Gianna Paniagua

Giana Paniagua was a student at the University of Pittsburgh when her professor, Ana Divinsky, assigned a paper cutout project. It was a turning point for Paniagua, then an airbrush artist, who discovered a new inspiration. For the past three years, Paniagua has been creating paper cut sculptures that have been widely exhibited at museums and galleries, including locally at the Westmoreland Museum of Art and Wood St. Gallery.

Last month, Paniagua was awarded the Grand Prize in the prestigious VSA Emerging Young Artists Program, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts that is “designed to give visibility and a voice to the work of young artists with disabilities.” Through the VSA, Paniagua’s work will be shown throughout the United States and the world.

The artist, who had a heart transplant when she was only 14 months old, is deeply grateful for the recognition. “I am amazed to even be included in the group and honored to represent my disability,” she says.

She considers her an expression of her life and living with her disability. “The most fulfilling aspect of my work is that I have found a way to translate my story. I am pushed toward the abstract because there’s no literal way to convey the emotions I feel—frustration, the anxiety of being overwhelmed. I am thankful that I am actually able to make pieces that convey those experiences to my viewers.”

Paniagua works out of a studio in Point Breeze and is preparing for a residency at the Kala Institute in Berkeley where she will be exploring etching and paper cutting. She will also have a large-scale solo show at 707 Gallery downtown, transforming the space into a vast paper cutout cavern.

Her winning and spectacular work, The Journey, is on display at the S. Dillon Ripley Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. until January 5, 2015. From there, the work will embark on a national tour along with other works.

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Leah Lizarondo is a food advocate, writer and speaker. She is also the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, an organization that seeks to eliminate food waste to make an impact on hunger and the environment. She is the Chief Veghacker, recipe creator and curator at The Brazen Kitchen, where she writes about food and food policy. She writes about the intersection of food, health, innovation and policy.