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Highlands Art Teacher Opens New Exhibit at NKU, Explores Versatility of Paper

This week Highlands High School art teacher Kristine Donnelly adds Northern Kentucky University’s Main Gallery to a list of solo exhibits that includes the Taft Museum of Art, 21c Museum Hotel, and University of Cincinnati galleries.

Supplying the Void, Works on paper by Kristine Donnelly opens Thursday and continues through March 4. “Works on paper” understates Donnelly’s art -- inspired by historical ornament and pattern, Donnelly creates large-scale cut paper sculptures and installations suggesting wallpaper and lace.

Her work is painstaking and labor intensive. Donnelly walked RCN through the creation of Cover up, pictured above. It’s made of 18 rolls of cream drawing paper, ranging in length from 8 to 30 ft. with an abstract red pattern screen printed on one side.  

“When I was making Cover up I was thinking a lot about the function and psychology behind interior direction, especially wallpaper,” Donnelly explains. “How when wallpaper was invented it could quickly and economically assign a mood to a space.  

“How interior decoration/ drapery/wallpaper is meant to be pretty to look at, but also fade into the background.  It shouldn’t catch your eye too much or be a distraction. It shouldn’t be ‘loud’. I wanted to make an installation piece where parts of it blended in to the wall and other parts were hidden from the viewer.”

Donnelly rolled and pinned the paper to the wall with the red ink facing backwards. “The ink is hidden from the viewer and merely suggests there is more to be seen by the faint glow of pink reflected onto the wall.”

Labor intensive? “The piece took about a six months to make. I can cut a square foot in about an hour.”

NKU gallery director David Knight observes, “The repetitive motion, the choreographed act of cutting and printing the pattern is both meditative and obsessive… Rather than hiding or preserving its fragility, Donnelly’s work tests the tolerance of paper. Through cutting, stitching, pinning, and stretching, she pushes the material to its most fragile skeleton and beyond. As she struggles to transform such an ephemeral material, her work questions the function and frivolity of decoration.”

Talking about her exhibit’s title Supplying the Void, Donnelly echoes Knight’s observations.

“Positive and negative space are both important in my work. The process is reductive; I take large rolls of paper and cut them into intricate designs.  In doing so, the negative space, “voids", are so important.  They reveal layers, light, and shadow.  

“An important part of my process is also the hand-made construction.  Everything is hand cut by me.  It’s a process where failure is always present. My hand can’t replicate things exactly. Paper is only so forgiving until it rips or falls apart.” 

Donnelly became interested in working with paper as a grad student at University of Cincinnati’s DAAP (College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning). “I was working on a series of paintings of figures with patterned backgrounds behind them.  

“During the series, I realized I was more interested in painting the patterns than the people. Then I started making paintings of historical patterns and quickly found that the paint was problematic. I struggled to paint uniform shapes with clean edges and build up a surface. So I began working with paper and immediately found that it was the right material. I could cut a clean edge, build up a surface, make something flat, trace and copy it and make multiples. Paper also felt freeing; it’s a pedestrian material. Everybody understand and encounters paper every day. I liked how it could serve as flat or sculptural. That it could be abused, cut, pinned, ripped, etc. And I liked exploring its tolerance for abuse.”

At Highland High School, Donnelly teaches – and learns from her students. “I want my students to have a solid understanding of technique and design. I want them to combine this with their own creative problem-solving to make work that is original, inventive and personal. In teaching them about historical, contemporary and local artists I want them to understand that art is everywhere and it is powerful. They teach me the importance of making work that is relevant and personal. If a personal connection can be made, the work will always be stronger.

“Teaching keeps me grounded.  I feel so thankful to share my knowledge and passion for art with my students.  It gives me energy to make my own work.  I am always telling my students to explore different ideas, to never fear starting over or taking risks.  This is a great reminder for my own process as well.”  

Also on view at NKU: Librartis, Artists Books You Can Touch is curated by Fabio Mazzieri of Sienna, Italy and includes work by more than 100 international artists and invites viewers to turn the pages.

Supplying the Void, Works on paper by Kristine Donnelly/Librartis, through March 4. NKU Galleries, Fine Arts Center, Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights. Artist reception: 5-7 p.m. Feb. 18 (snow date Feb. 25). Artist talk: 3:30 p.m. Feb. 25. Gallery hours 9 a.m.-9 p.m. weekdays. Free.

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts