In the hands of skilled artists, even the most basic of materials can glow — literally. All Ayumi Shibata needs is paper, a blade, and a light source to create otherworldly scenes packed with intricate details. The Japan-born artist takes inspiration from nature and cities alike to craft layered landscapes that feel like a peek into a heavenly world beyond the clouds. These unique paper art sculptures can range from card-sized masterpieces she can fit in her hand to entire rooms full of delicate dangling vines. At the root of these soulful works is the Japanese concept of “Kami.”

Intricate paper landscape by artist Ayumi Shibata.

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Intricate paper landscape by artist Ayumi Shibata.

“Kami is the Japanese word meaning ‘god,’ ‘divinity,’ or ‘spirit’; but it also means ‘paper,’” Shibata explains. “Kami reside within nature. They dwell in the sky, in the ground, [and] in the wind, as well as various objects such as old trees, big rocks, and manmade creations. Kami move freely beyond time, universe, and places, appearing during events, as well as in our houses and our bodies. These spirits also dwell in paper. In the religion of Shinto, white paper is considered as a sacred material.”

Ornate handheld paper landscape cut-out by artist Ayumi Shibata.

Shibata hopes to use the traditional method of Japanese paper cutting to draw attention to “the delicate relationship we as humans have with the environment.” Her interest in paper cutting started when she began to play with the needles, strings, and leftover fabrics in her mother’s quilt and patchwork atelier shop as a child. She moved to New York after high school and experimented with paper art and stained glass before enrolling in the Printmaking and Sculpture mixed media department at the National Academy School in New York. In 2015, she moved to Paris.

Beautiful illuminated paper artworks by artist Ayumi Shibata.

Small illuminated jars contain miniature paper worlds by artist Ayumi Shibata.

Shibata sees her paper art as a way to travel to strange worlds, and her travels to new countries have broadened her ideas about what those worlds can look like while reinforcing her appreciation for her Japanese identity. The landscapes she creates are often surreal, mysterious, and even ghostly, occasionally offering a glimpse of a shadowy figure within the forests and dense cityscapes. She’s fascinated by the way the layered cut-outs interact with each other, creating highlights and shadows that she sometimes enhances with strategic lighting.

Woman wanders through a life-size paper forest by artist Ayumi Shibata.

Woman wanders through a life-size paper forest by artist Ayumi Shibata.

Even her smallest works can consist of many sheets of paper and hundreds of hours of careful slicing. These pieces might be enclosed within a goblet, apothecary jar or vase, and illuminated with a single tiny bulb for an enchanting effect. But Shibata’s “paper worlds” are downright jaw-dropping when they’re at their largest, crafted as interactive experiences within art galleries. Currently, Shibata is working on an installation she calls “Inochino-uta, Poetry of Life,” a large-scale project consisting of over 100 pieces of paper suspended from the ceiling. It’s set to be exhibited later this year.

“I cut paper to express my thankfulness to the ‘Kami’ spirits for having been born in this life,” Shibata says. “Each cut, each page is a prayer. My process helps me to be quiet and clear my mind in meditation or prayer. I purify my soul through the act of cutting paper. By interacting with the ‘Kami’ spirit material, I can connect to this spirit world with our own.”