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Rob Ryan's art is a cut above the rest
Best known for his romantic paper cuts, full of trailing vines, star-studded skies and poetic lines, one might expect Rob Ryan to be a creature of whimsy.
But he’s far from it.
“I have a piece of paper and I make less of it,” he says cheerfully of his work, which has featured on the covers of numerous records and novels, in the windows of Liberty and even on a wedding dress.
“You sit there, get Radio 4 on and suddenly the afternoon’s gone and it’s teatime.”
The process is surely a little more complicated than that, I suggest. But he’s not biting.
“It doesn’t take long. You get a knack for it. It’s like knitting. I mean, how do people do that? It’s a line of wool and it becomes a 3D thing.”
Although his background is in fine art (he has an MA in printmaking from the Royal College of Art), it is paper-cutting that has made Ryan’s name. He can’t explain why, but something just clicked.
His work became more accessible; he started getting commissions from Vogue.
Now his work is in demand all over the globe.
When we speak, he’s working on a Christmas project for a client in Japan, ideas for a book trilogy to be launched next autumn and work for Charleston farmhouse – the reason for our conversation.
He was approached by Charleston, the historic home of the Bloomsbury group, after exhibiting painted ceramics at an exhibition in Staffordshire. He has always loved Staffordshire figurines and wanted to produce a tribute to a decimated industry, so he found a place willing to make up “blanks”
for him and did just that.
“It’s not real pottery,”
he adds, “it’s more like colouring in. They probably looked at it and thought it was more insult than tribute but there you go.”
It’s a mixture of ceramics and paper cuts that he will display at Charleston – a place he has long admired for its walls, furniture and fireplaces, hand-painted by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.
“I’m not saying I went to Charleston and ‘did a Charleston’ but I was definitely… I could feel the spirit of the place.
When you’re handpainting ceramics, it’s quite hard not to make a Charleston mark anyway. It’s quite painterly.”
While clearly a different proposition to his paper cuts, the ceramics are very obviously Ryan – poignant, witty and incredibly beautiful.
“I slowly feel life leaving me behind” trails across a sea-green plate; a drawing of a figure playing Poohsticks on a bridge adorns an urn, while two ceramic cats appear to be in conversation.
“I miss being a kitten. Why can’t things just stay the same?” reads a line on one.
“Life is all about change and as such… embrace it!” counters its partner.
The theme of loss seems close to Ryan’s heart – his paper cuts have featured lines such as “No minute ever comes back” and his first book This Is For You is shot through with yearning. Do the two cats represent his feelings?
“Oh yeah, I do miss being a kitten!” he laughs. “Now I’m a big pussy cat. I miss my ball of wool!”
Words are integral to his work, but it took a long time for him to make peace with that. Earlier in his career, he set himself the challenge of banishing words from his screen prints but they kept creeping back in. Paper cuts offered a happy balance.
“By doing a simple silhouette it put the words and pictures on an equal standing.”
Ryan carries little notebooks with him to jot down ideas and phrases – people often mistake his lines for lyrics from songs. But he’s quick to dismiss any notion that he might have literary talent.
“I’d never consider myself a writer by any means. I just like trying to evoke a feeling with pictures and words.
I love William Blake and the way he used to work the two together.”
He likes the restrictions of paper cutting, the way the design is dictated to a certain extent by the need for everything to be joined together.
“I think it’s the OCD in me. I like that all the ends tie up neatly. Basically you’re making an ordered world in a world that’s disordered.”
It’s a slightly surprising to outlook, given the romantic feel of his creations.
“Well, maybe love and romance is just a need for neatness and order?” he suggests. “Two people are more symmetrical… or something.”
Ryan spent his childhood mainly amusing himself.
Born in Cyprus in 1962, his father was a mess officer with the RAF, working behind the bar on numerous bases around the three brothers, he spent most of his free time drawing imaginary pop groups and cartoons, often on the white card his dad would give him from inside his new shirts.
As a teenager, he got a place to study art at Trent Polytechnic, where he was so dedicated he would come in at weekends to work more.
He remains a hard worker.
“I do keep myself fairly busy, but just because I love my job and my work. I’m lucky to be able to do what I love best in the world. I mean, I don’t always have a good time – I’ll be gnashing my teeth sometimes – but generally that’s the case.”
One gets the sense there are a few downsides to being well-known for one form, however. Ryan enthuses about ceramics as a chance to revisit a looser, earlier way of working.
“I put layers on, scratch away at them and then fire them in between. Each piece is worked on over a longer period of time. I’m just enjoying myself really. I’ve ended up doing products and textile design and illustration and people often think I’m a designer but I come from a fine art background and I do really like getting my own way and just doing what I want to do.”
His books are part of that need to do things for the sake of doing them. He describes the trilogy he is working on as “a children’s story in three parts…but not really just for children. I don’t think a good story needs to be aimed at any age in particular.”
The books will be mixed medium – “Not just paper cut but more collage-y and maybe even a bit more paint-y.”
He has produced three books already; the most recent, A Sky Full Of Kindness, tells the story of two birds about to become parents for the first time and examines the intense and contradictory nature of unconditional love.
“I thought it was OK but I think I have a better story in me somewhere. I’m determined to nail it. You do something and you think, ‘That was OK… but I can knit a better jumper than that.’”
* The Rob Ryan Exhibition takes place at The Charleston Gallery at Charleston, near Firle, from July 20-September 2.
Entry is free. Visit www.charleston.org.uk or call 01323 811626