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COVER STORY : Paper Artist : For more than 30 years, illustrator and graphic designer Leo Monahan has made his living creating paper sculpture. His works have been photographed and used for everything from children's books to billboards.

October 30, 1992|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times.

Paper is artist Leo Monahan's medium. Plain white, fine quality drawing paper that he cuts, paints, bends and folds into vibrantly colored, elegantly textured three-dimensional illustrations--of birds in flight, flowers in bloom, a football player in motion.

"Paper has so much integrity, and you can do so many things within a very tightly constrained series of possibilities. You can do almost anything within bending, folding, cutting and painting," said Monahan, who makes his home in Burbank and his studio in his garage.

"It's like a scale in music. You can either write a simple children's tune, or you can write a symphony within that same scale. Playing in the third dimension is really the bonus."

For more than 30 years, the 59-year-old illustrator and graphic designer has been making paper sculpture, although he prefers to call it "paper in dimension" now.

"I call it 'paper in dimension' because I've brought traditional collage and traditional paper sculpture together," he said.

Today, his client list includes Toyota, Coca-Cola, the Hollywood Bowl and Nintendo, to name just a few. His works have been photographed and used for everything from magazine advertisements and posters to cookbooks, annual reports and billboards.

USC football fans can find his depiction of a Trojan gridiron warrior on billboards in the Coliseum area. A beautiful butterfly dominates a Varig Airlines billboard at Highland and Franklin avenues in Hollywood.

"Leo is the quintessential paper sculptor. It's like going to the master to have anything done in his technique," said Mikio Osaki, executive creative director at the advertising agency Batey Poindexter, which has Varig Airlines as an account. "He's developed it into such a fine art. Not many people in this country can do what he can do."

The Children's Museum in Chicago is currently exhibiting 35 of Monahan's three-dimensional paper works, some of them completed for children's books and Sesame Street magazine. The show is sponsored by Hammermill Papers, Monahan's biggest client. As all of Monahan's commercial clients do, Hammermill uses photographs of his original art in its promotional materials. He has done 15 paper in dimension pieces for the company during the past five years.

"We were asked by the client to come up with a new and exciting magazine insert campaign," said Robert Fuller, a vice president at the BBDO advertising agency in New York and the Hammermill Papers account supervisor. Inserts are placed in national publications for the print industry and magazines targeted at advertising and design professionals.

"We've had wonderful results with Leo's sculptures. They're very memorable, and have played an important part in keeping Hammermill in the forefront of the field. His technique is paper, so it was a natural. The dimension is as important as anything."

It was in 1960, as a partner in Studio 5, a photography and design business in Los Angeles, that Monahan created his first three-dimensional paper sculpture for a client--Liberty Records.

Monahan's artwork depicted a man in a truck lowering a box on a hook into the truck. The image was used in an advertisement that proclaimed, "Liberty Records Is Moving."

From then on, "people kept asking me to do paper sculptures," he said. "No one had ever taught me anything about it. I was inventing it."

During the 1960s and '70s, Monahan continued to do flat graphic illustrations and designs while he pursued his paper sculpture work.

"I never had a job. I was either a free-lancer, a partner in a studio, a studio owner or an advertising agency," he said.

In 1986, after Leo Monahan & Associates Inc. spent six years as KNBC-TV's advertising agency--designing hundreds of print ads, and producing on-air spots and radio campaigns--the "immutable law of advertising saved me," he said.

"Eventually, you will lose every account you get," Monahan recited. "I lost the account."

He moved his studio to Burbank, and decided to do only paper sculpture. Through representatives in different parts of the country, he received commissions from commercial clients for his three-dimensional illustrations. But, Monahan also began to tap memories of his South Dakota childhood as a source for his first fine art pieces.

His great-grandfather came to the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1875. A miner, he also operated the first sawmill in South Dakota. His great-grandmother arrived by coach in 1876.

Born in 1933, Monahan grew up in Lead (pronounced Leed), S.D., site of the Homestake Gold Mine. During World War II, however, he and his family moved to the mining town of Keystone. It sits in the shadow of Mt. Rushmore.

"I lived a barefooted, idyllic, Tom Sawyer-like childhood for four wonderful years among the mountains, trout streams, wildlife and pines that make the Black Hills look black," he said.

In Keystone, Monahan encountered miners, cowboys, lumberjacks, forest rangers and Indians.

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