Washington artist F. Steven Kijek has turned a fucked-up New England childhood into thousands of tiny paper intricacies. You’ll find some of them hiding behind a wall at Ellipse Art Center’s “Fold Here: 3-D Paper” exhibition.
Young Kijek was a magnet for abuse. When he was 5, teenage toughs punched his face while he tried to free his leg from a tree branch. Nuns at his Catholic school pulled his long hair and sideburns, he says, and called him “Jew.” (He’s not, as it happens.) The childhood traumas made the adult Kijek anxious to keep everything around him pristine and perfect: “I was really in la-la land,” he says. “I was afraid to use wastepaper baskets. I used to iron my money.”
Now 44, Kijek travels with a tin filled with half-finished paper sculptures—his “I’m-nervous box,” which lets him avoid conversation the way a book might shield a loner on a train. Tactics like this one help him manage the anxiety that, though it’s been crippling at times, he believes has fueled his art by providing him with an otherworldly high. “If I hadn’t had such a traumatic childhood,” he says, “my defense mechanisms might not have thrown me into a world of phantasmagoria where I was able to create.”
Kijek discovered paper as a medium in 1980 after graduating from the dance program at Pittsburgh’s Point Park College. He was dancing with that city’s now-defunct Extension troupe when a crisis of confidence swept over him. “In the dance world, there’s always some chick or guy with a perfect body who’s dancing rings around you,” he says. “It makes you feel old.” Kijek took to solitary confinement, living on coffee and canned grapefruit in his apartment, occasionally walking to a nearby cafe to drink wine. The proprietor, as it happened, used to put out paper tablecloths and colored pencils. One day, Kijek began to doodle. Then he began to fold.
His rudimentary tablecloth-boxes evolved into imported-paper containers seeded with pearls. The art world took interest: The Arts Club of Washington, Signal 66, and the Russian Cultural Center have exhibited his work. He dedicated his just-closed show at the District of Columbia Arts Center to his ailing wife, local artist Manon Cleary. (It featured a thousand origami cranes bearing scripted benedictions; Kijek wanted to burn the pieces in a Buddhist-style sendoff, but for the sake of practicality thinks he’ll donate them to a children’s hospital and take the tax break instead.)
Deborah McLeod, who curated “Fold Here” for Ellipse, set out to explore paper’s myriad contradictory facets and produced an exhibit of startling scope. There, in Helga Thomson’s monoprint cutouts, dwell the tortured souls of military-ruled Argentina, where paper was used for propaganda. Here is Jeanne Jaffe’s surreal waterfall of organic shapes, representing, the artist says, experiences of our “pre-verbal” infant consciousness—cast, ironically enough, in the stuff of writing.
Then there are the Kijeks. Blossoms was hastily assembled for this exhibit from prefabricated parts, all made this year. Its dangling paper droplets fall into a “pool” littered with paper roses. Box Installation is likewise exactly what it sounds like: handmade French rag paper boxes stuck to the wall.
So in a show that’s heavy on ponderous artist statements, Kijek seems very much the odd man out. “I’m not trying to pass off my work with some kind of artistic credibility,” he says. “If someone finds artistic merit to it, then that’s great.” But besides being the only “Fold Here” artist who actually folds something, he’s an impeccable craftsman: His rose petals, mottled and crisp from baking, are as perfect and beautiful as you would expect the products of 23 years of sublimated anxiety to be. The “doodles” adorning his boxes recall the abstract fabric designs of Charles and Ray Eames, and they’re startlingly well aligned despite the fact Kijek eschews a grid.
He’s entranced by his chosen medium, reverent about the textures and virtues of the handmade papers he manipulates—so much so that the torn and scorched papers in the work of “Fold Here” gallerymate Anne Slaughter jarred him when he arrived to install his own pieces. “It made me very uptight about my own work,” he says, once again taking up the familiar themes of uncertainty and worry. “I thought, I’m not arty enough.” —John Metcalfe
“Fold Here: 3-D Paper” is on view until Sunday, March 2, at the Ellipse Arts Center, 4350 N. Fairfax Drive, Arlington. For more information, call (703) 228-7710.