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An interview with Paperwolf: the artist who brought the March of the Penguins to life

Posted by Emily Buchanan - 19th January 2018

No doubt you’ve seen the photos of papercraft penguins popping up in capital cities around the world this week. It’s caused quite a stir, with one of the geometric beauties appearing on live television and threatening to do the presenters out of a job.

The penguins have wandered far from home to help Greenpeace launch its new campaign to Protect the Antarctic. We’re calling for the creation of the largest protected area on Earth — an Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary. This would put the waters off-limits to industrial fishing vessels and create a safe haven for penguins (paper or otherwise), orcas, seals and the mighty blue whale.

But with penguins posing for selfies outside landmarks the world over, the question people keep asking is: where did they come from? Art director Emily Buchanan sat down with the artist who brought them to life, Wolfram Kampffmeyer, aka Paperwolf, to talk about his process, his passion for Greenpeace and what it feels like to have a penguin named after him.  

Emily: Before this project, I didn’t know that the art of papercraft had such a thriving community. How did you get into it?  

Wolfram: It all started in my last year at university. I studied Computer Animation at the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg in Ludwigsburg, Germany, and discovered a program that transforms virtual 3D models into papercraft templates. I used the main character from one of my short animations at the time and turned it into a template. That’s how my first sculpture ‘Little Big Piggy’ was born!

This was also the first model I offered for sale on the European version of Etsy, DaWanda. It was only a hobby but once I’d added some more products and created my trophy series ‘The Big Five’, the word spread and my business started. Now that I’m on Etsy too, I’ve started discovering the international market.

It’s so nice that people love your sculptures as much as we do. Can you talk us through your process? How did the penguins come into being?

When Greenpeace approached me with the penguin project, I started as usual by doing lots of research. Whenever I plan a new sculpture, my goal is to show the essence of the animal, so I look at pictures in books and online and I watch video clips to see how the animals move. After this study, when I feel I’ve understood the animal, I start designing. I work with a computer animation program and design everything from scratch. This way I’m able to choose the best pose and the amount of detail I need for my animal. Once I’m happy with the design, I transform the 3D model into a flat layout which I machine cut from coloured paper.

Building the first prototype is a beautiful, rewarding and exciting process. It’s a bit like giving birth when you complete him and put him on his feet for the first time! Will he hold? Will he tip over? No! He stands up perfectly and you have to resist the temptation to hug him.

We felt the same way! When our penguin arrived I actually had to put a masking tape cordon around him to stop people from trying to hug him! It created quite a buzz in the office. Overall, you made 10 penguins for us. What was the greatest challenge with the project?  

Because the penguins were life-sized and I had to build so many, I needed to come up with a shipping solution. I’ve shipped some finished sculptures before but had some bad experiences caused by rough handling. So I bought big wooden crates and carefully suspended the penguin sculptures inside the crate so they could move about in transit but not bang against the sides. The efforts paid off: all 10 penguins arrived safely in every continent of the world!

They certainly did. They’re such delicate little creatures but I think that’s part of their appeal. You need that fragility to bring them to life. What’s your favourite photo from the collection?

I love how creative Greenpeace offices around the world have been. Every photo tells a story. The English penguin was named Wolfie after me, what an honour! One picture made me laugh a lot: the penguin riding a motorcycle in India. Then there is a touching picture from Hamburg where a guy shows our penguin the way. And his little suitcase beside him, he looks so lost! I also love the Stockholm picture of the penguin on a bridge with a bicycle beside him. This picture has perfect lighting. And I love the Barcelona penguin with the straw hat, he looks so cool! And the Berlin collection where he has stickers from all countries on his suitcase. And the Seoul pictures with the beautiful buildings in the background.

Actually, I have a favourite picture from every country, so I just can’t decide!

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I know what you mean. I was amazed when I saw the photos coming in, although I think my favourite has to be the Barcelona penguin in the hat. It reminds me of Paddington Bear. During production, you often told me how passionately you felt about the campaign. Can you talk to that a bit more?

I grew up with the word ‘Greenpeace’ all around me. My parents always educated me about being sensitive to nature, not littering or using the car when the distance is short. We even cleaned up the local streams a few times. Greenpeace was synonymous with saving the Earth and we always received the magazine. So basically I grew up with Greenpeace in my head.

I’ve been a vegetarian since I was four years old – the moment I realized that eating meat meant killing animals. That is also one of the reasons I create animals from paper, some of them in classic hunting trophy poses. It’s a modern, colourful and harmless way of displaying animals in your home without having to kill them first! So being contacted by Greenpeace in 2017 blew me away. Finally, I had the chance to contribute directly and visually to saving the Earth! And since climate change is being ignored by half of the world and the oceans are suffering so much with pollution and overfishing, I think creating an Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary is one of the most important issues of our time.

It’s so great when we get to work with artists who care about the campaign as much as we do. I think it makes the sculptures more moving actually. You can feel it in the expression of the penguin. Can you tell us about some of your previous work that you’re proud of?

I have three favourite sculptures which I’m very proud of. One is the fox who comes out of the wall. He looks very lively and has thousands of fans around the world. A second sculpture I love very much is my ‘Flight of Birds’. This combines my skills as an animator with my passion as a paper sculpture artist. Five birds represent a full wing’s cycle of a flying bird. Luckily, this is one of the few sculptures of mine that no competitor has been able to copy yet! And probably my most emotional sculpture is the penguin with her baby chick. The baby penguin fits exactly into the mother’s belly, so both penguins can cuddle. You can really feel the mother’s love in the sculpture.

That’s the sculpture that made me reach out to you! There was so much kindness in that artwork, such a respect for the animal. Do you have any other exciting projects coming up in 2018?

The year has only just begun and I don’t usually get requests with lots of lead time. So right now I’m happy to have some time to recover from the many projects of 2017. But there are a few projects which are (almost) confirmed. A hotel near Kiel in Germany is going to decorate every one of their 17 rooms with a Paperwolf sculpture. I’m looking forward to seeing it finished. And there might be some more penguins for Greenpeace on the way! I’m always open to new projects and new challenges. I just take things as they come.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me Wolfram and for everything you’ve done for the campaign. I know we’ll cherish Wolfie for years to come — that is if I can make sure no one tries to smuggle him home.

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About Emily Buchanan

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I'm a creative producer for Greenpeace UK