For three months, artist Jessica Singerman set aside an hour or more nearly every day to hand-fold paper cranes. The end result of that meticulous exercise is “Paper Mountain,” a 13-foot-high, 30-foot-long installation that comprises more than 1,000 of these intricate figures.
It’s part of a new body of work that Singerman will debut in her upcoming exhibit, Beyond the Mountain, which runs through April 26 at the Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art following an opening reception on March 15. Also featuring pieces by abstract landscape painter Martha Armstrong, the show seeks to celebrate the human connection to nature and respond to the changing ways people interact with the outdoor environment.
Singerman, who majored in studio art at The College of William & Mary and received her MFA in painting from the University of Delaware, began incorporating nature into her artwork during a creative rut. As an undergrad, she focused on politically driven figurative work from a feminist perspective, but by graduate school, she had hit a roadblock.
“I didn’t feel like I had a lot to offer with the figure,” says Singerman, who lives in Winston-Salem. “And so I think as a result of that, I started exploring other avenues in my work.”
Like Armstrong, Singerman ultimately found her passion in landscape-based abstraction. After graduate school, she took a job as a cycling guide, leading tours across Europe, Central America and Australia. That adventurous outdoor lifestyle provided experiences that continue to influence and shape her work today.
“I started living on the road a lot, and then when I would get home, I had all these images in my head of all these places I’d been, outdoor places,” Singerman says. “Especially now looking back, I understand that a lot of that was fodder for my imagination. All these outdoor landscapes … you have all these memories of places you go, and all of that goes into my work as an artist. I think about all of these different spaces that I’ve been to.”
“Paper Mountain” marks a departure from painting for Singerman, who says the feeling she wanted to evoke with the project couldn’t be captured on canvas.
“I wanted to create something that was more immersive for viewers in a way that when we go outside, if we’re by a mountain or a big tree, we sense a presence that is bigger than us, and it’s awe-inspiring,” Singerman says. “And so I wanted to make something that would try to do that.”
For Singerman, the main challenge was finding the right kind of paper.
“Because I wanted to make something big, I couldn’t use regular origami paper,” she says. “And the big paper, the tough thing was to find something that wasn’t too thick, because then it doesn’t fold well. And it couldn’t be too flimsy; otherwise, it would just fall over. It had to have some kind of structure.”
Through trial and error, Singerman landed on drawing paper, and from November 14, 2018, through February 12, 2019, she dedicated a portion of each day — aside from three days to attend a painting workshop — to folding the 1,200 paper cranes.
And “Paper Mountain” isn’t the only part of Beyond the Mountain that has moved Singerman out of her artistic comfort zone.
A complementary installation called “Sky Project” includes 75 images of the sky, crowdsourced through Instagram, that will be projected onto the gallery’s walls. The project is a response to the modern-day desire to document much of our lives on social media and how that has altered the way we experience nature.
“I think of people going to places outside to then post about it, which is really interesting,” Singerman says. “In a way, it’s nice that it’s driving people to national parks or to go outside and do stuff. But on the other hand, there are places that are overcrowded now, because they weren’t meant to have so many people visiting them. So there’s a double-edged sword that’s happening with social media and the outdoors. The question I wanted to ask with this project is, can we have pure experiences outside? Can we go outside and be there and not have to filter everything with our phones?”