Sculptural paper art on display Thursday at Vertical Arts Architecture |

Sculptural paper art on display Thursday at Vertical Arts Architecture

Mining boom influences Ray Tomasso's artwork at Vertical Arts Architecture

The artwork of Ray Tomasso will be featured at the Vertical Arts Architecture in Steamboat Springs. The show, which features sculptural paper art, opens Thursday.
John F. Russell

— A four-by-six-foot piece of artwork by Ray Tomasso is made from 1 1/2 pairs of blue jeans. And that’s just one layer.

The Denver artist uses old museum rag board, paper, old trim moldings, cardboard, pieces of tape and a host of seemingly unrelated trinkets in his thick, sculptural paper castings that take months to create.

“I think of it as when you’re going through someone’s estate and you happen along a drawer, and there’s all these little things in there that the only relationship they have is that they’re in the drawer together,” Tomasso said. “There’s that mystery of what the relationship is and what the story is.”

Several of the longtime paper-maker’s art pieces will hang in the Vertical Arts Architecture gallery this month, and a reception will be held from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday. Tomasso will be on hand to answer questions about his work.

The gallery space is debuting at Thursday’s reception as a new combined retail and gallery space, showcasing furniture and decorations that complement the artwork.

Vertical Arts architect Travis Mathey said admiring the work from afar reminds him of looking out of an airplane at the patchwork of fields below. In this case, that patchwork is a series of hard-worked layers of handmade paper.

“As an architect, we’re always impressed by a project’s process,” Mathey said.

Tomasso has been working in the paper sculpture medium since the 1970s, when he was a graduate student at the University of Colorado.

As a master paper maker, he found that he wanted to work in a larger, sculptural space. Even kilns weren’t big enough.

So he pioneered his own lengthy and complex process that he performs in his yard in Denver.

Instead of pressing his wet, pulpy handmade paper into sheets, he lays it over molds and impresses collages of whatever he wants onto the surface. One piece in the Vertical Arts show features an impression of a sheet of Braille and pieces of string.

“You have to think like the reverse of a print maker,” he said. “You have a record of the air over the piece.”

After the piece is dry — which can take weeks — he paints it. But he doesn’t always use latex paints to create the muted, rusty colors.

Instead, Tomasso’s natural, earthy tones come from the natural pigments he mixes for about half of the painting process. He cited several geological sites in Colorado that yield specific reds, blues and browns, which he likes to use because they’re heavier than paint and sink into the crevices of the paper cast better.

But the colors also help project the raw earthiness of the era that inspires him most: the mining boom.

“I just loved the structures of mining, how they put the buildings together, the nuts and the bolts,” he said. “It’s the remnants of that boom industry. That’s a part of the period from which I’m looking, without being too romantic about it.”

But there is definitely a little romance in using old, ground-up Levi’s jeans — which were popular with miners in the 19th century — to be the sturdy backbone for the art.

“You’re looking at a process that is actually archival,” he said about the recycled pieces he uses to create the layered effect. “It can last from 100 to 1,200 years.”

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