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This Pittsford teen creates sculptures with cardboard, scissors and LOTS of hot glue

A photo of a young man in green T-shirt and baseball cap building a cardboard ship.
Nina Keck
/
VPR
Cooper Johnson, an 18-year-old from Pittsford, has spent years building cardboard sculptures in his family's two-story barn. He's crafted cars, animals, tanks, and medieval armor. But he especially enjoys crafting ships, and says he tries to include as much detail as possible.

Cooper Johnson's work table is covered with bits and pieces of cardboard, an artistic medium that he says is not only easy to get, but incredibly versatile.

“You can shape it any way you want," he said. "You can cut it as tiny, as thin as you want… you can even peel layers apart and make it paper-thin.”

The Pittsford teen said using sharp scissors, X-ACTO knives and a hot glue gun, he's made “absolutely everything you can imagine out of cardboard.”

It all started in middle school. That’s when Cooper Johnson saw someone on YouTube build a life-size Lamborghini out of cardboard.

So, he built a 4-foot version of the Italian sports car, and he hasn’t stopped since.

“I’ve made a few sets of armor, I’ve made some cars and trucks, I’ve made animals, I’ve made actual medieval weapons, I've made some guns," Johnson said. "But I really like making ships, and the ships take a lot of time. That’s where my focus is, because I love ships.”

Medieval-style armor, shields and knives made out of cardboard are displayed on a black-colored table.
Francis Willard
/
Otter Valley Union High School, Courtesy
Medieval armor, shields and knives made out of cardboard were on display last month at Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon. Cooper Johnson, an 18-year-old from Pittsford and senior at OVUHS, has spent years crafting sculptures out of cardboard.

He’s created an impressive, nautical fleet based on historical documentaries he’s watched, research and his own imagination.

"I have a 2-foot aircraft carrier,” he explained, adding: “I have a 3-foot yacht, a 7-foot modern cruise ship. I have the Titanic that’s 8 feet; I have an 11-foot modern cruise ship, and a 6-foot, old cruise ship.”

None of Johnson's ships are painted. He prefers the simple tan color of cardboard. But all are loaded with details like curving promenade decks, lifeboats, deck chairs and dangling anchors.

A detailed cruiseship made out of tan cardboard.
Francis Willard
/
Otter Valley Union High School, Courtesy
A cruise ship built by Otter Valley Union High School senior Cooper Johnson was displayed last month in the school's lobby. The display was part of an end-of-year student art exhibit.
view of top of cardboard cruise ship.
Meredith McCartney, Courtesy
/
The deck of an imaginary cruise ship built out of cardboard by Otter Valley Union High School senior Cooper Johnson.

His military destroyers have tiny antennas and gun turrets. Miniature jets are lined up on his aircraft carriers, along with a toy-sized helicopter that looks ready to take off.

On one of Johnson's carriers, the back panel comes off.

"And you can actually take it apart and look inside,” he said as he lifted up the flap. “You can see the jets in the hangar down below, where they would do maintenance if they had any problems or things like that.”

A photo showing a teenager bending over a cardboard hangar deck of a ship with a glue gun.
Nina Keck
/
VPR
Cooper Johnson says with some very sharp scissors his mom got him, a pair of X-ACTO knives and lots and lots of hot glue, he's been able to build pretty much anything he can dream up.

Johnson’s models rest on nearly every spare surface in the crowded two-story barn he uses for a workshop.

Even his dad’s antique truck — a classic red 1950 GMC — has cardboard ships on every fender.

Sitting down at his work table, Johnson notices a tank he’s been crafting needs something. Within seconds he’s cutting and gluing and cutting and gluing … repeating a frenetic back and forth until he’s satisfied.

“I don’t measure,” he explains. “I just cut here and here... and that fits in there like that.”

Johnson knows he sees things and thinks about things differently than other kids his age. It doesn’t make things easy for him. But his unique wiring may also be his superpower when it comes to spatial design and attention to detail.

A young man in a green T-shirt holds a cardboard yacht he crafted.
Nina Keck
/
VPR
Cooper Johnson holds a yacht he built out of cardboard at the family's home in Pittsford.

“I can add this detail here,” he said, gluing on a small strip of cardboard. “And boom, it’s right there.”

Johnson says he can spend hours at his work table, lost in his creative process. To set the mood, he likes music playing in the background, usually dramatic instrumental scores.

“Sometimes it's magical,” he said, “Sometimes it's epic and dark ... sometimes it's rock music.”

Working with cardboard provides the alone time he craves, and a safe place to escape from the pressures of being a teenager right now.

“It definitely helps you not think about COVID,” he said, “though COVID has never really scared me or bothered me.”

A cardboard rabit sits on a scultpure of a cardboard ship.
Nina Keck
/
VPR
Besides suits of armor and a fleet of ships, Cooper Johnson says he also enjoys making more whimsical things, like this rabbit.

Johnson's sculptures were on display last month at Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon, where he's finishing his senior year.

He said his plans for next year are still fluid. But he’ll keep building things.

Maybe, he said, a replica of the Ticonderoga steamship that they can put on display at the Shelburne Museum.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Nina Keck:

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