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Mesmerizing paper sculptures: Matthew Shlian

Ara 511 (Smoke Metal), 2020

Matthew Shlian

Matthew Shlian (b. 1980) is an artist and self-dubbed “paper engineer” who creates intricate, handmade paper sculptures inspired by engineering, biology, music, architecture and other disciplines.

Shlian spent over ten years refining his craft before a market for his work emerged. Early in his career, he taught and collaborated with scientists at the University of Michagan leading to, among other things, improved designs for solar cells. A fascination with the inner workings of children’s pop-up books has birthed a unique artistic practice that blends inspirations from a number of fields and pushes the limits of what can be created using paper.

“Analyzation is the job of the viewer not the artist. The artist asks questions, I am not particularly interested in answers.”

Image credit: Galerie Goutal

Matthew Shlian was born in Norwalk, Connecticut. He was born color blind, a condition that made depth perception difficult but heightened his sensitivity to form, pattern and repetition. This led to an interest in craft-making that shaped his decision to study ceramic art at Alfred University in upstate New York, one of the nation’s top ceramic art programs. Once in school, Matt’s curiosity led him to study other disciplines within the art school, including glass, painting, performance, sound and print media. He settled on a double major in ceramics and print media. Matthew's work evolved to feature print media, which is paper-based, with large cut-outs that created pop-up shapes, similar to what you might find in a children’s book. He loved working with paper because of its immediate response when forming it and the geometric challenges of composing visually aesthetic pieces of art. Noticing his growing interest in the cut-out technique, Shlian’s faculty advisor bought him children’s pop-up books, which he dissected. Thus began a continuous experimentation with paper that continues today.

Matthew moved to Michigan to attend graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art, a leader in architecture, art and design. After his studies, he began a seven year engagement with the University of Michigan, teaching and working with research scientists. Shlian collaborated with scientists to visualize complex structures like cell membranes and new designs for solar panels, made more efficient by following the sun.

"Real scientists are like real artists."

Visualization of autonomous solar tracking in flat-plate

Image credit: Matthew Shlian

Shlian enjoyed working with the scientists because he realized how similar they are to artists in their approach to the work. When asked about his experience working with scientists, Shlian said, “Real scientists are like real artists. They are always asking questions, always curious and always indiscriminate when seeking both solutions and good questions. I was intimated before I met with the scientists [at the University of Michigan] for the first time, mainly due to the fact that I have literally no scientific background. However I realized that they didn’t know my profession and so it was in fact possible that we could learn from each other.”

For the first 10+ years of Shlian’s career, his artistic practice didn’t produce enough income to support him full-time. But through his commitment, continued curiosity and savvy, he has built a strong market for his work. Shlian now spends most of his professional life working in his studio, a short walk from his home in Ann Arbor.

Unholy Stagger in Blue Wash

Matthew Shlian

Omoplata 108 with Setta Studio

Matthew Shlian

Shlian's paper sculptures use a variety of folding techniques to create works with curves, angles, and beautifully configured, mesmerizing geometric shapes. He often uses solid colors but sometimes creates works featuring floral prints or metallic finishes. Matthew’s inspirations are many, which he credits as a source of his creativity. He pulls from engineering (solar cell design), biology (protein misfolding), architecture (Islamic tile patterns), music (Brian Eno), and other sources.

Image credit: Galerie Goutal

Shlian starts his work with an idea but not a clear goal. Instead of visualizing a specific output, he gives himself a set of limitations, guardrails so to speak. For example, he might decide to only use curved folds, or to make lines of a certain length or specific angle. While working, something unanticipated often happens, an accident. But for Shlian, these accidents are welcomed because they often lead to a piece of art that's more interesting than the initial idea.

Ara 511 (Smoke Metal), 2020

Paper sculpture

21 x 21 in


If you’d like to acquire this or other works by Matthew Shlian, email

Watch Matthew describe his work:


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