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Rising Stars: Meet Rosa Leff

Today we’d like to introduce you to Rosa Leff.

Hi Rosa, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
When I was a kid, my parents always made sure I had whatever art supplies I wanted because they saw my potential. I was always stocked up on oil paints and sable brushes when I was just eight years old. They even helped me lie about my age to take a painting class I desperately wanted to get into despite being several years too young for the cutoff. We mostly lived in rough neighborhoods and I didn’t have any siblings. Art was the best way to keep me occupied and safe inside. I was always making something.

My grandmother made her living as a dancer and then as an oil painter. I spent a lot of time at “camp grandma,” and when she had commissioned to get done, she’d set up a second easel beside her and have me paint too. She was an incredibly tough (but loving) critic and I am much more successful because of it!

In graduate school, we were asked to create children’s books. I was feeling super overworked and decided to take advantage of the chance for some art therapy. I bought my first X-Acto knife on a whim and I was hooked. I immediately felt a potential I had never experienced with any other medium. People responded so positively when they saw my finished book and really encouraged me to pursue my talent. It took several years before I decided to really see if I could make a career of it. I’ve been pursuing this full-time for a year now and so far so good!

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
I announced my resignation from teaching in February 2020, right before the pandemic hit but I finished out the school year with my kiddos. So from March through June, I was teaching kindergarten every day on Zoom (which did not go well) and making a 5×7 almost every single day to stay sane. I was shocked by how supportive people were of my transition into doing art full time and I was getting lots of small sales as people looking for affordable ways to support artists, makers, and small businesses.

Like everyone else, I really missed in-person events but I now have a bigger national network of collectors because people are more open to making large purchases online. I took advantage of the time in isolation to experiment more, to take on more ambitious projects, and to set up Zoom meetings with curators and gallery owners all over the country. I’m just now beginning to meet with those folks in person and seeing what we can make happen, which is super exciting. There are, of course, struggles with papercutting itself. If a cut is something I’m making to challenge myself and it doesn’t work out I cuss a lot, drink a boatload of tequila, and start something new the next day. If it’s a commission, then I have to keep it together and start all over.

Years ago, I did a 16×20” wooded scene. There were all kinds of crazy textures in the bark and I’m really anal about details so I cut it all. I worked way more slowly back then and it was a very intricate piece so the whole thing took me about 80 hours. When I finished, I lifted off my photo layer and immediately realized that the whole thing was just too busy. With all the texture I’d cut, the composition had lost all sense of depth. I will never bother to frame or try to exhibit that work because it’s just not good. But I can’t quite bring myself to toss it either because it represents a lesson learned.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I am best known for my intricate papercut urban landscapes, especially powerlines. Most people who are familiar with papercutting think of silhouettes, very traditional floral motifs, or Mexican Papel Picado. When I started cutting, I didn’t know anyone cutting urban landscapes. I took a deep dive into cutting the poor neighborhoods I grew up in and all the grittier parts of city life. I have a love-hate relationship with cutting tiny bricks. I also enjoy experimenting with novel media by cutting lace patterns into paper towels and china patterns into paper plates.

First I take a photo. Then I crop it, change it to black and white, and (at most) up the contrast a bit. I do all of that in PowerPoint because I am technologically challenged. (Seriously, no millennial has any business being as bad with computers as I am. But, if it works, it’s not stupid!) Then I print it out, tape it onto a piece of 98lb paper, mark off a small border all the way around the image, and use Excel #11 blades to cut through both layers of paper.

As I work, I sometimes stop to draw in connections. For example, I might add an extra powerline dangling down or an extra crack in a sidewalk in order to ensure that everything connects because I need the finished cut to still be one single sheet of paper. I even cut my signature. When I’m done, I trim my edges and toss the printed photo. All that remains is a single sheet of paper with a whole lot of holes in it.

I’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences because of my little knife! I began exhibiting my work in 2016. I’ve participated in more than 40 group exhibitions throughout the US and have been awarded 12 solo exhibitions. The Xianyang Papercutters Association hosts an annual exhibition that rotates between Japan and China every year. In 2019, they invited Americans for the first time. I was one of two to participate. I also love getting to take weekend trips up and down I95 to meet curators and gallery owners. Last week I dropped off work for an exhibition in Raleigh and got to spend a few days checking out the local art scene.

How do you think about happiness?
There’s just something so inexplicably satisfying about the feel of a sharp blade going through the paper. And nothing tops that “big reveal” moment when I pull back my printed stencil layer and get to really see what I’ve made for the first time. I also really enjoy watching people try to understand what a papercut is and trying to wrap their heads around how I’ve done it. I like that I get to help people see things in a whole new way. I also have a deep love of hot sauce, puppies, glitter, and puns.

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