Justine Kuran is a self-taught paper artist based in Melbourne, Australia. She works full time from her home studio where she works to create contemporary artworks using the ancient art of ‘quilling’ or ‘paper filigree’. In 2018 Justine held her first solo exhibition – Paper Round. She has been fortunate to be commissioned to create gifts for many international guests and local dignitaries including Hollywood legends, Goldie Hawn and Jane Seymour, former Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, three Australian Prime Ministers, Former UK Prime Minister, David Cameron and many more. “I love art that has depth and texture, that draws you in and makes you want to reach out and touch it, or look at it so closely that you leave your nose print on the glass.”
What’s your artistic background?
I have no formal training. When I was at school there was not a lot of emphasis on the visual arts. I think we need to nurture kids in the arts so it doesn’t take a person until their 40’s to realize their potential.
What’s integral to the work of an artist?
Passion first, a thick skin second and finally and most importantly, originality. It takes a long time, if ever, to be an artist that can live off our work. Having the passion to keep going and the thick skin to accept that success comes neither quickly nor easily, is integral. Being original will help you stand out in the ever-growing industry of ‘fast art’.
What role does the artist have in society?
Artists are essential in defining our times and telling our stories. An example is ancient indigenous art; Aboriginals tell stories of their land, survival, meetings and animals through their art. More recently, artists who are using sustainable materials as their medium are telling the story of the Earth and our climate emergency.
What art do you most identify with?
Visually, I love the scale and three-dimensional qualities of art by Ai Weiwei and I am inspired by pop art from artists such as Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Indiana. I collect artworks by NY-based Australian artist Cj Hendry, I adore her quirkiness and audacity.
What themes do you pursue?
Most recently I have been exploring iconic vintage themes. I did a Melbourne and a Sydney vintage tram, and I did an homage to the Bauhaus art movement. I liked the simplicity of the lines, colours and curves. I have also taken inspiration from Aboriginal art, particularly the medicine leaves and the colours of ancient indigenous paintings. While my inspiration comes from anywhere, the running theme is honoring that inspiration with paper.
What’s your favourite artwork?
I was on a trip to NYC quite a few years ago and bought my first real collectors’ piece, it’s called ‘My heart is all aflutter’ by David Kracov. I love that piece and every time I look at it, it reminds me of that amazing trip. Of my own pieces, I recently renovated my house and created two pieces just for me – the first was the Melbourne tram, honouring my adopted city of Melbourne. The second was a huge Koons-inspired pooping balloon dog that I hung in the guest toilet. Art can be whimsical and fun too. I carefully selected all the artwork in my home, and I feel a deep sense of calm and joy when I see it.
Describe a real-life situation that inspired you?
Not surprisingly, the first five months of the pandemic had me at a complete creative loss. I filled my time with cooking, baking, Lego, jigsaw puzzles and colouring-in apps. I found an image in one of those that lit a fire in me and I eventually found my passion again. I was inspired to create, and I became prolific during that time. This was a very good thing given Melbourne had one of the longest lockdowns in the world.
What jobs have you done other than being an artist?
My first job was working in a hospital for animals, cleaning the shit out of kennels. I had never learnt art or felt like I was a particularly creative person, so it wasn’t even a dream I had. I was a nail artist after I left school and then worked in the corporate world for many years until I had kids. When they went to school, I finally had the time and found a medium I could work with.
Because to imagine a world without art is too depressing. No sculptures, no paintings, no music, no theatre? Art is so much more than a painting on a wall. It’s the emotion it inspires, it’s the memories it provokes, it’s the colour in our homes and the stories it tells.
What is an artistic outlook on life?
Personally, I don’t limit art to a sculpture or a painting, its everywhere you look; in the clouds, in music, drama, in the colour of a sunset. Today my sister and I drove past a gorgeous tree with leaves turning autumn orange and had I not known better I could have sworn it was a painting. My ability to see art everywhere around me is infinite.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
I’ve been fortunate to work with organisations that commission me to create artworks as gifts for visiting celebrities and dignitaries. I’ve had beautiful letters of thanks from Prime Ministers and movie stars, but as my children are descendants of holocaust survivors, the proudest I have been was when one of my pieces was purchased by the Sydney Jewish Museum to remain as part of their permanent collection.
