a black and white picture of a smiling man standing in a small store that is filled with paper-mache animal silhouettes, sticking out of the walls and standing on shelves above his head.

Meet the artisan creating a zoo of animals out of paper

A chat with Roberto Capone, paper-mâché craftsman

Maria Teresa Natale (opens in new window) (Michael Culture Association / Museu)

If you happen to be in Rome and take a walk in the Testaccio district, you might stumble upon 'The City of the Other Economy' (the Città dell’Altra Economia). This 'city within a city' focuses on environmentally friendly practices, centring humanity and nature. Within this incubator of innovation sits a little shop that is filled to the brim with an army of gigantic paper-mâché animals: horses, elephants, fish, sheep… The artisan leading this shop, Roberto, told us his story.

Roberto, how did you approach the papier-mâché trade?

I discovered the art of paper-mâché eleven years ago, quite by accident. At the time I was running a toy and educational material store, but the shop closed over the summer and there was little else to do. One summer day I got the idea of making a cardboard dog for my little son. I decided to build the Bremen Town Musicians: the donkey, the dog, the cat and the rooster, all stacked on top of each other. After several hours of work a sculpture standing 1.80 meters tall emerged, all made of cardboard which I lined with paper-mâché in the following days. In the past, I had worked extensively in the theatre in the assembly of sets, so I had some experience in dealing with large decor structures.

My paper-mâché musicians had only been in my shop window for a few days when a school director entered, wanting to buy the sculpture from me! I obliged and kept building other cardboard animals lined with paper-mâché, without thinking that one day they would consume my life. My cardboard zoo garnered quite a lot of attention on social media, and more and more people started asking me to organise workshops and events about crafting using paper-mâché.

At first, I was very hesitant, but in the end, I decided to organise a paper-mâché animal painting workshop. With an army of medium-sized giraffes, I faced twenty rather small children who, as soon as they saw the animals, launched their creative assault. This first workshop made me realise the potential of these events.

My animals are 3D sculptures, giving infinite freedom to children to paint as they please, to get dirty and give free rein to their imagination. At first, I gave them guidelines, but then I realised that it was better to leave room for their creativity and therefore my only remaining rule is to have respect for each other. The results of our workshops are magnificent art installations that we integrate into the surrounding landscape: parks, living rooms, streets, squares… The installations are temporary, and the animals are reused several times, restored, and sometimes modified. The first giraffe, which we still use in the workshops, is eleven years old and I don't even know how many times it has been painted, restored, and modified.

Animals – or rather 'animal cartoons' – are our strong suit, but we also do cityscapes, trees, pirates, etc.

Over time, I also started teaching the paper-mâché technique to young people and adults: in the beginning, I thought that my strength was the knowledge of my hands, but then I realized that in order to teach I had to acquire a method to transmit my knowledge constructively.

Do you work alone or together with other craftspeople?

At first, I was alone, but over time the workshop expanded to accommodate other paper-mâché makers who work full-time and collaborators who support us in the laboratories. My son Andrea has also recently joined, to whom I try to pass on the secrets of the art. He started from the bottom, trying his hand at restoring animals, but he is already bringing a breath of innovation to his workshop, in fact, he is experimenting with the creation of new forms - he loves elephants - and in the design of new series, inspired by cartoons and manga. Just now, he is working on the creation of a Naruto sword.

What kind of materials do you need?

The basic material is cardboard, there are different qualities and types, I prefer corrugated cardboard which facilitates the modelling of shapes. Then we need paper scotch tape, plenty of PVA glue and newspapers. Nowadays, fewer and fewer people read the news on paper, but luckily some that prefer the nostalgia of 'real' newspapers provide us with materials for our craft. Sometimes we also use recycled materials for special finishes.

Can you support yourself with this activity?

It was hard at the beginning, but I have to say that today we can support ourselves thanks to our courses, workshops, and participation in projects, festivals, street initiatives, and activities in schools. We operate mostly by word of mouth, and the quality of our work is our best calling card, but today we must add the acquisition of new skills to the hard work of craftsmanship that often take time away from the real activity: photography, videography, social media management. Even the craftsperson, in order to survive and keep up with the times, cannot avoid keeping up with the digital transition.

This blog was written as part of the CRAFTED project, which aimed to enrich and promote traditional and contemporary crafts.

Explore Capone's work and shop at http://www.perfareungioco.it/