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 Paper Dragon
Paper Dragon by Heather Miller

I attended George Mason University’s School of Art from 2008 – 2011.  The first assignment in Sculpture I was to create a dinosaur or mythical creature using only cardboard, white glue, and hot glue.  I read things like a lawyer.  This is important because the subsequent whining from my fellow students was funny/sad.  Really, by the time you get to college, you should already understand the art of reading.

I decided, clearly, to create a dragon for my assignment.  It was entirely made of cardboard.  The red was from Pizza Hut pizza boxes.  At the time, their boxes were all red with only the logo in the center (lots of areas unblemished by text). I could only use the top of the box because of the pizza grease so we had a few extra ‘pizza nights’ at my house LOL.  The white, ironically, came from low-calorie snack cake boxes (I try to lose weight, my husband orders pizza). The gray in the eyes came from a different box, but I don’t remember which one now.  Note: the instructions didn’t say only use corrugated cardboard, just cardboard.

The yellow bits in the center of the flowers wasn’t painted.  That, my friends, is yellow hot glue.  Hot glue comes in a variety of colors so, once again, I followed the instructions to the letter.  The instructions didn’t say only to use clear hot glue, just hot glue.

The brown scales had three varieties, bare cardboard, cardboard painted with white glue (makes it a bit darker & shiny), and cardboard painted with a white glue mixed with graphite powder.  That latter type I got permission ahead of time for.

I also received permission ahead of time to ‘cheat’ on two areas:  the whiskers & the flower stamens.  The whiskers had rebar tie wire as a base which was covered with a long strip of the cardboard I had stripped off the scales (to reveal the corrugated edging inside).  The stamens for the flowers were made of craft wire.

Paper Dragon exhibited with my classmates' work in the Breezeway Gallery at GMU
Paper Dragon exhibited with my classmates’ work in the Breezeway Gallery at GMU


Several of my fellow students complained that I cheated on many parts of the assignment.  They complained that no one told them they were allowed to use other types of cardboard. The professor pointed out that he never said they couldn’t either.  They complained about the colored hot glue & using white glue as paint.  Again, I followed the rules as they were written.  Nothing specified how materials were to be use, and the professor pointed that out.  Be that a lesson to everyone.  Bottom line:  Say what you mean, mean what you say.  I don’t read instructions thinking “what did they really mean when they wrote that?” (and yes I’ve used that against professors too).

'Paper Dragon' at the Greenscape Exhibit
‘Paper Dragon’ at the Greenscape Exhibit


One last bit before I move on.  The eyes were the hardest part & where a bit of synchronicity came into play.  Many years ago I bought a printer from Canon.  It had a link to a part of their website devoted to the art of papercraft.  In the documentation for it was a picture of a dragon holding a round sphere -all made from carefully folded paper.  Thankfully that website still existed (papercraft websites are bountiful now) and, after hours of searching, I found the dragon I remembered.  I enlarged the template for the sphere & used it for the eyes.

Paper Dragon was exhibited at the Greenscape show in 2009.  It featured artworks made of recycled materials and benefitted an environmental charity.  It was sold at that exhibition.

The Elemental Dragons
Dragon of Earth base with first layer of paper to cover the logos.

After creating Paper Dragon I decided I really wanted to create more.  In 2010, I participated in my first Artomatic event. I thought it would be perfect to create dragons based on the five Chinese elements for the next show.  I even planned create a pagoda backdrop for them.  Rather than create scrolls, I decided to wrap each dragon around a pillar.  Each foot has five toes, which in the Zhou dynasty meant it was on official dragon of the emperor.  I specifically made pillars the same color as the dragon.  I imagined the emperor coming into his throne room & summoning the dragons.  They would emerge from the upper portion of an otherwise normal looking pillar.

In traditional Chinese mythology, there are five elements, each having a specific color:  fire (red), water, (black), wood (green), earth (yellow), & metal (white).  I decided to Westernize the colors since the majority of the people seeing them would be confused by the traditional colors.  I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people who knew what the traditional colors were.

