ST. PETERSBURG — Patsie McCandless is passionate about paper. The colors, varieties and textures of paper in her home studio reveal this is paper with a difference.
"Look how gorgeous this is," said the paper artist, holding up a sheet of gold-embossed red paper. "It's almost as if you can hang this piece of paper by itself, it is that beautiful."
McCandless, a former watercolor artist who moved from Dunedin to St. Petersburg this year, turned to paper art in 2000 after her daughter brought home a gift of exquisite paper she was given in Japan.
Now McCandless creates not only eye-catching wall hangings but paper lamps and paper clothing, such as the colorful vest she wore one recent morning.
On one wall of her small studio, sheets of paper are folded over racks that extend from floor to ceiling. In the center of the room, a work surface rests on a low cabinet with long, wide drawers, each filled with delicate sheets of paper arranged by color. Included are marbled papers from Italy and Thailand and papers with bamboo splints from India.
"The soft papers come from Japan, India and Nepal," she said. "I'm a stickler for vegetable-dyed paper with fine textures."
McCandless buys from a paper importing company in New York, which offers four floors of delicate, colorful papers, many of them handmade. Some of the folded sheets in her studio are as soft as gossamer and others as lacy as Swiss cheese. To some paper, strips of bamboo or hemp or even mashed cow dung have been added.
"In the Pacific Rim, 90 percent of the papers are made from a type of mulberry tree called kozo," she said. "The bark is stripped, mashed and put in a vat of water with a chemical that keeps the bark from clumping."
A framed screen is inserted into the water, allowing the paper pulp to gather on the screen and form a layer of paper when the screen is turned over. Paper producers sometimes add other items, McCandless said, such as silk threads or marigold leaves. Some papers, the lacy ones, result from "water-forced" designs, where water has been forced through designated areas on the paper.
McCandless, a native of Jamestown, R.I., retired to Dunedin with her husband, Tom, in 2007. The couple moved to St. Petersburg this year, and on the walls of their new Snell Isle home hang the fruits of her labor in handmade frames. A flock of white paper egrets takes off against a blue sky. Silken pink water lilies float amid green lily pads on a lightly ruffled pond. These works of art, made exclusively from layers of paper affixed with archival glue to paper backgrounds, contain no ink or paint.
On one narrow wall hangs a sparkly black, red and silver figure of Sweeney Todd, the villainous subject of Stephen Sondheim's musical. The murderous barber's body is covered with black paper crows. McCandless created this work for the St. Petersburg Opera Company's rendition, performed in early October at the Palladium Theater.
"I tried to show Sweeney Todd being devoured by his obsessions," said the artist.
From start to finish, creating a work of paper art is arduous. McCandless draws her design on a piece of tracing paper. She then decides which elements of her drawing to keep — a selection that could take days — and transfers those elements onto the art paper. A nearby computer holds all of her images so she can make desired changes on the screen.
Once the final choices are made, out come tiny scissors, archival glue, a fine watercolor brush and strips of foam covered with laminate for three-dimensional pieces. The pieces of design are glued to sheets of Umbria or kozo paper, carefully chosen for background color and effect. The final product is sprayed with Krylon, a UV-resistant coating.
McCandless' work can be seen at a variety of venues. She has contributed pieces to silent auctions held at the Palladium and as fundraisers for the St. Petersburg Opera Company. She is working on a piece for the opera company's Dec. 18 holiday event called "Seasonal Sparkle."
Other works are on exhibit at the Bright House corporate complex in Clearwater, the Unitarian Universalists in Clearwater and Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.
Two years ago McCandless tried her hand at miniature paper art and has already won several "best of show" awards, including one this past July at Nags Head, N.C.
Others were displayed at the International Miniature Art Show at the Dunedin Museum of Fine Arts.
McCandless has visions of her own exhibition space.
"My goal is to have my own gallery somewhere in the Tampa Bay area," she said.
Committed to perfecting her craft and exploring new angles of it, she quotes a line from the wall of the [email protected] in St. Petersburg: "The answer is always yes."
Those words on the wall of the center for visual and performance arts resonate with her.
"To me it means saying 'yes' to the creative spirit, and that is what I want to do."
Contact Elaine Markowitz at [email protected]