A few years back, Lisa Nilsson was rummaging though a junk shop when she found a quilled crucifix. Quilling — sometimes called paper filigree — is a type of paper craft that involves making designs out of sheets of paper cut into thin strips and wound into coils around pins or needles. "Then the coil can be pinched or folded in on itself or manipulated to get the shape that you want," explains Nilsson.
"It was super cool," she adds.
For much of her life, the 49-year-old North Adams artist has made her living illustrating greeting cards. On the side, she painted precise little gouaches and made boxed assemblages of photos, bugs, tacks, toys, and pills. Her style ran toward specimen trays, flea-market finds, and cabinets of curiosity. Before long she took up quilling herself, brilliantly tapping into her natural sensibilities and skill at handcraft, but also landing on a playing field with fewer competitors.
At first she incorporated quilling works into her box assemblages. But then, one of a female torso, based on an illustration in an early French medical text, grew too big, so she let it stand alone.
"With a quarter-inch-thick piece of sculpture," Nilsson says, "I like to think you can get this trompe l'oeil effect that you're actually looking at a real slice of a person."
So began her Tissue Series of anatomical cross-sections in paper. She displays them inside handsome, cushioned cases covered with silk book cloth. "I really want it to look like a precious object. I guess it has to do with reverence for the subject matter," Nilsson says.
She's depicted slices of human heads, torsos, shoulders, abdomen, "a transverse cross-section of hands in prayer position," and a dog head. The group show "Teaching the Body" at Boston University includes a quilled male pelvis and a cross-section of haloed head inspired by a painting of an angel by the 15th-century artist Fra Angelico.
"I have lately been trying to make work that you wouldn't see as a medical specimen," she says. "I talk about my work as a combination between a reliquary and scientific specimen."
It's a blend of beautiful craft and visceral subject. "I don't think in terms of creepy or morbid or macabre," Nilsson says. "I think of things that go beyond pretty."
"Teaching the Body" :: Boston University Art Gallery, 855 Comm Ave, Boston :: Through March 31 :: 617.353.3329 or bu.edu/art