In Sculpture II,  I was told to do three projects by the end of the semester & they needed to be approved ahead of time (that was the beginning & end of ‘instructional’ part of “class”).  I mentioned to the professor that I had wanted to expand on my dragon from last semester.  The professor said I could build one of them in class so the Dragon of Earth was born.

[Technically the Dragon of Fire was also done while I was in art school but I don’t remember which class I did that one for. I do remember I wasn’t allowed to do anything related to dragons after this one though LOL]

The elemental dragons were made almost entirely of recycled cardboard. The vast majority of the cardboard came from moving boxes (when we moved into our house) or were boxes.  Scales for the chin, the eyes, and the teeth came from other types of food boxes.  There were a few exceptions, like with the crowns & tails which were often made of materials that matched the dragon’s theme.  The round pillars were purchased new as you can’t exactly re-use those…..
Dragon of Earth, body construction

The round portion of the pillar is a concrete form, which is made of cardboard.  I used 10″ forms which are 4′ tall.  Each one is covered in paper of one type or another.  The Dragon of Earth’s pillar was covered with a handmade paper purchased from a local art supply store.  I glued several paper leaves on top of it to punctuate the theme.  In the picture, the pillar wasn’t entirely dry so some areas were a bit darker than others.

The body is made of hexagon shaped pieces of cardboard glued to the pillar.  To make the scales, I pulled the top layer off of corrugated cardboard sheets (easier said than done).  I used the pieces I removed to connect the body segments together.  After the body segments are fully covered, I glue on the scales.  The head, tail, & legs are assembled separately and then attached last.

The scales are made of cut pieces of corrugated cardboard.  Cutting the pieces was actually the last step of the process.  As I mentioned earlier, I removed the top layer of the corrugated cardboard to reveal the ridges.  After that was finished, I had to scrap each ridge with an X-Acto knife to clean up any paper & glue residue. Each dragon has at least three different colors of scales.  Some of them were spray painted and others had inks painted on them.  The ink soaks into the cardboard giving the scales a very different look from the spray painted ones but I had to be careful because the moisture could easily cause the glue to release.  The scales were extremely time-consuming to say the least.  Once they were fully dry I cut them into the desired shape: rounded for water, rectangular for wood, and triangular for fire & earth.  The final step was gluing each scale onto the body, carefully trying not to create any type of pattern with the different colors.   Fun Fact:  I cut the top of my thumb off with an X-Acto knife while creating the Dragon of Earth.
Dragon of Earth’s head in progress

Being mindful is a statement that I think most people totally misunderstand. I am mindful of not only what goes on in my mind, but I am mindful of my surroundings.  This little aside is important because ‘mindfulness’ is essential in creating the kind of art that I do.  I was able to remember the red pizza boxes when I made Paper Dragon.  I noticed that the snack cake boxes were entire white inside which was perfect for the eyes.  I noticed the papercraft dragon inside of the documents for an old printer which allowed me to make round eyes & nose.  This was also essential in making all the small scales for the heads of the elemental dragons.  Being mindful of what’s around me allows me to find creative solutions to problems of all sorts, not just artistic ones.

The heads are rather complex and are built independently from the bodies.  The whiskers were made of rebar tie wire.  It is much thicker than craft wire but still bendable.  I wrap long strips of the top sheet of the corrugated cardboard (removed during the creation of the scales) around the wire.  I paint it and then glue it in place.  The wire extends all the way to the back of the head for stability since it’s heavier than you’d think.  The inside of the head is painted a flesh-tone color.  Each head has an extra, but nearly invisible element.  Before I assembled each head, the drew the Chinese symbol for that dragon’s element on the upper jaw.  It is next to impossible to see without a dental mirror.  To me, drawing that symbol was like breathing the ‘essence of life’ into the dragons.  It wasn’t meant to be seen.
Dragon of Earth, in progress

None of the chin scales were painted, each one is from a cardboard box.  Let’s just say that dieting was impossible during the construction of the dragons.  I went grocery shopping for colors, not foods back then.  The green scales, for example, meant making the ‘sacrifice’ (LOL) of eating a lot of green tea flavored ice-cream mochi.

