I first found Paper Moon Factory browsing crafting tags on Instagram. I was immediately charmed and inspired by the colors, the shapes, and the beautiful designs of the work. A few weeks later, a caption mentioned that they were entering lockdown, and I realized they must be located here in the Netherlands. I immediately reached out and requested this interview, because I was so excited to share these incredible, inspirational projects on this blog.
Marion Westerman is a Dutch mixed media artist, better known to her thousands of followers as The Paper Moon Factory. After studying art and illustration in school, she pursued a career in graphic design and visual communication. But the life of a commercial artist was not creatively fulfilling, so she took the leap and pursued paper arts full time. Today, she runs an Etsy store with a suite of active social media profiles to share her work and her process.
RV: Tell me a bit about your background.
MW: I went to art school to become an illustrator. But it’s hard to find work as an illustrator, so I started working as a graphic designer and illustrator for magazines. I did that for many many years, working for magazines, publishers, and advertising agencies.
I was always an illustrator and painter. It wasn’t until 2007 that I started working with paper mache. I had been curious about it, and met a woman who was also curious about paper mache and wanted to try it.
It just so happened that she lived near me, so one day she brought over a big bucket of paper pulp. It was just a huge grey mass of wet paper, soaking in a bucket, and she said “Help me!”
So that day we made our first paper mache together, and that’s when it all started for me.
Afterward we were brainstorming what we might be able to do with it: it’s lightweight, it’s cheap, it’s versatile… We both liked fancy things, so we started to make masks, and that was the beginning of my new career.
RV: So you quit your job?
MW: Not right away. I was working for an advertising company at that time, and kept working there while doing paper mache in my free time. I lost my job during the financial crisis a couple years later, and decided not to go for another design job. It was really scary, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy in that work, just sitting behind a computer for 9 hours or more every day. It’s so stressful, with an art director behind you the whole time telling you to hurry, the client is waiting, it has to go to the printer…
There are all these people sitting behind desks for hours and hours, day after day, for years and years, and they never ask themselves “What on earth am I doing here?” I couldn’t understand how they could do it, why they aren’t leaving? But I left.
It’s hard, because young people go into those careers because they want to be creative and make interesting things. We should warn them about how hard and stressful that industry is: it’s all about money.
RV: Speaking of money, you sell things exclusively in your Etsy store?
MW: Yes, I used to have my own website with my own store on it. It was beautiful, and I really liked that site, but it didn’t sell anything. It took a lot of time to maintain, and it cost more than it brought me. You spend so much time taking photos and writing text that you don’t get time to actually make anything, so I decided to just work with the Etsy store. It’s easier for me, and gives me more time to work, doing the things I really like, instead of maintaining an online store. I still have to spend a lot of time taking photos, but it’s worth it.
I need to do more process videos; they are popular on Instagram. But it takes such a long time to do, and they are never right after you shoot them, so you have to spend a lot of time fixing them afterward. I really hate Instagram Reels; it’s so time-consuming, and I don’t know if it’s worth it.
RV: How do you balance the art of making things with the business of making things?
MW: It took a while to figure out Etsy for me: there’s a balance for what gets promoted in their algorithm, and how to price things so they sell. It probably took me 7 or 8 years to figure it out, since nobody can tell you how to do it. Selling stuff is difficult, and pricing it is even worse. I used to sell artwork in galleries, and in that instance, you have to boost the prices to account for the commission. You can’t sell things at a low price in an art gallery: it has to be higher. So it’s never the right price, and you really never can tell.
There’s really no good way to price crafts that account for what people are willing to pay, compared to how much time they take to make; I still haven’t figured that out. I have a part time job a few hours a week to help make ends meet, and in the meantime I just go with the flow.
RV: You make a wide range of different types of things; is that just what inspires you in the moment?
MW: I really don’t ever have a plan. I just do what I feel like doing. I do have to balance making little things with big things.
RV: Why is that?
MW: If I’m working on a large object, it can take months to finish. The whole time I am working on it, there isn’t anything in my Etsy shop, and you can’t price big slow projects in a way that makes sense. I need to also have a lot of small things that I can make more quickly, to keep more things in my Etsy shop. Your shop ranks higher in Etsy search when it has more products, so I need to keep it full. And I like keeping my shop full, I want to keep it full, but I have to do it in my own way, with the things I like to make.
