Paper sculptor revels in financial, morale boost while trying to navigate uncharted waters

“I've never won anything in my life,” said paper artist Cheong-ah Hwang, still in shock from the news that she’d won the National Sculpture Society’s Marilyn Newmark Memorial Grant, an unrestricted cash prize of $5,000 awarded annually to an animal sculptor. “And the thing is, this grant, I'm the sole recipient — I'm the winner! It means a lot to me. … I feel so proud. They just looked through what I've done so far, and they awarded me for that.”

The Sculpture Society’s jurors praised Hwang’s “skilled execution of an unusual medium” and “elegant design and composition” while also noting that her work “is at a level of excellence that only comes from hard work, persistence and, most importantly, passion.”

“I was so worried, because my medium is paper, and the National Sculpture Society [is known more for] traditional mediums like stone, metal. So I thought, ‘Oh, they're not going to even consider it as an art form,’” Hwang said. “But I got really, really positive feedback.”

The award also felt a bit surreal. A ceremony initially scheduled for June was canceled, so the only real proof Hwang had of the grant was the check she received in the mail, which came at a sorely needed time. “I had a part-time job as an interpreter working in the hospital, but I am so scared to go near the hospital,” she said. “I don't have a job to go back to.”

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So, rather than spending her grant money on her art, Hwang has to put it toward more practical things, like rent. “It breaks my heart to spend the money on these other things, but I cannot complain,” she said. “I'm so grateful.”

While Hwang, who also brands her work under the name Papernoodle, was first teaching herself how to create paper sculptures, she practiced making birds — an organic form with lots of texture. In the years since, she has branched out into many other forms and styles (even writing a book on the art of paper sculpture), but Hwang’s hummingbird pieces are still the most popular items in her Etsy shop.

“The neighborhood where I used to live, that's where I saw a hummingbird for the first time, about 20 years ago. I'd never seen one before. It happened so fast, so all I have left now is the impression — the memory that I saw a hummingbird. But it was so magical,” said Hwang, who meticulously researches the birds as part of the creative process. “When I create a design, I need to use thousands of images and study this angle, that angle, different species. The design takes so long.”

Hwang was looking forward to taking part in a group show at the Riffe Gallery in late July, but when the pandemic hit, she backed out. “The world went upside down, and I just didn't think [preparing for the show] was the appropriate thing to do for the time being, because my work is very time consuming. I have to dedicate all my energy and time working on these pieces for exhibition. But I have to use that time for something more relevant. I need to support myself," she said. "If I have the time, I need to develop my other art ideas and focus on making a living.”

While filling orders from Etsy, Hwang is also working on a business plan for selling T-shirts. And the grant helps to provide motivation and a confidence boost that keeps her grounded. “No matter what happens, I'm an artist. That's never going to change,” she said. “Life itself is my art.”