Petra Börner is a successful commercial artist who sprang forth from a Swedish medical dynasty – her brother, father, mother, and grandfather are all doctors, early jobs kept her in the family business by way of medical text illustration and scalpels now feature heavily as tools for her layered, colour-dense cut paper collages, many of which have been commissioned by the V&A, the Oscars, Louis Vuitton, Elle and Vogue. Börner's love of a cut line is echoed in her intricate drawings, a result of guilty hours spent in London’s museums. She has also experimented with traditional craft forms such as embroidery, rug-making and the sensory media of ceramics. Börners sculptures are a departure from her precise scalpel work; earthy and primitive and instinctive - crafted using the whole body, an exhaustive process which relies on strength as much as a sense of smell and touch. She works from a tiny studio in an old Victorian engineering factory in Kensal Road and she talked to us about what makes her creatively happiest.
Petra, how did you end up here, in London, cutting and making and drawing for a living?
I was always very keen on art because early on I got attention from drawing and I realised I wasn't very good at school. I moved to London to Central St Martins to study fashion design because I thought I would make some money in fashion but not in the arts. I was able to draw all day and started working with magazines during my studies. After graduation I started a fashion business and it was very challenging, because I found myself doing things that weren't so natural to me. My focus has always been print and illustration, and there wasn't so much time for that. So when we decided to stop, I was very happy. I got good jobs really quickly and realised I could make money in my natural environment.
Penguin commissioned me to work on a series of book jackets and then I went on to work for Cacharel. It was the right time for my type of illustration, perhaps. I was gagging to work independently and that felt like a liberation.
What kind of influence did your medical family have on your work?
As a child we had scalpels at home. My mother took me to the hospital often, so I remember walking through lonely hospital corridors and doing photocopying on the machines, entering the surgery and seeing surgical procedures at a young age. The scalpel has always been present: I started using it early because I often made things, my own outfits and collages. I like the idea of how it cuts - cleanly, no mess.
What do you love about working with clay?
There is the smell of it; on the one hand the clay smells positive - it pulls you in, it is natural, clean, earthy, but it is also a little bit dangerous, because it reminds you of caves and dark feelings and damp and death. Even when you leave the room you smell of the clay, of the studio, and I find that magical. It is also about how you react to a piece of clay - you can’t help but touch it - it draws you in, and I find it fantastic to be able to work in 3D when I have worked in 2D for so long. It feels very intuitive and exciting.
It is also a really good exercise for the whole body - I feel exhausted after doing it. I am finding my eyesight is going a little bit and so my very detailed scalpel work is a challenge, whereas with ceramics, I don't need to see so well. I could be without sight and still be doing it - you have the smell, the shape, the texture, all those elements. It is magic, like another language - so satisfying. When I don't go into the ceramics studio I miss it - it is like a part of you isn't there.
Your cut paper collages are very different - so planned out and structured.
They are, especially since the collage work is a collaboration with clients. They want me to fulfil a brief and it becomes a different layer of challenge. But I still make my own collages freehand and I try to do that so my handwriting keeps loose. I do love drawing, because it is immediate. I love going to the museum to draw figures to inform my hand so that I can respond to what I see, to keep the hand trained because you can lose some of the mechanics.
What do you like to draw?
I like drawing ladies, and their faces and bodies. I am searching for something with the face. I have had troubles with identity and trying to find what it is and who it is. I draw lots of eyes because I am interested in the way we look at each other and how we connect and communicate. I also love drawing birds from the museums. I would draw them every day if I could but it feels very naughty and indulgent to go there. I feel so fulfilled when I draw and I know how it informs me and if I did more of it my work would elevate. I went to Paris to the Musee Rodin by myself to draw and it was hot and beautiful and honestly I was so stimulated I felt almost turned on. It is the best thing to be allowed to sit there and draw. But this kind of thing, it is only for me - it doesn't help anyone else.
Ah, female and mother guilt. We just aren't allowed to meet our own needs.
My girlfriends without children have so much time - they could go to the museum and draw but they don’t. Why don’t they? You guard your precious time when you have kids but you don’t know it is so valuable until you don't have got time. But I have realised I must do my art, because it is how I am going to be a better person.