Parkside Gallery talks to Sara Kulman about making, materials, working with her husband and her current exhibition.
Artist Sara Kulman makes up one half of the team behind Brummagem: Lost City Found. Her unconventional route to becoming an artist (is there ever a conventional route?) brings a refreshing take on processes and materials.
I caught up with Sara to discuss her exhibition and fascinating approach to making objects.
Chris Ansell: Your exhibition, Brummagem: Lost City Found, draws on Birmingham and its brutalist architecture. Have you always felt a connection to the city?
Sara Kulman: I grew up in the suburbs in the 60s and 70s so Birmingham was always an exciting place to visit. I would go to the eye hospital, go shopping in Lewis’s then be driven through the Queensway to visit relatives. I always loved the journey.
When I got home I’d use my brother’s construction toys to recreate and reinvent my own functional but fun buildings and structures, my own city.
Recently, I’ve been discovering more about Birmingham and its architectural history but it will always be my memories and my love of the shapes, colours and textures of the city that inspire me.
CA: You have a specific pallet of materials and manage to transform simple pieces of paper into striking 2D and 3D works. How do you choose the materials that you use?
SK: I’ve always loved making things and always loved paper.
As a child paper was cheap and always to hand. I had an elderly neighbour who made paper sculpture for the WI. I think that she inspired me from early age to I think about the possibilities that paper holds. My parents were always very encouraging too.
I worked as a paper conservator at the British Library, conserving and binding books and manuscripts. Papers hold their own histories. Each paper would come with a unique set of skills that was used to create them. This inspired me to start learning about these processes.
I also started collecting paper at this point, back in the 80s, so I have a large stock now to select from. Though, increasingly, it is becoming more difficult to find different papers on the high street and this limits my choices.
Paper is a fascinating material, and the more time I spend with it the more addictive it becomes. Sometimes, I choose the materials based on the desired outcomes. Sometimes, they choose me, their colours, textures and properties challenging me to think of a purpose.
CA: How do you approach making a piece of work? Are there any techniques or processes that you use?
SK: It always starts as an idea in my head – I rarely draw or sketch an idea.
Then the work is in the hands of the paper that I’m using. Some ideas are difficult to realise and you really have to work with the material. Paper can be frustrating, it doesn’t always perform; it might fold one way but not another, it might cut cleanly but equally it might pull and tear.
A lot of papers I use are one-offs so I make a lot of maquettes using rough scraps before starting the final piece. I spend a long time fine turning and I’m quite precise. It takes courage to commit to cutting and folding when it’s your only sheet.
The paper also affects the scale of the work. My work is normally quite small, partly due to the size of the chosen paper. Vintage papers, for example, tend to be small in size. But also, I don’t have a studio, just my living room, so I can’t make work that’s too big.
When attaching paper I try not to use glue, it can be hard to use and the final effect can be disappointing. I prefer to use other methods, like sewing, a throwback to my bookbinding days at the British Library, and weaving, which gives the paper a fabric like quality.
Well thought out folds and origami are good ways of producing structures that need no glue and that can support themselves.
CA: This is a joint show where you and your husband [Professor Andrew Kulman] are both exhibiting work. How did the show come about?
SK: We last did a show together 33 years ago at the Solihull Library Theatre [now The Core] after we both graduated.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Andrew working in Birmingham, and we’ve just moved to the city centre, so it felt like the perfect opportunity to collaborate and celebrate with an exhibition.
CA: The exhibition also includes work by your son: is art in the family?
SK: Yes, it is really. We have three children, one works in the film and TV industry and another is in fashion marketing. Noah, our youngest is studying art at college and has a few pieces in the show. We always thought he’d be the doctor of the family [chuckles].
Noah helps Andrew make prints and he’s really taken to it and shows a real talent. I think he sees it as the avenue that he’d like to pursue.
Both lads [Noah Kulman and Lewis Moulton who also has a piece in the exhibition] had made excellent work that related to the theme of the exhibition and it seemed right to include them. It’s nice to show how brutalist architecture and the city is inspiring a younger generation.