call to use my hands and scissors, to transform a mere piece of paper into something else.
I normally design only what I am sure I will be able to create with my hands. I am full of images and imagination but I am also an extremely practical person, an artist and a craftswoman
How did your educational background influence your career?
Although my work started nearly by chance, I certainly approached it under the influence of my classical studies and the subsequent architectural design training. Philosophy and especially Greek literature, with its myths and the dramatic presence of Nature in all things, aroused my imagination and suggested aesthetically intriguing fusions between human and vegetable shapes, as well as sea, astral or animal shapes. My educational training as an architect helped me imagine three-dimensional shapes, paying attention to and pursuing a balance between the whole pattern and the details, the supporting structure and the decorative items, full and empty spaces. It also influences the organisation of my work, helping me harness and restrain toward possible enclosures my sometimes overflowing, delirious imagination which, without that strict discipline, could otherwise be scattered into unreasonable, unattainable outcomes.
When did you realise you would dedicate your whole life to paper?
Very early in my life, maybe unknowingly. I felt an instinctive call to use my hands and scissors, to transform a mere piece of paper into something else. Among my earliest memories, I can recall the butcher’s thick, beige paper, which my mother brought home and I rescued from the dustbin to outline the shape of my hands, which I cut out and applied around the face of a child I had drawn before, to create a sense of depth. Or, my drawing of two small towns separated by a river, but connected by an embossed bridge on paper. Or, the paper feathers hanging from a lady’s hat which I had drawn on cardboard. From then onward, I never abandoned the belief that nearly everything was possible with paper.
What inspires you for your creations?
Everything, the whole world and beyond. The dreams I have, Nature’s beautiful things, like flowers, but ugly things too, like stains and plant pests. Beautiful birds and their feathers, but also bugs, with their nasty husks, wings and legs. Architecture with its decorative details, or city maps and woods viewed from above, and becoming patterns. Eighteenth-century wigs, labyrinths, queens, mosques, musical instruments, planetary systems, an unending world of inspiring elements, changing and merging together to be re-born in new shapes.
How do you develop the concept, design and creation of a piece of work?
It all starts from an image which I have been looking for or has come up as a vision. If a buyer orders a piece of work aimed at representing something specific, that same world shows me how to stage it by looking into its images and contents and reassembling them into a new harmonic object. As for my own creations, I exclusively rely on suggestions and visions which come into my head uninvited. I create sketches, shapes that I then enrich with details, or I start from a detail and build up a whole. I take notes of my thoughts and tips on the kind of paper I could use for different parts. Or, I come up with constructive solutions when I’m dealing with a more complex work, and then go ahead in automatic mode, it’s relaxing.
How do you combine design and craftsmanship in your creations?
They are both crucial and often inseparable. I normally design only what I am sure I will be able to create with my hands. I am full of images and imagination but I am also an extremely practical person, an artist and a craftswoman: finding the right solutions to achieve the result I had anticipated is one of my gifts. The challenge is being able to go as near as possible to the dream, the vision that had come out of my head.
Which is the most unusual work you have created? And the one you love most?
It’s hard to say, whatever I make is a little extravagant! A mandala-like tapestry, made of concentric paper curls, where my cat would always roll up while I was working, inspired me to create a paper cat with a fur coat right in the middle of the tapestry. And, a businessman from Saudi Arabia, who was visiting Milan, bought it! The work I love best is a torso complete with head I named Metropolisa: a city-woman or a woman-city, with buildings and a road encircling a woman’s body. Her skin is a map, a tangle of roads, roundabouts, and causeways. It was made by a four-handed and three-headed team, myself, my fourteen-year old son Thomas, who conceived and designed the whole “town-planning” part of the sculpture and Nicoletta Cicalò, who invented the ironic, fancy street names. Metropolisa is my mascot and I will always keep her with me.
Is there a moment you remember with a particular emotion?
My heart pounding and racing behind the curtain during my first paper clothes’ exhibition for a famous brand of printers: my fear some of the pieces might break or come off while the models were moving around. Then… hand-clapping, and that was it! Or, a very old lady who, after visiting my exhibition in Lucca told me it had been such a great gift and a dream for her that, from that moment onward, she could die a happy woman. Or the congratulations and the strong encouragement of a great Master like Roberto Capucci, inviting me to continue this adventure into beauty and fancy, many years ago. And my trembling hand while signing the book at Triennale MAM - Maestro d'Arte e Mestiere, in spite of the many public situations I had been through: a moving acknowledgement, feeling at one with a family where those who put their talent and heart into the creation of beauty are respected and held in due account as a little big gift from the world, like a flower or a crystal.
Which are your feelings when you are modelling paper?
It is like a sort of meditation, a trance, a pleasant departure from my thoughts and everyday things, a fluid running from my head to my hands and the material to be modelled. Such natural gestures and sensations as are hard to be described.