The gentlest, most ephemeral of arts, leaf cutting is, perhaps, an exercise in knowing one’s place in the world. Calling for patience, precision and a philosophical approach to both life and art, it’s a passion which requires a deep-rooted acceptance of nature in all her transient glory. Fortunately, that’s Mark to a T!
An architect by day, 50-something Mark H Hellicar has been leaf cutting since 2015. It’s a creative hobby which began almost by chance when, in October of that year, he opened an old sketch book and found a couple of preserved leaves. “Suddenly, I had the thought that I might be able to cut some manner of silhouette out of them,” explains this well-spoken, engaging man. “I’d been mulling over how to execute a request made by a client for a drawing of his house, and here was the answer… a leaf cutting. I believe,” Mark adds, “he still has it!”
Strange though it might seem to craft such architectural shapes from something so organic, there’s a true beauty in the juxtaposition, Mark suggests. “Architecture is a path I follow professionally. Within this realm I have always been interested in the vernacular and, since we are in Cyprus, the Cypriot vernacular and its elements. In a similar fashion, on walks with dogs and on rainy days alone, I’ve always felt a real love of nature: rotting nature, blossoming nature, dying nature, changing, repeating nature; nature on as small a scale as feasibly possible. Both passions prepared the way for this hobby,” he adds. “Nature allowed me to look at elements in their smallest iteration, while the architectural discipline gave me the vocabulary.”
Using a cutting knife and the cylindrical part of a mechanical pencil (randomly deconstructed by one of his children, six-year-old year old Joshua!), along with old toothbrushes, acrylic ink, masking tape, and a cutting mat, Mark has developed his passion to an art form and is now planning his first exhibition.
Taking place at Phytorio in Nicosia from March 22 to 29, the exhibition is designed to “test this work against the stranger on the street. I needed to push in to the next chapter, to dare, to expose,” says Mark. “I needed to tell myself that these are not little handicrafts to sell at the market stall but that they could count as art.”
His instinct is, undoubtedly, correct. Under Mark’s talented hands, delicately veined leaves become precarious, fantastical towers, elegant triremes, and almost sculptural abstracts. Here a two-dimensional Gormenghast rises from a stem; there an ancient longboat sails into the sunset, the wake cutting across the veins of the leaf…
Red and scarlet and chocolate, these canvasses are a riot of autumnal hue; the development of a new technique (involving old toothbrushes, acrylic ink and a handy thumb!) allowing for such potent colour. “This means that simple, geometric patterns potentially become more intense and interesting,” Mark explains, “and I can now work on older leaves, which would otherwise be too brittle to carve.”
For the most part, Mark uses olive, apricot and quince leaves, his work inspired by the dictates of nature. “Olive leaves have been the summer alternative for a couple of years,” he revels. “Hardy, small and slender, I tend to use them to create groups, with simple cuts and intervention forming small conversations between the elements. Apricot leaves are generally of a good size, geometry and colour; they require pressing in an old encyclopaedia for three or four days and are a joy to work with. And quince, though quite unusual in so many ways, are not easy: fibrous leaves, difficult to cut neatly but, full of character and colour.” Mark also uses myrtle leaves in a number of his pieces. “But this year, for some reason, these leaves haven’t followed the same pattern as previous years. Nature has rhythm,” he muses, “but she is also full of surprises!”
With this art, such ephemerality is constant. “The idea that the earth does not, can not, belong to us still echoes extremely positively with me,” he clarifies. “There is a skill to be learnt in being able to enjoy something without having to possess it. I try to apply this and, obviously, fail miserably!”
This ethos of gentle humility and quiet acceptance has stood Mark in good stead. “Naturally there are moments where things don’t go as one wishes! The veins of leaves, the brittle of too long in an encyclopaedia, the little snap as a column under a miniature arch gives way; all these are mishaps, are discoveries of limitations and over exertions which I consider a fairly happy part of the pattern. The broken columns lead to a ruin rather than a palace, the over brittle must be handled with other techniques and a quick lick of paint. Several leaves have ended up being crumbled in my hands and spread across the garden, into the wind. But this is like a prayer, a sweet little conversation with nature the provider. She is abundant.”
Today, what began as a hobby – “a quick little escape into an alternative world at the end of the day; the chance to enter new worlds and emotions” – has morphed into an art which encompasses both the real and the digital. “In general terms I frame the items, but part of the exhibition is to be in the form of blown up details and projections. In fact, what started as the depiction of the Cypriot vernacular became a collection of stories, little mythologies and even the occasional theory and concept. And now, at this stage, I would say I’m far more interested in abstract works.”
From hobby to art, leaf cutting requires a patience and composure few possess, but rewards its exponents with a true sense of peace. “One cannot be arrogant and aggressive with leaf cutting,” Mark concludes. “With this art, the world folds into ever smaller dimensions. And you must walk within its confines.”
Exhibition of leaf cutting work by Mark H Hellicar from March 22 to march 29 at Phytorio, Nicosia. For more details visit https://www.phytorio.org