On paper wings

Boulder artist takes her work to the small screen on the Discovery Channel

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Tara Kerzhner

Boulder’s Marisa Aragón Ware didn’t know what to expect when she was chosen as a contestant on the Discovery Channel’s Meet Your Makers earlier this year after the show found her work on Instagram. A unique and brilliant artist who delves into numerous mediums from extraordinarily intricate paper sculpture to commercial illustration, concert posters and even children’s books, Ware was initially told she didn’t even make the cut to fly to Los Angeles and compete.

“The producer of the show emailed me, and they wanted me to apply,” she explained recently during a conversation in her basement studio in South Boulder. “The application process was intense. I applied and they told me I didn’t get selected.”

“A week or two later, they contacted me and said, ‘Actually, we want you to be on the show.’ There was only a week before I had to fly out. We had to fly out, quarantine for a couple days, and there was one day of filming interviews and then the day of the competition. They picked us up from the hotel at 6:30 in the morning and we didn’t get dropped off until 9:30 that night. It was the longest, most stressful day. The whole competition was in one day.”

From the moment the four artists arrived at the Meet Your Makers set, a 20-minute lunch break was the only pause in their 15-hour day. Every episode of Meet Your Makers focuses on a different medium, and for the one Ware was chosen for, artists who work with paper were pushed to quickly produce original gems under very difficult time constraints.

“I was not expecting to even make it past the first round,” Ware recalls. “They had told us some of the things we’d be judged on, and one of them was color. I don’t use a lot of color in my work. The other thing was ‘Don’t make miniatures, because this is for TV.’ Knowing that, I was kind of trying to figure out how to integrate color and how to do something bigger. I think the other artists’ work better fit those categories.”

“I was really stressed about that, and then I had this sudden realization that I was not going to change my work at all to try to make it more appealing. I was, like, ‘I’m just going to do what I do, and I’m not going to try to make it any different.’”

Ware certainly got to where she is by refusing to cave in to anyone’s expectations, especially her own. Ware—the daughter of a nuclear physicist father and a translator/teacher mother—went to Fairview High School and studied aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder before switching to journalism and working at the Rocky Mountain News after graduation. When the newspaper folded in 2009, she was at a crossroads.

“It was the first time in my life that there wasn’t a next step,” she explains. “All of a sudden there was just this space, and I had also just broken up with my boyfriend of a few years. I didn’t have a job, and his career was just starting to take off. I was maybe 24, and I just totally had an existential-crisis-slash-paradigm-collapse. I ended up going to a month-long meditation retreat at Dharma Ocean in Crestone because I was just so freaked out and had no idea what to do. I was desperate to find my purpose.”

Ware had kept a sketchbook with her for many years, having been deeply passionate about art as a child in Boulder, where the mountains, animals and foliage inspired her. The number of people at the meditation retreat who noticed her drawings and not only commented but tried to commission work surprised her.

“I loved drawing,” she says. “I was really imaginative, but since the sixth grade I hadn’t taken an art class, so I wasn’t very good at any sort of realism but I was always drawing. At this meditation retreat there were six or seven people who looked over my shoulder and saw a drawing and were like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool! Will you draw a tattoo for me, or a logo?’ I was like, ‘Wait—interesting.’”

One of Naropa University founder Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s students, Reggie Ray, was Ware’s instructor at the retreat, and his response was emphatic when she expressed pessimism and anxiety about the prospect of becoming an artist.

“I told him, ‘I feel really called to be an artist, but I want to be of benefit and I don’t see how me being an artist is going to help anybody,’ and he looked at me very bemused and compassionately and said, ‘You’re gonna have to get over that.’”

“He said, ‘Art is a form of service and it is a high form of service. If you feel called to do that, I want you to promise me that you will.’ I promised him and I shook his hand, and he said, ‘Just so you know, you didn’t just promise me, you made a promise to the lineage, so you should probably do it.’”

Ware says she “didn’t know a single artist” at that time, but befriended Bryce Widom, who is known for his beautiful chalk art for Mountain Sun and Southern Sun. She also got to know local painter and graphic designer Nathan Spoor, who recommended the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Ware moved to the Bay Area and earned a master’s in fine art and traditional illustration from the Academy of Art, where she was particularly moved by a three-dimensional paper-sculpture class she took with the incredible Japanese-American artist Jeff Nishinaka.

“I had been doing two-dimensional, Scandinavian-style cut-paper,” she remembers. “Jeff Nishinaka is an extremely successful paper artist, and I took this class with him. He just was so open about his technique. He taught us exactly what he does, and he was super open about, like, how much he charges for things.”

That lack of what Ware calls “pettiness” and “competitiveness” in virtually all of the artists who have been her mentors and peers made it easier to move forward with a career in art that was really sparked, she says, when she was a small child “with this little chubby hand wanting all the lines to be straight.” The paper sculptures that Ware ended up learning how to create are awe-inspiringly detailed, exquisite works that combine her love for natural beauty such as flowers and bones with an elegant aesthetic that borders on the spiritual.

Ironically, this year the path that the blissfully non-competitive Ware took from walking beloved Boulder trails with her father—who sparked her “passion for botany and mushrooms and examining things up close” by teaching her to identify wildflowers and how to catch and release snakes—to filling sketchbooks as a young woman and breaking into a self-made career in fine art took her to the set of Meet Your Makers, where the competitive atmosphere was literally heated.

“At one point I ended up taking my shoes off, because it was hot in there,” she laughs. “I somehow employed this hyper-focus that I know is in me but only gets turned on when it’s necessary. It was very intense. I definitely had adrenaline going—there were three cameras on me at all times, and people snapping photos.”

For the first of two challenges, four artists—one of whom is eliminated after the first challenge—were asked to make a piece of flora or fauna. Ware created a hummingbird drinking out of a columbine (no surprise for a Colorado native). The judges (including actress Chrissy Metz and country star, and candlemaker, LeAnn Rimes) went around giving feedback, complimenting and criticizing. 

Ware recalls that when Rimes approached her work, “she was saying how the piece I made gave her chills. It was very surprising how positive they were about my work. One person got eliminated and then they announced they won that round. I was very surprised.”

The two other remaining artists created huge, ambitious paper sculptures for the second and final round, in which the challenge was to make something related to a fairy tale. One made a giant paper gown inspired by The Little Mermaid, and the other went even bigger.

“The other contestant actually made paper on the set,” Ware remembers, “and dried it and had these LEDs inside the paper with this Thumbelina thing where the paper was water.” She was part astonished and part exhausted, bending over a desk with her knees wobbling, hyper-focused.

“There’s a level of perfection I have in my work,” she says. It usually takes Ware a month to do something as intricate as the sculpture she did for the final round of the Meet Your Makers competition, and she had about five hours. The sculpture features Snow White, complete with a gold-leaf mirror and a poison apple, and it made her the winner. Ware, who also teaches art at the University of Colorado Boulder, brought home the kind of championship that the CU football team has been unable to deliver for decades, and she didn’t even have to wear a helmet or pads.

“Going into it, I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to complete the things on time,” she says. “I was happy with it, and I’m so glad I did it.”

“I just think I have a real proclivity, a propensity for precision, and that applies to this medium really well,” she says when asked why paper sculpture has become her signature. “There’s something about it that really works for me. It just makes sense. If I’m, like, making a certain type of skull for the first time, it’s this really interesting puzzle of deconstructing the form into these individual pieces and figuring out how to represent a three-dimensional form with that. It’s a puzzle I have to solve my way out of.”

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