The Paper Hurricane: Part 1
Have you seen the Paper Hurricane that flies alongside Spitfire RW388 in the Spitfire Gallery? Artist Suhail Shaikh takes us through the epic journey of the sculpture’s creation. In this first installment, Suhail explains his background and how he came to merge his love of aviation with his paper-based artist practice.
Suhail Shaikh, 2021
A few years ago as 2020 approached I wanted to build a paper sculpture that would mark the 80th commemoration of the Battle of Britain. And as I was wrestling between several inspirations I recieved two commissions one after the other, to build a Hawker Hurricane and a Supermarine Spitfire, both the same scale, but with very different expressions and techniques. The timing of these commissions was perfect, the scope of the projects a huge challenge which is what made them terribly interesting and ‘firsts’. Most importantly, the humbling feeling of being entrusted with a project of this importance and scale left me with a deep sense of gratitude and the motivation to go beyond the expectations and give the absolute best of myself.
I thank the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery for placing their trust in me and not only giving me the opportunity to be a part of a very important event but also the opportunity to realise a once-in-a-lifetime very personal project…which was realised when for a few months I had the sheer joy of having a Hurricane and a Spitfire in my workshop. I spent quite a few long hours just staring at them together. What a treat!
Aviation is my passion, with a special fondness for British aviation achievements, the RAF and especially the period of transformation of WW2 where many changes took place simultaneously at different levels, be they technical, social, economical and much more.
As an artist, my work will now and again draw inspiration from wings, lightness, air, fragility. My meduim of expression is essentially paper. How did that come about?
My grandmother, who lived through the ‘frugal’ years of the 30’s and 40’s of the last century encouraged me to build my own toys with whatever was on hand. Be they bits of cardboard, bottle-caps or toothpicks – everything could have a second function and represent something. Paper was and is easily available, inexpensive and requires little by way of tools and fasteners to cut, fold and hold together. My hands and eyes co-ordinated from early on to build in 3D and I quickly learned that all shapes can be broken down into some basic shapes like cubes, cylinders, cones and spheres. As the wonder of aircraft impressed me more and more as a child I began replicating their shapes the best I could, taking cues from photographs in magazines and books that I could lay my hands on as the internet was non-existent in those days, a good 40 plus years ago.
Aircraft modelling in paper from scratch became a more of a challenge and quest than a hobby.
During my years as an Industrial Design student and later as a professional Product Designer, paper remained my choice of material for mockups and in some cases prototypes.
After 20 years in the industry in various design roles I felt I needed to step further than the design-production-client-market formula and see what I myself was capable of, independantly. I took a deep breath and quit, practically everything to start afresh. Moved out of the city and an apartment to the country and workshop space with living space ( in that order). The proximity to nature and the seasons along with a different sense of time and rhythm was essential. And with the exciting and scary feeling of free-falling off a cliff-face that uncertainty brings was the big question – now what shall I do?
I wished to connect back to the simplicity of my childhood and the obvious answer popped to my mind – paper. I wanted to work with just paper and see what I could do, free of all expectations. Play-time again, like a child.
Very quickly I became clear about the ‘language of expresion’ I wanted to employ. White paper – because it has a simple, pure and light feeling to it, because with light and shade it shows off not only it’s shape the best but also it’s texture and most importantly, the artwork in white paper shows the material of construction in it’s natural state, so the entire ‘journey’ from idea to finished work is visible at every moment.
Cutting, folding and glueing to create volume, with a scalpel for precision. White glue to bind. Sometimes I draw the shapes when precision is necessary and sometimes I ‘draw’ with the scalpel and go in free-hand.
I don’t always have a clear idea of what I want the final artwork to look like and the scalpel at times has a life of it’s own, with me following behind it, accompanying it. This is a state of mind or creation or work that’s hard to explain, but believe me, it does happen and it is strange and wonderful and there is a feeling of trust, that the scalpel will know when to stop, as long as I don’t try and reign it in or push it along.
I do make mistakes and if they can be repaired I do, otherwise, I have to start again.
I use different thicknesses of paper from tracing paper to card-board and often glue several plys together to make really rigid structures to take cantilevered loads. Getting the right balance between weight and stiffness so that they work together and not cancel each other out is a real design exercise where the material dictates the terms.
There are times I work in silence when I really need to concentrate on what I am doing. It isn’t really silent because the sound of the scalpel cutting through paper is like a sigh and my focus and concentration is on the grain, the fiber, the degree of bend and fold of paper as I work with it.
And there are times when I need music when I am doing repetitive work.
The most important element is Time. There is a time to start, when inspiration is here and now. I cannot rush it or I feel I am missing out on a vital experience and I cannot slow down or I feel like it will slip away. I have to make do between deadline responsibilities and plan well and everything has worked out quite well so far. Time is what the artwork holds when one looks at it. It’s all about the hours and hours spent putting it together. That is where the value lies.
The Hurricane took me 3000 hours to build over 14 months. That is quite mental, but to me it didn’t seem long, it felt intense – a journey of many events, many twists and turns, full and quite exciting, far from boring or slow.