by ROB BRINKLEY|photographs by JAN and KA YEUNG
While you and I are fast asleep, Robert Chapa is building buildings.In his apartment. With Lady Gaga. The 26-year-old graphic designer and Starbucks barista has found his nirvana, a way to blow off steam after full days — which can start at 4 in the morning — of steaming milk and grinding beans. He comes home late, puts on his headphones, cues up Ms. Gaga and lets loose. With X-Acto knives, scissors and glue — Aleene’s Original Tacky Glue, from a squeeze bottle — he sculpts buildings using sheets of stiff white paper, which he buys in packs of 20. While Gaga thumps and grinds, Chapa cuts and glues. He mainly goes by eye, having studied the real buildings intently by walking around them and photographing them.
Thus far, a surreal little paper metropolis has emerged. But highly precise architectural models these are not: Chapa’s sculptures are something more fantastical, more dreamlike. They are the essence of the places, not replicas of the places. They remind me of the ethereal rooms of the artist James Casabere, who builds miniature ambiguous spaces of Styrofoam and cardboard and photographs them. There is a purity to Chapa’s work that is charming; he did not know of Casabere until I told him. The rooms he made for FD Luxe, in fact, are Chapa’s first interiors: the living room on our cover and the entry hall. After we commissioned them, he spent three months constructing the spaces, each 12 inches high by 10 inches wide. And, you should know, the goldfish on the May 2013 cover is life-size and actually in the room: It is the cat that has been shrunken, digitally.
Chapa gets his love of craft honestly. His grandfather was a carpenter; at age 12, little Robert was already constructing buildings in his Laredo backyard. He made his own New York City out of bricks left over from a family barbecue-grill project, stacking them into skyscrapers and making billboards out of ads cut from magazines. He illuminated the whole thing with Christmas lights; Matchbox cars filled in for traffic. Now, when he’s not making lattes at Starbucks, he gets his artistic fix from designing logos for clients and laying out a friend’s blog, Sean in the City DFW. It was a paper-sculpting class he took at the Art Institute of Dallas that triggered the urge to sculpt buildings; he was always fascinated with the arenas that he and a music-loving sister would drive to for concerts. Big cities have always intrigued him, and he’s waiting for just the right reason to visit, for the first time, the real New York. No hurry. He knows the city already, from his brick-stacking days. He even staged a parade down the streets of his made-up Manhattan, twisting balloons into characters to bob over the avenues and constructing floats out of reworked Happy Meal boxes. “It was my own little world,” he says of that masonry city, galaxies away from Laredo.
EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: ROBERT CHAPA’S PAPER TRAIL: How does he do that? Watch what artist Robert Chapa does while you are fast asleep.