First Person: Cartasan’s Artisan: Marilyn McRae

Posted on Jun 23 by SEASONS Magazine

Visions in Paper
Artist Marilyn McRae, surrounded by the tools of her trade. Photo courtesy Cartasan.

Artist Marilyn McRae, surrounded by the tools of her trade. Photo courtesy Cartasan.

By Nancy Ransohoff

As you hold this magazine in your hands and gaze at its glossy pages, you might not think of it as part of a potential work of art. But Marilyn McRae, artist and co-founder of the design company Cartasan, does. Using magazines as her medium, she creates captivating hand-sculpted paper designs from their reclaimed pages.

A stack of carefully labeled plastic drawers stocked with magazine pages, sorted by color, serves as McRae’s palette at her spacious home design studio in Santa Barbara.  “I have a whole garage full of magazines,” she chuckles. “I categorize the pages by color, type font and sheen—I keep breaking it out. A painter pulls out a tube of paint, I pull out my colors from my files of magazine pages.”


Nautilus: Natures Finest Spiral by Marilyn McRae. Photo courtesy Cartasan.

McRae finds much of her inspiration in nature. A giant abstract nautilus shell made from hundreds of tiny strips of paper occupies an easel near another piece that evokes the ocean’s undulating waves. Each work takes from 65 to 200 hours to complete. A member of Santa Barbara Sculptors Guild, McRae was part of the group’s annual winter membership juried show at Faulkner Gallery, where she won first prize in the 2-D category and the people’s choice award.

Although McRae has long been drawn to art, she didn’t envision herself as a professional artist until recently. She began her career as a home economist after graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a home economics major and an art minor, then moved on to become a Los Angeles-based food stylist for about 25 years. Recalling how she first became inspired to create her paper art, McRae remembers holding a rolled-up magazine and being intrigued by the beauty and texture created by fanning the edges of the pages. “The colors and texture caught my eye. I began to experiment, and one thing led to another,” she says with a smile.


A detail shot of Nautilus: Natures Finest Spiral by Marilyn McRae. Photo courtesy Cartasan.

In creating her art, McRae uses some of the same skills that she employed in her food styling days—a meticulous attention to detail, imagination and an artist’s eye. She also uses some of the same tools. “These are the same tweezers that I used in food styling!” she says. Staples, glue, nails and double-sided tape are also part of the tool kit she relies on to transform flat paper into vibrant three-dimensional works of art. Other techniques include tearing, pleating, curling and burning the paper’s edges. “I never do the same thing twice—otherwise, I’d be bored.”

The temporal quality of paper prompted McRae and Cartasan co-founder Christy Chee to think inside the box, showcasing some of McRae’s three-dimensional sculptures in UV-resistant acrylic boxes. “We have to protect the originals,” McRae notes. With that in mind, the originals are also used as springboards to other media, with the designs digitally reproduced on archival canvas, linen and paper, as well as other substrates such as wood, aluminum and Plexiglas. “We can adjust the image to get a more painterly quality…the work takes on a new life,” notes McRae. She also points out that the reproductions make her art more accessible. “They are more workable for people’s budgets.”


Rolled papers await assignment to one of Cartasan’s new creations. Photo courtesy Cartasan.

Chee brings to the business her creativity, problem-solving abilities and vision from her background as a set decorator and prop master. She oversees Cartasan’s high-quality archival reproductions, which McRae and Chee note are kept as local as possible—both the canvas and paper reproductions are sourced in Camarillo and framing is done in Goleta.

After viewing McRae’s innovative creations, you’ll have a new appreciation as you turn the page.

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This story was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.


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