What food, drink, song inspires you?
Chicken soup is the penicillin of my people and I make the best matzo balls. Serving and passing down food that has been lovingly made by generations of women in my family enables me to connect to my past, my present and my daughters’ future. I absolutely love loose leaf tea. No tea bags in this house. I grow mint and I have a beautiful collection of tea-ware. I taught my husband how to make me tea and he brings me one to the studio every night. That’s love in a teacup. I adore musical theatre so it’s not unusual for me to have musicals playing in the studio, but when I’m in the kitchen, it’s always Springsteen for me.
Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
I am never lonely when I work, I like being alone, I like the solitude. I have a home studio and while my three 20-something year old daughters, my husband and my dog live there, I’m rarely alone.
What do you dislike about the art world?
There is a real internal struggle for me when it comes to gallery representation. Galleries have the foot traffic to draw art lovers to your work, but hefty gallery commissions, framing, shipping and cost of materials mean there is very little left over once a piece is sold. As someone who can take weeks to create a single artwork, it means I have to either price my work out of the market or be willing to work for less than even a minimum wage. Of course galleries also need to make money, but I genuinely feel that artists are the big losers in these transactions. Art buyers, as much as possible should work directly with artists.
What do you dislike about your work?
There is nothing I particularly dislike, though I’m sure most artists would agree that some art commissions we receive are not pieces we would ordinarily make. I don’t think paper art is as widely regarded as fine art despite there being so many fantastic emerging paper artists, so even though our work is extraordinarily detailed and labour intensive, we aren’t at the stage where remuneration meets skill and labour. Don’t get me wrong, real artists are unlikely to be driven by the almighty dollar and will always create even if they never sell a single piece of work, but when your livelihood depends on selling, you hope to be fairly remunerated.
What do you like about your work?
I am very tactile, so I love the feel of paper, of coming up with unusual colour combinations, and finding new tools or ways to use paper that surprises even me. Unless I am racing to meet a deadline, my work is what calms me. It’s very repetitive and always meditative.
Should art be funded?
What role does arts funding have?
I’m in Sydney right now answering these questions and VIVID (www.vividsydney.com) is on for the month. This interactive and immersive festival of light, sound, food, technology, art and music brings hundreds of thousands of people to the city. Funded by the government, this event gives artists working with so many different mediums opportunities they may otherwise not have, and festival goers have all of their senses heightened by these mostly free events.
What is your dream project?
Despite my mixed feelings about galleries, my dream would be to work with the Eden Gallery in New York. It’s where I bought my David Kracov piece, and their roster of artists are some of my favourite on the planet.
Name three artists you’d like to be compared to.
Honestly, I don’t want to be compared to anyone.
Favourite or most inspirational place ?
My home studio is my own haven in the joyful chaos that is the rest of my life. I cant wait to get there in the mornings and I have to drag myself to bed at night. I love it.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Finding a gallery to host a solo exhibition proved difficult so I found a mentor about 6 years ago who encouraged me to bet on myself. I self-funded my first solo show, though I set prices that weren’t where they needed to be. One art collector who bought one of my pieces had coffee with me and told me that it was imperative that my prices reflect the amount of work I put in. It gave me the confidence to put my prices up and walk into a group gallery with my portfolio and ask to be represented. They took my work straight away. Having people advise you who are in the industry is invaluable.
Professionally, what’s your goal?
To keep innovating and creating as long as it makes me happy.
I just finished my first ‘The Other Art Fair’ in Sydney. I learnt so much, met so many people and am excited for the next one. There must be a first, then we learn and make different decisions for the next time, which I am hoping will be in October. Like me, my art is a work in progress, so stay tuned…