About a decade ago, when the first of his two kids was still a baby and he was sleep-deprived, Matthew Hawkins worked in production art at Hallmark. Not a coffee drinker, Hawkins took full advantage of a free soda machine that dispensed drinks 4 ounces at a time.
His desk was quickly littered with small paper cups.
“One day I just took a cup and turned it over and drew a little face on it and cut a little hole for its mouth,” he says. “The next day I came in and took some card stock and put little hands and feet on it. The next day I built a little car for it to drive around in.”
Soon, he had an entire cityscape made of cups. When someone from the paper engineering department walked by and noticed, Hawkins tried to downplay his cupscape as just “goofing off.” That department quickly offered him a three-month apprenticeship.
Not long after the apprenticeship, Hawkins was recruited by Doug Kubert, the creative director/director of digital at C3. Hawkins has worked full or part time at the Overland Park-based family and kids marketing and design agency since.
Hawkins, 41, recently took his business to the next level: moving his company, Custom Paper Toys, into a large studio space in the West Bottoms that he shares with a few other artists. He’d been operating it out of his attic for nine years.
On a gray couch in the office’s sitting area one recent morning, his dark beard partially obscuring the white graphics on his black T-shirt, he leans forward, eager and excited to share his story.
“It’s totally sculpture,” he says of his paper craft. “Some of it’s engineering. Some of it’s art. And all of it’s something in between that.”
Hawkins, who lives in Overland Park, crafts intricate cartoons, animals, cars and robots out of folded paper (but it’s not origami). Recently, just for fun, he created a little Royals rally mantis. He doesn’t intend to sell it or show it. He laughs and says it’ll probably end up in his mom’s curio cabinet.
What he likes about his art is that it’s humble. But combined with his imagination, it becomes magical.
“It’s just paper,” he says, shrugging. “A piece of paper is almost as close to nothing as you can get and still have a physical object. So, to build this into something that has physical presence. … That’s cool to me, you know?”
At C3, his skills were needed to make a lighter-weight product.
The company had been designing plastic toys, but the rising cost of petroleum in the mid-2000s made the toys too expensive.
“Having someone who could do such amazing things with paper was a serendipitous stroke of good luck,” Kubert recalls. “After Matt nailed that first project, we brought him on full time and let him go wild designing paper toys.”
Hawkins explains that for 10 years his work has unfolded just like that: Someone sees what he’s doing and invites him to do more. And those “someones” have only gotten bigger and bigger.
His wife, Alicia Hawkins, a nurse, says that early on, he sent information to potential clients and heard back from only a handful of companies. But somehow when someone wants his work, they always find him.
The best part of watching his career develop, she says, has been “just watching his dream come true.”
To date, he has designed custom paper toys for GameStop, Arby’s, Steak ’n Shake, GE, Newsweek, Crayola, Barnes & Noble and Disney. That’s a partial list.
Locally, he has created projects for patients at Children’s Mercy Hospital, displays for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and a fundraising commercial for Great Plains SPCA. And he has a project underway for the Truman Library and Museum.
“It’s become a joke around the office that Matt is so talented that he’s amazing at everything he tries, from creating 3-D paper toys and beautiful illustrations to designing packaging, making animations, building musical instruments to playing banjo, ukulele or anything else you throw at him. He’s got a playful way of seeing things that’s unique and inspiring. He never seems to run out of ideas,” Kubert explains.
Disney asked Hawkins what it would cost to create two of the seven dwarfs — just a couple of inches high and designed so they could be mailed flat. Never having bid a large commercial project, he low-balled the figure. Disney was delighted and contracted him for all seven dwarfs.
Nowadays, his paper sculptures are regularly on exhibit at Disney’s WonderGround Gallery. Before someone buys an artwork by Hawkins, Disney makes images of the piece for T-shirts and mugs to sell in gift shops in Disneyland and Disney World. This way, the one-of-a-kind sculpture lives on forever in a variety of products. The pieces sell for a couple of hundred dollars to a couple of thousand, depending on complexity and whether they are part of a limited edition set or are one-of-a-kind.
While working for Disney has been a thrill, he says he was really “geeking out” about a project he just finished. He runs off and returns with a slick, shiny, black TIE fighter — a ship from “Star Wars” made out of puzzle board. It’s part of a set that will be sold at Costco.
“Doing the illustration on some of this stuff, like drawing the bottom of the Millennium Falcon, was pretty daunting. We did three packs, like books, and the back cover of the book is a box, and in the box are all the pieces to build them. So there’s this set that has the TIE fighter and X-wing. Then there’s a set that has a decent-sized Millennium Falcon. Then there’s a droid set that has C3PO, R2D2 and BB8.”
How does he do it? Hawkins says he starts nearly every project with a sketch.
In the beginning, he doesn’t worry about the limitations of the paper — if he did, he explains, he’d end up with a box. He tries to give his paper toys or sculptures the suggestion of movement as he would in an illustration.
“There’s technical solutions and there’s creative solutions, and I love it when there’s a creative solution to a technical problem or a technical solution to a creative problem. They’re both working in tandem. So many paper engineers will design this in white and hand it off to an illustrator, and I’m working both those things hand in hand,” he says, holding the TIE fighter.
He eventually inputs his reproducible projects into his computer, but he crafts by hand as much as possible. For him it’s the difference between playing and working.
He wants to give others the joy he feels when creating, which is another thing he loves about his work.
“It’s a project and it’s something for families to do together. It’s not like a thing you get and you throw in a bin or put on a shelf. It’s like something you get and it requires you to participate.”
Contact Anne at email@example.com or @annekniggendorf.