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Artist forgoes traditional methods

A master's degree in sculpture is a fine thing if you have plenty of space and money for materials.

Staci Leech-Cornell had neither, so she turned to a more practical and thrifty way to pursue her art: paper.

"Part of my attitude is I try to use items anyone can find," she said. "And I try not to spend a lot of money on supplies."

The bonus for art lovers is that Leech-Cornell passes on the savings, so to speak.

The pieces in her two current exhibits — one at Marshall University's Graduate College and the other at West Virginia State University — all carry price tags under $200 and most are around $100.

"I think anyone can own art," said Leech-Cornell, 29, who said she collects all kinds of paper for her whimsical creations, including found and recycled paper.

By day, she is manager of the new 21st Century Community Learning Center at the Clay Center. Each evening after she has dinner with her husband, Justin, an illustrator, the two usually sit down to their respective artwork.

She is disciplined about working on something every day, though the time spent can vary from 30 minutes to four hours. The supplies may be inexpensive, but the process is time-consuming.

"Absolutely every night I do make myself do something," she said.

She hand cuts, folds and draws each element to her pieces, which are layered like collages and often feature images of birds, though they may be decked out in dresses. She incorporates origami, the Asian paper-folding art, into her work and said she is using principles of sculpture to build her pieces — flat becomes three-dimensional with folds and layers.

Birds are a continuing theme in her work, and she said she began "obsessively" drawing them when she was living overseas for a brief time.

She said she realized she's always had a connection to birds. Her family in rural West Virginia — she grew up in Clintonville, Greenbrier County — had bird feeders that attracted many species. And her mom and grandmother collected bird figurines.

The fun began when Leech-Cornell started drawing exaggerated feet and legs on birds — and then started dressing them, often in dainty dresses.

She searches for unusually patterned paper — "It almost is like shopping for fabric," she said — though she also draws elaborate patterns herself.

While some who view her bird pieces have said she must be making a gender statement, she said it really isn't all that complicated.

"I don't dress up a lot, so I get to play dress-up with my artwork," she said.

She said her two exhibits are quite different.

The Marshall exhibit is called "A Much Curious Coop," a nod to its bird theme.

The WVSU exhibit is called "Inmost Quaint Vivariums," the artist's humorous attempt to overcome her lack of a green thumb.

"I cannot keep a plant alive for the life of me," she said. "I started making my own paper plants.

"They will never die," she added, laughing.

She built many-layered pieces of plants that she installed in non-traditional containers — such as dresses.

"Vivarium is a play on terrarium," she said.

In all of her artwork, she believes she is carrying on a handcrafting tradition she learned from her mother, who crocheted, and her grandmother, who quilted — even if her current medium is paper.

And when she sits down to create, she is reminded of the many projects the women in her family accomplished.   

"I come from a family where we didn't have idle hands," she said.  

Leech-Cornell's Marshall exhibit remains in place through Oct. 12. Her WVSU exhibit remains in place through Oct. 7.

Contact writer Monica Orosz at or 304-348-4830.


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