So I have started making a lot of these little shrines. They are perfect for me, because I love making them, and I can make them quickly, and I can price them reasonably and fill my shop with them.
RV: I love the shrines because they also solve the problem of how to display your artwork; it’s such a clever idea.
MW: Well, I have an obsession with boxes. I always want to put things in boxes, so I love making these shrines. My original idea was to make small coffins, because I am so interested in boxes and containers. I wanted to make little coffins for children; I hate the square coffins they make for children. Little children still have a curled-up, rounded body position, so I wanted to make round coffins for little children. But when I started doing research, it turns out there are a lot of requirements and regulations for making coffins, so I thought to make the shrines instead, which is another way of working with boxes.
I also like incorporating light into my art, which I just did for the first time in the circus pieces.
RV: Speaking of light, when I scroll back in your Instagram, I saw these gorgeous lantern-like pieces. In the captions, you mentioned “embracing your failures”; why do you think of them as mistakes?
MW: Well, they weren’t mistakes for me. But they don’t sell – they are a bit too much, I think. But they were a great experiment, and I learned a lot of things. Making those lamps, I did a lot of things I had never done before, and it brought me further in my art. In the beginning, I had to throw away a lot of things, but that’s what’s nice about working with a material so cheap – all I had invested was time.
I am still learning things all the time. Paper mache is an easy material, but it has its own way of doing things, and you have to learn how it is. It looks easy, but it isn’t, and things don’t come out the way you planned.
RV: Do you start with a sketch or a plan ahead of time?
MW: I do sketch, but just a little bit. I don’t really draw any more; I just sketch a bit to get the dimensions I want. The rest is just in my head when I start working. It’s a lot of trial and error, which seems silly since I’ve been doing this for so long, but that’s how it is.
Of course, I make mistakes, and things go wrong all the time. But that’s part of the process. Sometimes things are going wrong for a long time, so you set it aside because you don’t want to look at it. And then you think, “Well, it’s already wrong, I may as well finish it.” And you do, and it actually turns out okay.
I’m the opposite of perfect in my work: it’s always full of little faults and mistakes, and I constantly ask myself whether I want to fix it or leave it.
RV: But I think, for your handmade style and with the texture of the paper pulp, those imperfections add to it. It makes them unique.
MW: I love the texture of paper pulp! It’s full of little bumps and scratches, and I try to show it while I’m painting, so those imperfections show. I use very dry paints, so the layer beneath always shows through. I try to use that rough texture to make the piece more expressive. It’s layer after layer of different colors to make it look more vintage and antique.
I also work with other materials, like air-dry clay. I like the combination of the smoothness and detail of the air-dry clay with the rough, expressive quality of the paper. Combining them is perfect for me.
RV: When a lot of people do paper mache as kids, they use strips of paper with paste, but you work with paper pulp, to make it more like a clay.
MW: Yes, it becomes more clay-like when you shred the paper, soak it, and then squeeze out the moisture. Then you add water and a bit of glue, and that’s it. You can do almost anything with it at that point, and it costs almost nothing.
RV: Do you make your own?
MW: Yes, I make a large quantity at a time. I shred newspapers, magazines, any paper I can get. I shred them into a bucket and put water on it. Then I use a heavy duty immersion blender to mix everything up (actually, I use two, because they overheat all the time, so I have to switch between them). Then I use a centrifuge to remove the water; it’s too much to do by hand, so I have a machine to do it. Then you get this grey lumpy mass of pulp.
Then I add water and some wallpaper glue to make the material I use. You can shape it like clay, then it dries, and shrinks like hell, but it’s very lightweight and solid.
My favorite tool is my Dremel. I use it for everything. It’s perfect for sanding, and you really can’t make paper mache without it.
RV: What’s next for you?
MW: I don’t have a future plan. I take inspiration from everywhere, and just go with the flow. It just hits me, and I pursue it. I am naturally very curious, so I always want to go a bit further than I did before, to have new challenges and try different things. Even though I am making all these little shrines, each one is different and interesting, and I am still learning new things while working on them.
I am a person, not a factory: even if I make thousands of them, each one is still interesting to me.