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Lennie Ciliento: Washi Tape Artist

By Carolyn Males

It’s not every artist who finds his passion in the stationery department of a Japanese department store. But for Lennie Ciliento, discovering the vivid display of washi tape rolls amid the cards and paper supplies would become a life-changing experience.

At the time, he and his wife, Jennifer, were living with their two sons in a small rental house in Tokyo while they taught English at an international school there. The only place with enough space for Ciliento to create art was in a room lined with tatami mats. Paints, he knew, would be much too messy.

But standing in the store on that day back in 2010, he was struck with an idea. The fabric-based adhesive tape was used for crafting, but maybe he could do some sort of artwork with it, perhaps collages that would only involve scissors and paper. No messy tubes of pigment, water buckets or drippy paint brushes.

He brought the tape home and gave it a try. The rest, as they say, is history. Today collectors prize his impressionistic collages, which range from portraits to landscapes, sea life, cityscapes, humorous commentary on contemporary issues, and so much more.

Ciliento recently filled me in on his adventures in washi tape collage.

[Q] After graduating from the University of South Carolina with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, you began teaching elementary school. Where did art come in?

[Lennie Ciliento] I was always interested in drawing, so when I had a summer off back in 2006, I told myself I’m going to read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards and do every exercise in it. And I did. Edwards promised that after doing this, you’ll be able to see differently and draw. It worked! It was amazing how much I started looking at things in a different way.

[Q] What was your first washi tape project?

[LC] We were in Japan for two years, and at the time I was drawing goofy little comics for my son who was about three years old. They were filled with elephants and bears having conversations about making good choices. But when I showed them to him, he started laughing because the elephants looked more like bats. I thought, “there’s gotta be a better way.” So when I saw this washi tape display, I must have been reading something about color and emotion because I decided to make this book for him where bright colors were happy, and dark colors were sad. I illustrated it with abstract blotches of tape on top of tape on top of tape. It was just about the colors.

[Q] How did you make the transition to more complex subjects?

[LC] I grew up in the 1980s on Saturday morning cartoons. So if I was going to be an artist, it would be cartoons –– not fine art. But I always loved clean crisp lines, and that’s what the tape offered. The earlier pieces I did were very linear. For example, my first washi collage was of the house across from us in Japan. Everything in the piece was very vertical and horizontal. Even the bushes were spiky like palmettos.

But then I began shaping the tape with scissors and started doing flamenco dancers because I was interested in the colors, the excitement, and the passion. Meanwhile my wife had always liked my flower paintings, so figured I could impress her and collage them as well. But it was really all about learning how to use the tape.

[Q] When did you turn professional?

[LC] At first I had no intentions of showing my work. I just wanted to create tape art. It wasn’t until we moved to Chattanooga in 2011 that I entered a local poster design contest for my son’s school fundraiser. I made an Impressionist portrait of him holding a guitar. The school made it into a poster and put it on a T-shirt. Once I saw my work was accepted by the public, I thought, ‘OK, this is cool. Now I’m going to make art with the intention of getting it out in front of an audience.’

[Q] Your work now spans a variety of subjects.

[LC] The variety is due to the fact that Location Gallery in Savannah, where my work is, has different show themes. So, many of my subjects were in response to that. For instance, we had one on junk food, so I did a scene of a family picking lollipops out of the ground like they were vegetables. Another was portraits.

In the end, what matters to me is that as long as I’m using the tape and keep my integrity intact, the subject matter isn’t important as long as I’m creating. I’ll go to a show and someone will say, “I love your work, do you have pictures of bears or turtles?” I’ll do whatever the design calls for.

[Q] What is your design process?

[LC] I consider myself a designer first of all, and then the art comes in. The planning takes a lot of thought. I’ll make a sketch on the computer, and then I’ll move around elements and make sure everything is in the right place, that the colors match and that the values are balanced. I want it to look original. I’m not doing it to stand out. I’d still do it even if the audience were just me.

[Q] Tell me about your studio.

[LC] I create on my living room couch on my coffee table in front of the TV. I’ve got one small box, maybe 14 inches by 10 inches high, filled with about 16 boxes of tape that I carry from the bedroom to the living room and back. It’s very compact. When I’m working, everything is spread out on that coffee table, and when I’m done working everything goes back into that box. Neat and tidy.

When I’m planning a collage, there has to be silence —  no music, no nothing. I wake up early and before going to work, I’ll look at photos I’ve taken for reference and draw them in pencil in my sketchbook. That gets me in the zone and quiets my mind. But once a picture is underway and there’s this one moment where I know its going to work, I can put on music or the TV.

[Q] You teach a range of subjects, including an open art studio, at The Island Academy of Hilton Head. Any advice for your students or anyone else in creative mode?

[LC] Don’t compare your art to anyone else’s. When I started learning to draw. I’d look at other people’s work and think, “Oh, they’re great. I can’t do that.” That kind of chatter in your head can prevent you from doing art. This is why when I teach art to kids, we call it “open studio.” I don’t stand over them and say, “Today we’re going to paint this vase and everybody is going to do the same one.” Then you’ll have kids comparing themselves to everyone else, so either they end up copying or giving up. My advice is to have courage and be yourself in your art.