'We Are All Witches: Papier mache at Images Cinema

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Jana Christy is a prolific children's book illustrator, but a different artistic form — papier mache — often consumes much of her time and space in her North Adams home.

"I have to make myself stop," Christy said of creating papier mache figures, some of which now occupy an Images Cinema exhibit, "We Are All Witches," that runs through the end of December.

With past clients including Disney, Penguin Random House and Candlewick Press, Christy has had plenty of illustration assignments over her 20-plus year career to occupy her days. She also frequently collaborates with her husband, writer John Seven, on projects. Yet, about two years ago, she realized that drawing wasn't enough for her anymore.

"I come up with a lot of characters that I just don't have time to turn into books and ask John to turn into books, so I started creating some really simple ones just with wire, some fabric," she said.

That structure didn't quite satisfy her, so she researched how to make the characters in other mediums. She came across some papier-mache artists' work and began experimenting with papier mache figures.

"That's when they started kind of taking over my living space. ... I get very obsessive when I start," the Rochester, N.Y., native said. "It's like I can't really do anything else."

An art form with Eastern roots and strong ties to Europe since the 1800s, papier mache can require as little as a few pieces of paper and an adhesive to bind them together. For many of Christy's figures, she only uses flour, water and paper.

"I do it old-school. There are fancy papier-mache products that you can get ... that's what most papier-mache sculptors use [today]," she said.

A figure can take weeks to make because each layer of paper requires drying. During those waiting periods, the pieces evolve in Christy's mind, changing shape and personality.

"They often started as very happy whimsical creatures, and then they turn into things that look a little more ominous," she said.

The first figure that Images patrons encounter upon entering the lobby would certainly qualify as menacing to some. A large black crow faces the ticket counter on the other side of the hall, his body draped in different fabrics that Christy pulls from bins, ripping and stitching when appropriate. The only visible paper on the crow is on his beak, which directs visitors' eyes toward a pale female figure to his left.

"She looked lonely on my wall. I knew she needed a companion," Christy said of the pairing.

The artist, whose love for crows informs multiple figures in the show, doesn't agree with the impression that the tall bird is frightening.

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"At the [Dec. 1 opening] reception, people are like, 'Yeah, he's kind of scary,' [but] not to me. I look at him as sort of her protector. And he was really hard to part with when he was hung here," Christy said.

At roughly a few feet tall, both the crow and the female figure represent Christy's recent fascination with scale. She has also made a five-foot cat, but she couldn't fit the "family mascot" in this exhibit.

"I was trying to play with, how big can I actually make a doll? And that's a challenge not only because our house isn't that big — I would happily fill it up with life-sized papier-mache dolls to the dismay of my family — but I thought, 'You know, I don't actually need to [create] the whole thing. I'm just going to do my favorite part, which is really the torso and work with the face. I'm just going to concentrate on that,'" Christy recalled.

Progressing down the hall is a walk back through Christy's development in the art form, with the figures typically increasing in age and decreasing in size from front to back (an exception being the massive face and crane waiting at the end). Their final layers are often antique papers.

"When I was making the first ones that were fully painted, it really — I kind of missed being able to see the paper," she said.

One figure includes parts of pages from a 1940s fashion magazine. The words on them are in Portuguese.

"There [are] some papier mache artists that will use paper very intentionally and let paper show through, and it will reflect what the art is, and I like that it doesn't [in this case]," Christy said, noting that she has "no idea" what the words say.

The artist incorporates her garden at times, adding, for example, roots, berries and flowers to an early figure. Frames and wired joints affect the sculptures' positioning. String suspends one larger figure close to the exhibit's beginning. The character holds a key that Christy brought home from Budapest.

"When we were in Budapest a couple of years ago, there's a bar that's filled with marionettes, and I loved the way that space felt, about how completely different that felt from any other space that I'd been in. It just felt very alive and really lovely," Christy said of one of her major influences.

At Images, Christy's sculptures have been noticed on a wall usually reserved for paintings and photographs. She would know; her son, Hugo, works at the cinema and relays customers' feedback to her.

"People are very surprised by it, which is good, and they either say that they really like it or they think it's really creepy. And I'm good with any of that," Christy said.

She hasn't been creating them for public display.

"I'm really just making them for myself," Christy said. "I had a realization that I could just fill my personal space with things that I wanted to see, so that's what I did."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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