WHEN Paul Robles’ family immigrated to Winnipeg from the Philippines in the early 1970s, his parents were nervous about being robbed during the trip.
So they hid important family papers and money in the form of bonds inside the lining of three-year-old Paul's tiny, formal suit. They made sure his grandmother kept hold of his hand.
"My mom and dad thought if we got mugged in transit, they would never take the little boy," says Robles with a delighted laugh.
Now 42, Robles is an accomplished artist whose work has been shown in Paris and New York, as well as at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and many other local galleries. The boy who once carried hidden documents has been working for the past decade with paper cutting. Seated at a table, using sharp blades that nick holes in the paper, he creates and collages intricate, brightly coloured works that resemble lace doilies or children's scissor-cut snowflakes.
It's extremely time-consuming, but Robles loses himself in it. "It's kind of like drawing with a knife," he says. "I can look up and it's three hours later."
Pop-culture allusions are often hidden in the Asian-influenced animals that recur in the works -- snakes, monkeys, tigers, sparrows, peacocks, roosters, moths. There are elegant peacocks, for instance, with erotic (though not graphic) lacy plumage collaged from 1970s or '80s pornographic magazines. A rooster, when you look closely, is made from pages torn from video-game magazines.
Robles says he's interested in gender stereotyping. He plays with viewers' assumptions by mixing violent or erotic content with a technique that is presumed to be pretty, decorative, craft-like and feminine.
"I'm trying to juxtapose maleness, or male imagery, with something really beautiful and delicate and precious," he says.
Winnipeggers of Filipino heritage have more commonly pursued singing and dance than visual art. Robles says his two sisters went that route, performing in the Magdaragat folk troupe while he and his four siblings were growing up in Wolseley.
But Robles was always a visually artistic kid, and when he decided to pursue art studies at the University of Manitoba after earning a sociology degree at the University of Winnipeg, his parents were supportive.
The 1996 art-school grad originally focused on photography, but started experimenting with origami and then became captivated by paper cutting.
Cyclists might recognize his style from laser-cut steel bicycle racks on Broadway. In 2007, his bike-rack design of a monkey riding on a sparrow was one of three selected from 275 entries for the public art project.
Robles holds a full-time job as the box-office manager at the MTS Centre while spending as much time as he can at his studio in the East Exchange. He and his wife own a house in what he jokingly calls "NoPo" (north of Portage Avenue, as opposed to Wolseley).
Robles says his heritage is not consciously reflected in his art. "I don't have Filipino imagery in my work," he says. "I just consider myself an artist. But I am drawn to Asian imagery."
There is a paper-cutting tradition in the Philippines, he says, but it's usually seen in banners on religious themes. Robles, who has relatives in China and made a trip there five years ago to study paper cutting, is more interested in small-scale Chinese "paper cuts."
They're usually circular, intricately snipped with scissors out of red tissue paper and based on the Chinese zodiac. They're often tucked inside a card to express congratulations or good luck, he says.
Since losing his father last year, Robles has been drawn to a suitcase his dad left behind. It's crammed with immigration papers -- material evidence of the journey 40 years ago that changed his family's destiny.
"I don't know if I necessarily want to cut it up," the artist says. "I don't know if my mom will let me. But it's a symbol of my dad. It might be the first project that would address my Filipino heritage."