Valerie Rangel, Santa Fe papercut artist and professor of earth science at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, grew up in close proximity to graveyards and knives.
“Maybe this,” says Rangel, who is acutely aware of how interconnected different aspects of her life are, “is really how my interest in papercutting arose. I grew up by a graveyard, and used to cut the spines out of cacti for my mother. My brother and I would throw knives for fun. These early experiences are surely connected to my interest in making artwork by cutting paper as well as the themes that I like to show in that work.”
Rangel started making papercut art in high school as a hobby, using an exacto knife and black paper to create silhouette images from her own sketches.
“I have always been an introvert,” she says. “My friends in high school were all Goths and rejects. Papercutting takes a lot of alone time, and it was a healthy way for me to channel some of my darker energy into something creative and positive.”
After high school, Rangel was showing some of her papercuts to the owner of the restaurant where she worked as a hostess—he thought he could help her find somebody to help her commission her artwork—when she was stopped by a customer. The man was film director and actor Lou Diamond Phillips. The two started chatting, Rangel says, “because he is also native, and an artist.” Phillips told Rangel that he wanted to buy one of her papercuts: an image of a man with his ankles and wrists bound hanging upside down from a tree over a fire. It was the first papercut Rangel had ever made. Six months later, he contacted Rangel to tell her that he had hung the piece in his LA home, and he didn’t ever want her to think that her artwork was trash.”
In 1999, Rangel moved to New Mexico to study the Navajo language, Native American studies, ethics, and green environmental science at UNM.
“I was interested in studying my own heritage, history, culture and language,” says Rangel, “and this was a place where these could all come together with my interest in the natural sciences.”
“My papercuts are all one contiguous piece of paper,” she explains, holding up a cut of the Buddha. “When you hold it up, it all holds together. Nothing is taped or pasted. When I papercut images of the Buddha, or Jesus, or St. Francis, it is about how they are all wise fools—they were all outsiders, who worked for what they believed in—and for me, about how interconnected they are. I have come to realize that art is not just about creating something because you feel like it, it is about finding meaningful images and communicating something.”