The eyes, claws, and teeth for the dragons all came from the snack cake boxes I used for Paper Dragon.  To roll the fangs & claws, I hand to work the paper for some time to get it to separate into two sheets (essentially running it back & forth on the corner of the table until it became 2 sheets).  Then I could roll it into a cone.  The lips were made from kraft paper.  I can’t remember what box I got the black of the eyes from, I think technically there were a few varieties used including some Mac cosmetic boxes I saved.

To attach the heads, I created another hexagon of cardboard.  This one was sized to fit over the top of the body segment on one end & inside the head on the other end.  Once the head was attached, I would put the horns & top scales in place.  To cover the seams of the jaws, large round pieces (the ‘cheeks’ if you will) were glued in place.  The horns for most of the dragons were made of craft paper rolled into long cones and then painted.  Each dragon had some embellishments that were non-cardboard.  For the Dragon of Earth I placed fabric leaves the top scales of his head.  His tail is made from a variety of fake foliage.  The Dragon of Wood has a tail made from a decorative, natural fiber broom (grapevine I think).  On his body & crown, I placed twigs from my backyard.  The Dragon of Water had horns made of shells.  His tail was made from a variety of fake coral-like foliage.  The Dragon of Fire was the only one to be entire made of cardboard & paper.  At the time I really wanted to have semi-transparent flames but didn’t know how to make them at the time.
Dragon of Earth – head completed

The rest of the pillar for each dragon was made of wood.  In another bit of synchronicity, The Home Depot happened to, temporarily, carry small table rounds.  After driving around half of Virginia, I finally managed to find enough of them in pristine condition for all five dragons.  At this point, I had never actually built anything from wood.  Since I was in school and had access to a wood shop, I was able to cut the MDF for the bases there.  I brought the pieces home & assembled them in my studio.  I had no idea how to do a mitre joint at the time so they were butt-jointed – and looked terrible.  I went to my favorite texturizing medium to ‘fix’ my mess, painter’s caulk.  Once the bases were coated and dry, I spray painted them.  The table rounds I bought were painted high gloss black.  All the wood pieces received many coats of polyurethane to make them as glossy as possible (I hadn’t discovered resin yet).

Dragon of Wood (
Dragon of Wood

Storing and transporting the dragons was a problem of epic proportions.  Every part needed to be modular.  That meant some rather creative (and somewhat embarrassing) solutions.  There are large metal “L” brackets that hold attached to all the wood pieces.  Nothing was permanently anchored in place so I could stack pieces when stored or transported.  The “L” brackets meant nothing would slide apart but didn’t provide structural support.  Each table round had a giant eye hook screwed into the center.  I then latched adjustable bungee cords to those hooks when I assembled the dragons.  Assembling the dragon part onto the rest was not a simple feat because reaching the bungee cord was difficult at best.  To the casual viewer, however, they looked like one solid piece.  To transport the dragons themselves, I created two cradles using 4′ shelving boards, scrap lumber & sheets of fabric (the pillars rested on the fabric which hung between two supports).  I only created two of the cradles because I could only transport two dragons at a time in my car.

After the creation of the fourth dragon, I realized I had no more room in my house to store them.  At the time I had 3 cats, one of whom loved to chew on cardboard so I had to keep the dragons in closets.  My basement closets could only hold 4 so the Dragon of Metal was never created.  It still makes me sad that I never got to make all five.

All 4 dragons were on display together twice, both in 2012, the Year of the Dragon (that was totally by accident by the way).  The first was a dragon themed show that coincided with the Chinese New Year festival in Rockville, Maryland.  The second was later that year at Artomatic.  While I had planned to do a whole pagoda back when I conceived the project, I couldn’t bring myself to create it knowing one of the dragons was missing.  All 4 dragons were sold at Artomatic 2012, for which I am still grateful.  Had no one taken them (I offered to give them away for free if no one paid me for them), they would have ended up in the recycle bin after the show.  Thankfully, one man purchased all four for his dining room.  I delivered them & set them up.  He has the best looking dining room in Virginia (I’m not biased at all LOL)!

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