Papier Mache Artist

Juanita Humphris has been working with Papier Mache  for 19 years and lives in deepest West Wales. She is an artist of considerable talent whose development has been rocked by  circumstance

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Having worked for 14 years in London, Juanita followed her sister and parents back to Wales and bought a  village house and two acres in Capel Dewi in Ceredigion    Her partner worked in computers in South East England so they had a second income stream . Most office jobs in Wales required Welsh which Juanita didn’t have, so she needed to start-up on her own . At college she  studied maths, physics and economics but came from an artistic family.

“My parents’ view was you don’t have to worry about studying art, you will do it if you are drawn to it.”

Working in Papier Mache was more or less accidental

“The village knew I had one of those log making machines so bought me newspapers. I got a couple of books on Papier Mache and from there I made it up. It all depends on what you are making, you soon realise that anything goes.”

In the early 90s she started making her first products and sold in local craft fairs, she did a trade show but realised that mass production didn’t please her. Craft fairs always accepted her and  gallery exhibitions gave her self belief.

Her partner had a heart attack and so joined her in Wales. He helped in the business doing the initial white coat of emulsion on pieces,  the computer work and the deliveries. He had a work pension and the business  was viable. Then they had a blow which changed things from being difficult, to being almost insupportable. Her partner became really ill and needed care. He could no longer help with things which  meant that  Juanita had to fight to manage everyday for eight years. Two years ago he died and she is now emerging from that shadow.

All this is personal, but for any craftsman or artist their ability to create is affected by what happens  in their  life. More crucially anyone’s ability to judge  their own  work is fragile and under stress it can become impossible.

Over the years Juanita has produced a huge range of pieces much of it made to sell to visitors rather than collectors. You can see the fashions come and go flowers; angels; sea creatures and kitchen plaques. Then the humorous pieces: the dressed animals; the surreal  clocks; the  furniture as animals.

To be honest much of it is now seems not that exciting. However there are some wonderful pieces of a completely different order, ones that get down to the  essence of the animal she is portraying with some stupendous textures and a real mastery of material. These works tend to date from the period just before her partner became really ill or are current. Yet Juanita said “I respect the whole body of my work”

I bought a piece from Juanita and commissioned another. I bought this cockerel, it has attitude and vigor  and technically it stands with perfect balance and just look at the wonder of those tail feathers.

Juanita said that what she really likes is  construction

“Painting can bug it up”

You can see that her painting is more hesitant and sometimes reduces something of real artistic merit. Look for example at these two pieces, the fox which is unfinished against the polar bear which is painted.

The fox Juanita, laughingly called him the “Spirit Fox”, is gaining lots from his texture, it’s as if the newspaper glimpsed through the tissue paper is his muscle straining through his taut skin, it’s an accident of his creation but its magical. The polar bear  is well crafted but he has become a toy zoo animal with  dots for eyes and nose. The fox is art, the polar bear is craft. Importantly they can carry utterly different price tags. The fox much higher although paradoxically he will have taken fewer stages to create.

Another factor which I think is important is that there has been very little connection between Juanita’s personal style and her work, only now are they  drawing closer together. She has strong personal style; her dress, her interiors and her garden all express a gentle aesthetic.

This is her kitchen where she works, it is calm, deeply timeless with a whimsical Gothic note, but much of her past work is noisy and boisterous ephemeral.

At the moment Juanita is earning a terrifyingly small amount of money £5000 a year. She has used her partner’s insurance to pay for capital projects such as paying off the mortgage but even so nobody can manage on such a tiny income however simply they live. Yes she can grow her own food but imagine the petrol costs. The reality made me feel ashamed

“Each tea bag needs to do two cups of tea, I ran out of black peppercorns and thought well I can do without”

However she has a good way of selling she belongs to the Pembrokeshire Craft Makers who run a full calendar of exhibitions for their members.

“It costs about £70 a year and you pay per show, about £20 a week with 12% commission on each sale  You have to go and set your own things up and take them down at the end and take your turn one day a week to sit and take the money for the whole show”

What is useful about this arrangement is the shows are relatively local and it saves on admin and being locked into a show all week unable to make. It also gives a useful overview of what is selling, prices and the companionship of other makers. It would be terribly easy to test the water for different aspects of her work, she could do a tourist orientated show one week and a grandly priced fine piece one  the next.

I think Juanita’s real huddle is getting sufficient distance from her work to reassess and to not over finish pieces. To notice what happens under her hands and to exploit texture and material without assuming that it must end up painted and varnished.

She is a fabulous maker with an inherent understanding of how to balance pieces. She sits at her kitchen table and makes something out of nothing beginning with crunched paper and masking tape or a chicken wire frame. She works with pulp as well, mixed in her baker’s dough mixer adding wallpaper paste soaked newspaper,  linseed oil  and PVA  She said the Victorians would add garlic to keep the insects away from eating the animal glue.

 In many ways Juanita is on the winning stretch. She has a house, land and outbuildings in a place where she wants to be.  She also has a huge knowledge of her craft, she can think through almost any technical challenge and work out how she can achieve what she wants. She has hardly any web presence but she has a good way of reaching buyers and has established buyers and commission work.

Like almost every other crafts person she under sells her work. The polar bear pictured earlier is tagged at £18 but he would have taken 3 to 4 hours work yet  she told me she charged £12 an hour This financial  disconnect  is one of the reasons she is earning so little. The reality is that she is valuing a day’s work at £36  and from that she must take her costs. If she doubles the price and sells half as many she would get the same income as she does at the moment and have 50% more time to make more pieces. She is not charging £12 an hour at all,  this little polar bear shows she is charging £4.50 That means no more peppercorns – ever.

But I still think that in a couple of years time I will not be able to buy her work as it will be beyond my means. She is a considerable artist attuned to her environment. The important stepping-stones are in place, all she needs to do now is respect her own abilities and really indulge in making what utterly pleases her. She has at last arrived at that point when a good craftsman becomes an artist. She just needs self belief.

Hours worked 35 to 40 hours a week  Earns £5000 a year

7 thoughts on “Papier Mache Artist

  1. Christopher LeFay says:

    Good journalism- asking the tough question. The summation of future development seems a bit wishful- the leap beyond scant sustenance to thriving is a long one. The question of what needs be for that to happen is not only worth pursuing, but is the very crux of the article -and this whole noble undertaking.

    Perhaps a mentoring system would be efficacious- those who have judiciously made tough decisions by hard won experience lending what they know to elevate those who are struggling. Create a pool of artist in need of mentors that veterans can choose from and codified terms- such as when and how the relationship is sustained, financial interest etc.

    BTW: A fair portion of the images are missing.

    Thanks for your work.

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