If you want to make a life-size statue of a Russian giantess who died more than a hundred years ago, most likely of an exploding heart, it helps to find out that German scientists recorded her exact measurements; this way you can build her exactly, to specifications. Her name, or her stage name, was Elizabeth Lyska. Until she was 4 years old, she was normal size. If you are the artist who wants to build Lyska, you might also build that last pair of regular shoes her feet could fit into, at age 4, before she began the growth spurt that took her up to seven foot two.
It was their shared Ukrainian heritage that drew Seattle paper-sculptor Patty Grazini—five foot six—to Lyska, and the fact that Lyska is one of many circus acts who were famously exhibited in their day only to disappear again after death, often dying in mysterious, underdocumented circumstances. Giantesses especially. There is no biography of this giantess, or even a Wikipedia page. There are some photographs, one with her normal/tiny sister. There are highly descriptive but entirely vicarious media reports. "She looked shy and awkward, the giant child, as she stalked about the room, divesting herself of her coat and hat, and somewhat nervously twisting a red silk handkerchief between her great shapely hands," went one typical New York Times report.
And there are those measurements taken by German scientists. Grazini undertook not just building a life-size replica of Lyska's body out of paper—the teenager hunches slightly, poignantly—but building a new life for Lyska. Grazini made a series of incredibly intricate paper sculptures, each with its own story, so that the art exhibition is also a book, maybe the most spectacular pop-up book ever. It found a perfect venue: Seattle artist Curtis Steiner's cabinet-of-curiosities store in Ballard, itself a pop-up book of untold wonders.
Grazini's son, Tynan Kogane, a writer in New York, is the stories' author. First, Grazini would make objects—the child's moccasinlike shoes, a pair of festive red giant's gloves, a bracelet made by an admirer (ringed with teeny-tiny faces of observers at the Crucifixion), an automaton, her name-day cake and its oversize golden fork, all created in unbelievable detail and every single part made of paper in a riot of trompe l'oeilism—and then, Kogane would spin the yarns, linking as many real details as he could find in the scant historical record.
This is Grazini's sixth exhibition in as many years at Steiner, each more narratively focused than the last. The most recent was paper animals representing criminals from old newspaper reports—a sparrow in a white dress holding an arch of fire for the 19th-century woman who tried to raise money for her wedding through arson. That kind of thing.
Grazini uses paper, she says, because it's everywhere. She doesn't buy it, she collects it. Antique paper, other-people's-trash paper. For the top of the giantess's name-day cake, she swiped the paper mat from the counter of her doctor's office. She is an artist who uses paper to remember.