The daily commute to his attic studio is short and steep. The road to success for Canadian artist Calvin Nicholls has been much longer. He’s spent the last 30 years perfecting an unusual art form that is all about light, shadow, shape—and illusion. Nicholls is a paper sculptor who creates fantastically detailed birds and other animals that seem to leap, lean, or flutter straight out of their frames. His career evolved from drawing, model-making, sculpting, photography, and periodic doses of serendipity.
“It’s so clear in my mind—it was 1983,” says Nicholls. “I had my own graphic design studio in Toronto. I met a fellow who was manipulating paper to produce areas of highlight and shadow to create the feeling of depth in two dimensions. We worked on a restaurant menu concept together and I could see the potential in this technique. I got playing with paper sculpture myself and it was just so much fun.”
At first, Nicholls created his sculptures as a method for creating his final product, a photograph that could surprise viewers by seeming three dimensional. The technique turned out to be a hit when Nicholls introduced it to some of his clients. He showed photographic prints of his work in an art show in Ontario in 1990, but he also wound up selling sculptures of a Snowy Owl and Mallard as well.
“I was focused on the prints and trying to make two dimensions look like three,” Nicholls says. “Then clients would say, so where’s the artwork? And I thought, yikes—I never even thought about displaying the artwork! I still marvel that I didn’t know then that the original artwork could be as interesting as the illusion created in the prints with sophisticated studio lighting.”
Switching focus to the original artwork meant reducing the depth of his sculptures so they could be framed and so the jumble of foam core supports and toothpicks underneath didn’t show when the piece was viewed from an angle. It took a lot of time and experimentation. But the end result is an uncanny illusion of depth from layers of paper that are only about an inch thick.
A series of 75 commissioned sculptures for Follett Library Resources near Chicago provided steady income during the years he and his wife Anne raised their three children. Completed over 16 years, the collection is breathtaking. Eagles pounce. A lynx leaps. A hedgehog huddles and ducklings dabble.
“One strong characteristic of my work is realistic detail,” Nicholls explains. “I feel really, really motivated to get as much detail as I can in fur and feathers to set my work apart. Birds are perfect subjects because of the layering of their feathers. I’m most often asked to do birds or some aspect of nature. I feel like some of the best examples of what I do are birds, though my most recent work sparked a new enthusiasm for working in a much larger format on both birds and mammals.”
Fate stepped in again when a client and art collector came across Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds, a 2012 book by Cornell Lab scientist Ed Scholes and wildlife photojournalist Tim Laman. The book features spectacular photos of all 39 bird-of-paradise species known at the time (number 40 was described in 2018). Scholes and Laman studied, photographed, and videotaped them all during more than a decade of rugged expeditions to New Guinea.