Christina Lihan builds South Florida hotels, houses and skyscrapers without ever having to break ground.
She uses thick watercolor paper and Exacto knives to create multidimensional, cut paper sculptures of cityscapes and European buildings — detailed replicas that look like bas-reliefs of the real thing.
"I think of them as paper sculptures, but you can't walk around it,'' said Lihan standing in her home/studio off Las Olas Boulevard, where she's surrounded by works. Some are 2 to 6 inches deep and framed in shadow boxes. Others are sketches of works already completed for her clients.
One includes a wall-sized scene of the National, Ritz-Carlton and Delano hotels standing shoulder to shoulder on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Small details, from the fonts used in the hotels' names to the Art Deco flourishes in the lines of the windows and balconies, can be seen in the rendering.
With drawers full of markers and corners stacked with watercolor paper, it's easy to think of Lihan's work as architectural-based. She grew up in Wilton Manors wanting to be an architect and went on to train for the field at the University of Virginia and Columbia University, where she received a master's.
"I thought, 'I am going to get to build all these great buildings and draw all day,'' recalled Lihan, who worked as an architect for firms in Boca Raton and Atlanta. "[But] it's not as creative as I had hoped. Architecture is now all mostly on computers. That's why I don't miss it a lot.''
The paper sculpting started out as a fun side project to her day job and has evolved into an entrepreneurial career. After receiving commissions for the mini replicas, she left Atlanta and moved to Fort Lauderdale to focus on her paper models full time.
"The economy was tanking and no one was building anymore,'' Lihan said. "All the architectural firms were shrinking. It was now or never. I didn't know what I was doing but I was going to create art full time. I just went for it and decided to take the leap."
In her dining room, which serves as her work studio space, Lihan begins her projects by taking a photo of the building or home. Then she sketches it.
"I blow [up] the sketches into the size that it's going to be,'' said Lihan, who cuts patterns based on the design, then folds and layers the pieces, which look like plaster on canvas. Each model generally take about two weeks to complete.
She also builds frames to house the tiny buildings. Hold up a light or flashlight to the frames and you see the depth and shadows in the compositions.
"By cutting paper, I'm creating scenes instead of painting them,'' said Lihan, who holds up her hands to boast of her job hazards. "Paper cuts! I get them all the time."
Through showings and word-of-mouth referrals, Lihan has sustained herself (and her black fluffy cat Quoi) through her craft. Local hotels such as The Pillars in Fort Lauderdale and The Biltmore in Coral Gables sell her work, which can range from 24 inches high and 36 inches wide to 4 feet high and 8 feet long. She charges $600 to about $3,000 for a piece, depending on the size.
Lihan's works are now everywhere. She completed pieces for the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas and for H20 Cafe, which is inside a renovated 1937 Art Deco-designed building in Fort Lauderdale.
For a couple living in Hong Kong, Lihan created a piece inspired by Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, in Virginia.
One of Lihan's local fans is Lisa Marie Browne, executive director of the Friends of the Uffizi Gallery, a Palm Beach-based nonprofit group that supports the restoration and maintenance of artworks at the gallery in Florence, Italy.
Browne commissioned her to create three paper sculptures — two for her Boca Raton home and one for an ex-boyfriend in New Jersey. The two in her home are replicas of the Uffizi Gallery and the top of the Chrysler Building skyscraper in New York City.
Browne said she appreciates the uniqueness of Lihan's craft.
"She takes this pride in her work and you can see the delicate hand [she uses],'' Browne said. "There are very few artists that you can see who can stand alone. You always have a comparison in mind. Her work is very architectural. It stands alone because it's done with paper."
Lihan said she would eventually like to create pieces based on her own architectural designs.
"I want to do buildings that are in my head,'' she said. "I love a challenge."
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If you go
Christina Lihan's work will be part of an exhibit called "Mid-Century Fort Lauderdale Design" from 6 to 11 p.m. Saturday at the Harold Golen Gallery in Wynwood, 2294 NW Second Ave., Miami. Free. Info: haroldgolengallery.com or lihanstudio.com