• April 22, 2018
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Dubai's green artist Unni Menon

What's trash to others is a source of art for Dubai-based Unni Menon. From old paper, he creates stunning pieces and is now in contention for the 2012 Emirates Skywards Future Artists Competition award, says Reena Amos Dyes

By Reena Amos Dyes
00:00 July 20, 2012

The flowers are every shade of pink from the palest blush to bright magenta, the leaves so delicate and imbued with so much detail that they look real. Next to this picture is a stunning portrait of two couples - their smiles warm, their eyes shining brightly.

At first glance these pieces of art look like they've been painted. But peer closer and you will see they have been made out of a hundred tiny slivers of paper cut out from magazines, greeting cards, wrapping paper, wedding invitations and gift bags.

"Some of the more intricate pieces - like the peacock and the couple with flowers - take about two weeks or even more to complete,'' says Unni Menon, a Dubai-based business consultant who started creating works of art from scraps of paper while recuperating from a heart bypass.

Over the years, he has honed his skills in paper art to such an extent that three of his pieces are contenders in the 2012 Emirates Skywards Future Artists Competition, which invites works from artists around the world. Its aim is to find the world's most exciting, undiscovered talent.

The creator of the winning artwork will receive a prize of $5,000 (Dh18,350) and have his or her name showcased for a global audience through the Skywards membership cards. The winner will be announced on August 3. "Winning it would be an amazing achievement and yes, I am hopeful,'' Unni says.

His art has already been featured on several television shows in India.

"In Kerala, my work was shown on twoTV channels, Jeevan TV and India Vision," he says, adding that he received a good response from viewers.

"I also received a few business orders. An interior design firm in my home town has offered to display my pieces in its office so clients can view them and commission works.'' It's a dream for Unni, who has never studied art. "Although I had a flair for sketching while in school, I didn't really pursue it,'' says the 57-year-old. "I realised I had a talent for this only during the two months' bed rest I was advised to take after undergoing surgery in Kochi, India in 2007.''

Reluctant to while away the months at home watching TV all day or reading books and magazines, he decided to use it to learn a new skill. However, he didn't want to do something regular like painting or sketching.

"I wanted to do something innovative and creative and found the idea of paper art creations very interesting.''

He remembered seeing some paper art images online and decided to try his hand at it. "But I wanted to give it a personal flavour and make it even more challenging so I decided to recycle paper usually found in any household and create my own version of paper art."


The creative process

Unni who credits nature for inspiring him, does not sketch the image on a canvas before beginning work on a creation. Instead he gives his imagination free rein. "I do not like to be hemmed in by a sketch or an illustration. I want the pieces to reveal their own beauty.''

Once Unni has an image in mind, he spends two to three hours a day, sometimes for almost a month, flicking through magazines to find just the right shades of paper. Once he's snipped enough, he sets to work arranging and gluing them on to cardboard. "If it's a bunch of flowers, it may take me about five days to put it all together. But the more intricate ones take me almost a fortnight,'' he says.

Unni, who has been in Dubai for a total of 32 years, says, "It is an environmentally friendly concept. There are umpteen number of magazines that people trash and I am happy to have developed a creative way of reusing them. The main challenge though is finding the right blend of colours for the piece I have in mind.''

Enter his apartment in Al Ghusais, Dubai and you are in for a visual treat - the walls of the living room resemble an art exhibition as they're adorned by beautiful creations, all made from bits of paper.

"I was planning to hold an exhibition of my work in India, but some of the creationsI took from here got ruined during transport. These are very fragile and can't stand the rigours of transportation. So right now I am just concentrating on getting enough creations together for an exhibition in Dubai," he says. Some art galleries here have approached Unni and he has also had offers from companies in India to create artwork for them, but it's not about money for Unni right now - although he is not averse to doing this on a commercial basis later on.

"Life has not been easy for me. Apart from the health issues I've also had to deal with certain personal family issues back home which forced me to return to India again in 2008.''

But when he was offered a position as a consultant in a company in Dubai, Unni accepted and returned to the UAE in February this year.

However, he hasn't let uncertainty deter him from his hobby. "It is the one thing that has helped me de-stress,'' he says. "My art helps me relax… it has a very calming effect on me. When I sit down and start working on one of my creations I forget all about my problems."


Creativity in his blood

Unni gets his artistic streak from his father, Appat Appunni Nair, who used to work in the Forest Department in Kerala. "I remember he was fond of sketching and would often create images of nature that was all around him,'' says Unni. "He used to make toys out of wood too. I used to love watching him sketch and make the toys. I wanted to be an artist too but somehow it all got lost in the business of life.

"However, the two months post surgeryleft me with a lot of time on my hands andI decided to do all the things I had been wanting to do for a long time."

Unni, who was 52 years old when he took up this hobby, has proved that one is never too old to learn something new.

He is grateful for the support that he got from his children, wife Usha and extended family. "Initially I was a bit reluctant to show my art to my family as I thought they wouldn't understand what it is or, worse, would make fun of me. I mean, who takes up a new hobby at 52 years of age?

"However, to my surprise, they were very supportive. They not only encouraged me to continue what I was doing but used to proudly show off my creations to the extended family and friends.

"It was very inspiring and touching too.I don't think I could have done it without them.

"Even today, whenever I make a new picture, I always show it to them first. They are my inspiration and my critics as well. They sometimes tell me to make certain changes and suggest ideas too. They take a lot of interest in my work," he says.


Trying a new dimension

Now, five years down the line, Unni has more than 30 pictures to his credit and is planning to take his art to another dimension by making 3-D paper creations.

"I am experimenting. Three-dimensional creations are more interesting and challenging than the 2-D ones I am making right now.

"I am also experimenting with new materials. I mostly use coated thermocol boards as the base, but now I have started using different kinds of art paper.

"I also plan to use different materials such as roots, wood and leaves for the main artwork instead of just paper.

"Earlier, I used to do all my cutting with a simple pair of scissors, now I have started working with some special paper punches that help me cut the paper in more intricate shapes," he says.

Unni, who has also started work on his own website, wants to pass on his skills to his two sons who also have artistic abilities. "Both my sons are good at art but my elder son Anoop who is studying in India is not interested in developing his skills. My younger son Athul, who lives with us in Dubai is keen though. In fact, he has won many awards for his work in school. I am so happy that this artistic streak in the family is continuing."

"At present, I just want to do something unique, something special and I hope that one day I will be able to take my talent far and wide - make a name for myself," he says.

"But right now, I am doing it to give vent to my creative abilities.''