Imagine a frame lit by soft yellow light. A giant with lanky hands stands in the background, throwing a skateboard in the air. In the foreground is the skyline of New York — the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. The frame is completed with a raging river at the bottom, and puffy clouds closing on top. Move in closer and you realise that the frame is, in fact, a 3D installation made entirely out of paper. The sheets are layered and back-lit with an LED bulb.
This is the signature style of Mumbai-based artists Hari Panicker (36), a former graphic designer with MTV, and Deepti Nair (35), an IT professional. Having pursued their individual careers for a few years, the desire to work together took the couple to Denver, where their journey in paper art began. Today, their 3D paper installations have earned them 50,000 followers across social media platforms.
Last month, a short video documenting their process of installing their creations got featured by the main Instagram handles. It got 64,600 likes.
Hari Panicker and Deepti Nair (@harianddeepti) create extraordinary worlds out of the humblest of materials: paper. The married couple, who split their time between their native Mumbai, India, and Denver, Colorado, have collaborated in paper art for six years, creating pieces that feel like the heir of Balinese shadow puppets. "I’m a graphic designer by profession," Hari says, "which is more structured. She [Deepti] paints; she’s more organic in her process. Paper is one medium where we can merge." When asked if they ever disagree, they both laugh. "I think she’s a very tough critic, but that’s good," Hari explains. "The final outcome is really more magical." They may fight now and again, but the couple tends to be inspired by the same things: "We look at something and immediately visualize it in layers." The most exciting part of the process comes at the end when they finally light the piece. "That’s when what we’ve been working on is revealed," Deepti says. Video by @harianddeepti
To put it in simple terms, a paper art installation uses a shadow box — a wooden box that provides depth to the work, giving it a 3D illusion. It is made using a sheet of cut paper placed in front of each other, and lit using flexible LED strip lights. But why paper? “Paper demands the attention of the artist while it provides the softness they need to mould it into something beautiful,” says Panicker.
The couple started out experimenting with the medium in 2010. “In 2011, we were invited for a local auction in Denver. We had no art material except for sheets and sheets of paper. Overnight, we created an installation called Orange Lotus. The piece sold out and we were offered our first solo show in Denver,” recalls Nair.
But how does one convert a flat image into a layered installation? “We start by sketching an image on multiple translucent sheets, and combine it into one complete image. Then we decide who carves which part of the image. Once all the elements are carved, we assemble the individual pieces,” explains Panicker.
The duo’s biggest installation has been the one they made in 2015 for the American Institute of Graphic Arts, in New York. Standing six feet tall, the final piece was made of 22 layers.
Bring the story to life
The laborious process involved in carving multiple sheets of paper is offset by the chance to tell stories. “The imaginative aspect of storytelling has always attracted us — it offers a certain glimpse into human nature,” says Panicker.
Fittingly, the duo’s artwork has sought inspiration from the mystical lands of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to the Rabbit in the Moon, a mythical tale from Aztec folklore. In fact, the piece inspired by the latter was commissioned by actor Neil Patrick Harris, and features his family on a boat. It is titled The Magician’s Hat.
However, it’s the stories based on real-life experiences that Panicker and Nair look forward to the most. For instance, an installation titled The Lone Warrior depicts a man surrounded by a multi-layered fire diorama. In the foreground stands a wolf. “It is my favourite pieces. I made it when my father was diagnosed with cancer. It depicts inner strength,” says Panicker.
The couple even received an email from a fan whose story resonated with theirs. “She said that the installation reminded her of her own mother’s struggle with cancer, and it spoke to her profoundly,” says Deepti, adding, “It’s comforting to know that our art is making a difference out there.”
Visit blackbookgallery.com/artists/hari-deepti to preview their paper art collection and shop