Las Vegas Sun

September 23, 2017

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Reusing for art’s sake

Artist turns junk mail into recycled headwear sculptures


Heather Cory

Nicky Watts, left, uses a hand-held fan to help the plaster mold along the shoulder and head of Toni Thorburn, right, dry at her home and studio on Dec. 22. Casting Thorburn, the CEO of Aspen Communications, as part of her contemporary sculpture project, “Wear Recycle,” Watts will use the mold to build a sculpture from homemade recycled paper, later to be worn by her model to be photographed.

Getting Plastered

Nicky Watts, of Henderson, uses plaster with recycled paper to create art.

Reusing for art's sake

Nicky Watts, right, places stripes of gauze infused in plaster along the shoulder and head of the CEO of Aspen Communications, Toni Thorburn, left, as she casts Thorburn for her contemporary sculpture project, Launch slideshow »

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For more information visit Watts online at

From her apartment off a lonely stretch of Boulder Highway in Henderson, artist Nicky Watts is constructing an environmental statement atop the heads of fashion models and business executives.

"Wear Recycle" is wearable art using recycled paper. Her first creations resemble papier-mache explosions crafted into headdresses. Watts doesn't want to call them hats, but that description slips out more than once.

You won't see people wearing one of Watts' creations on the streets, but you could find the paper body sculptures in galleries this summer.

It starts with the recycled paper the 26-year-old photographer makes from junk mail and other collected papers in a kiddie pool set up in her apartment parking lot.

Watts creates a plaster cast of a model. The cast will be used as the base for the recycled-paper sculpture, which she meticulously pieces together with a hot glue gun. She started with heads but is branching out to arms, shoulders and chests.

When the sculpture is complete, Watts photographs the model wearing her creation at the photo studio set up in her living room. She plans to sell the photographs, which are printed onto recycled paper.

Her work begs the question: How involved should we be in recycling?

Just one of the answers: All wrapped up in it.

"This part of the process, the casting, can be a very intimate experience," Watts said.

During a recent casting, Watts applied Vaseline to the shoulder, neck and head (protected by a swimming cap) of her newest model, Anthem resident Toni Thorburn, the 51-year-old chief executive of Aspen Communications. The clear goo was to prevent any uncomfortable hair loss when the cast was removed.

Thorburn volunteered to be a part of Watts' art project — the photographer's first serious foray into contemporary sculpture.

The next step is familiar to anyone who has ever broken a bone: Wet plaster gauze was applied to the skin. Watts made a cast of the right side of Thorburn's head, neck and shoulder.

It's probably the smell of the dry powder plaster. Thorburn looked like a mummy for about 20 minutes until the cast hardened. When it was done, Thorburn wiggled to extract herself. She joked about getting "plastered."

Next, Watts will take that cast and start gluing bits of the recycled paper to it, creating a wearable sculpture. The process requires a delicate touch.

"I can really see a connection between the recycled paper and relationships," Watts said. "The recycled paper is very fragile. If you work on it for too long — it crumbles."

She is assisted by makeup artist Samantha Henrikson and Valarie Zwahlen, manager of Regis Hair Salon at the Galleria at Sunset mall, when she prepares the models for the portraits with the finished product.

The recent Nevada transplant, who moved here from Marlborough, Mass., and still has her r-heavy East Coast accent, started with professional models, the exotic type who really turned her head.

Watts then decided to build her art around regular people, like Thorburn. They met at a Henderson Chamber of Commerce meeting. Watts hopes in time to use homeless people, politicians and celebrities — a whole Las Vegas cast of characters as diverse and contradictory as the city itself.

Watts' original 8-by-10-inch photographs printed on recycled paper and shot with an old-fashioned view camera will start at $8,000.

Becky Bosshart can be reached at 990-7748 or

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