Making the Cut

Inspired by the imaginary worlds of her mind’s eye, paper-cut artist Adrian Aquilino puts together the images of her dreams piece by piece.

By Jeanne Delathouder

Photography by Colin Miller/Strauss Peyton


Since childhood, St. Louis artist Adrian Aquilino has been an avid drawer who never passed up an opportunity to take an art class. When she was a little girl, she would draw animals and characters on paper, cut them out and play with them as toys. As she dreamed of also becoming a writer, she would draw the characters, costumes and settings of the worlds she conjured up in her mind.

“I even went through a period of being obsessed with drawing maps,” says Adrian. “You can’t have a proper fantasy story unless you have a map for the front pages,” she jokes. “I’m really interested in mysterious or fantastical imagery. I really like the idea of creating imaginary environments and implied narratives that the viewer can bring their own stories into. I draw a lot of inspiration from folklore, mythology and stories about the supernatural or paranormal,” she adds.

When her talent began to develop further, Adrian discovered a passion for encaustics, otherwise known as hot wax painting. While exploring unique ways to add shapes and designs to her work, she started cutting figures out of paper and embedding them into the wax. As more and more people responded positively to her finished pieces, she eventually started working with just the paper by itself.

“I won’t lie,” she laughs. “A big motivating factor was that encaustic paints were expensive, and paper was relatively cheap in comparison. For the past few years, paper has been my primary medium. I love the flexibility—it’s excellent for creating two-dimensional compositions yet it can also be structural. There are so many different ‘personalities’ to paper, especially aged or vintage papers. One of my favorites I’m currently working with is a black silhouette paper I found in the children’s section of an art supply store. It has a super-matte surface, so when the finished piece is mounted it’s a really lovely, rich, dark black,” she adds. “And yes, I do all of that cutting myself with an X-acto knife,” she laughs. “It’s a very time-intensive process that requires a lot of patience.”

Growing up in Wildwood back when it was still an unincorporated township, Adrian attended Lafayette High School and then studied graphic design at Maryville University in St. Louis while continuing to pursue her interests in fine art on the side. After graduating, she went on to work as a graphic designer and marketing professional and has worked in many different environments including corporations, small businesses, not-for-profit organizations and agencies.

“Graphic design is still my day job, and it’s one I really enjoy,” says the artist. “I find that being a designer makes me a better artist and being an artist makes me a better designer. My graphic design career sharpens my problem-solving abilities and provides an excellent ongoing education in digital technology skills. Being an artist improves my design work because it heightens my attention to detail and makes me more creative,” she adds.

Adrian has shown her work at many different venues throughout the St. Louis area including Art Saint Louis and the Cherokee Street Art Gallery. Last winter, she produced her very first enamel lapel pin based on one of her paper cuts. She also recently joined MADE, a maker space in the Delmar Maker District, and learned how to use their laser cutter. Her next big project is going to be using these tools to transfer her designs to other materials such as acrylics.

“I’m also planning to create a line of jewelry and accessories based on my designs and imaginary worlds,” says Adrian. “Anyone who is interested in following my work can find me on Instagram at @adrian.aquilino to get the most recent updates about what I’m working on. You might also get occasional pictures of baking projects or weird occult paperbacks I find at the used bookstore,” she laughs. “You get the full Adrian Aquilino experience.”