As I discovered papercutting, I began to read into it’s history and realised that it is a long established art form that has been practiced in many cultures. In this post I’ve summarised some interesting facts I’ve come across about the history of papercutting, and hopefully sharing this contribute to giving paper artists from the past and future the respect they deserve within the canon of art.
Papercutting is a term that is applied to a variety of different ways of creating an image by cutting into paper. Often we think of 2D illustrative images, but papercutting is also used in paper sculpture, collage, installation, stencil making, shadow puppets and other arts. I think its wonderful how such a simple material can be used in so many ways.
It many different cultures papercutting and papercraft are used in symbolic ceremony or religious events. For example in parts of China papercuts are put up around the home to mark the Spring Festival and bring good luck, as well as for other festivals and celebrations. In Japanese culture it is known as Kirigami, the art of cut paper. Papel Picado is the Mexican folk art of papercutting, and literally translates as ‘punched’ paper. Tissue paper is cut with scissors or a chisel to create ephemeral banners that are hung at all major holidays, and well as celebrations such as weddings and funerals. In Indian art papercutting is called Sanjhi, and the paper is used as a stencil on the floor in which colours are placed to create Rangoli. In Jewish culture papercutting is a traditional folk art, with papercuts often created as symbolic artworks for religious ceremony, as well as using paper artwork to decorate windows. Papercutting also has a long history in Swedish, Swiss, Filipino and Eastern European culture where it is known as Wycinanki.
Papercutting has traveled with people to represent their daily lives and traditions. In Germany and Switzerland Scherenschnitte, which translates to English as ‘scissors cutting’, was a very popular folk art in the 16th century. These designs would sometimes involve folding the paper to create symmetrical patterns, but could also be cut directly into a single sheet of paper to create a pictorial image. Scherenschnitte traveled to America with German immigrants in the 18th century, and is particularly strong as an art form in Pennsylvania.
Papercutting has traditionally been seen as a ‘feminine craft’ but this is changing. For many centuries papercutting was considered a hobby craft for women to enjoy, and because of this the work of many brilliant female artists went without recognition, or their story was lost in history.
Joanna Koerton was born in 1650 in Amsterdam, where she lived until 1715. Creating papercut portraits of the rich and powerful, she experienced great success as an artist, and at the time one of her works sold for three times the amount of a Rembrant painting. Her technique of cutting extremely intricate detail into the paper created work that resembled engravings or an ink drawing, demonstrating the potential that papercutting had to hold it own against the more established ‘high’ art forms like painting.
This tension between the ‘crafts’ that women were encouraged to participate in and the ‘high’ arts of painting, sculpture and artchitecture is demonstrated by the stort of the opening of the Royal Academy of Art in 1768. Of the 34 founding members, only two were women. Originally the first Royal Academy exhibition of contemporary art in 1769 was an open call for all art froms, but within a year this was changed. On the 9th of April 1770 it was decreed that ‘No needlework, artifical flowers, cut paper, shell work or any such baubles shall be admitted into the exhibition.’ This was an instituational rejection of applied art and the art forms that were predominately practiced by women at the time, thereby excluding many women form being recognised as artists in their own right. You can learn more about this on the BBC Documentary The Story Of Women and Art.
Today of course papercutting is hugely popular and practised by people of all genders around the world. It’s really exciting to see it getting recognition as an art, and to see more people taking it up! I love teaching papercutting because it is so accessible, affordable and can offer people a form of mindfulness.
Sometimes I will visit the website of an illustrator whose work I like and I am always impressed if their biography says they always wanted to be an illustrator, they studied illustration and…then they became an illustrator! Oh to be that clear from early on what I wanted to do with myself! My journey to becoming a paper artist and illustrator has been long and winding, with detours and diversions all over the shop.
True, from a young age I had lots of ‘notions’ about being an artist. I also used to like playing ‘school’ and make my little brother sit down and do maths in the summer holidays while I was the ‘teacher’, which in retrospect was probably only fun for one of us but implies I had ambitions to teach. I also wanted to be a vet for a while until my inability to manage basic maths derailed that dream, and after watching ‘Space Camp’ A LOT I had fantasies about being an astronaut for some time. Being creative and drawing was less of a career aspiration and more of a long running thread throughout my life, and when I was a teenager it became a sort of therapy that I would turn to whenever life was too difficult, which let’s be honest, as a teenager is most of the time for a lot of us.
I focused on the arts and history pretty easily as my favourite subjects and has decided by my A Levels I wanted to go to art school. I did a year of Art Foundation (which I still think about as one of the best years of my education and should be more valued as a pathway now) and at some point during this I chose sculpture pathway. I think, primarily, this was because I perceived sculpture to be the ‘coolest’ choice as it involved wood, metal and plaster, sharp tools and wearing a boiler suit. If I were being kinder to my naive 18 year old self, perhaps what it also offered was the most experimentation with different mediums, and the opportunity to learn lots of new techniques. Because to me, choosing one medium meant closing the door on all the others and I really didn’t like that idea. This is an important point, which I’ll probably come back to at several points in this strange, extended essay about my life.
Somehow, presenting a bizarre collection comprising of a pile of art journals obsessively typed into interfacing on an ancient typewriter and then hand sewn into every page, some frankly creepy pencil drawings of people with animal ears, a photograph album of bits of broken doll parts cast in plaster and some miniature wedding dresses got me a place at Goldsmiths College in London. I had only applied to courses that didn’t have a specialism (see inability to choose anything as mentioned above) so I was excited to start and try all the different workshops, media and ideas. And try them I did. Being a bit of a Hermione Granger at heart I spent vast amounts of time in the library reading about every artist, art form or technique I could. In my three years at art college I made sculpture, installation, books, paintings, dolls houses, some really cringe worthy performance art (some performance art is amazing – mine was not), decided I wanted to be a glass artist and then graduated making film installations about the history of landscape and it’s relationship with communication technology.
As soon as I graduated I knew that I wasn’t a good fit for the London art world, and I was offered the opportunity to visit South Lakes in Cumbria where I decided to stay. I felt really confused about my relationship with my creativity at this time. My experience of art school had been both very challenging and fulfilling in some ways, but being taught to look at my work objectively had separated me from my passion for making things. I couldn’t engage with an artistic activity without constantly questioning ‘what it really meant’ and was it’s context was within the history of art. As a reaction to this I got a job in a shop and spent a lot of my time knitting, sewing and drawing which all brought me joy in small ways and helped me escape my own endless self-doubt.
I also began to volunteer on creative workshops for families, eventually running my own. Working with children and sharing in their powerful enthusiasm just to be creative was inspiring, and helped me to find my own love of art again. The fact that every class, group or project was new meant I was given permission learn absolutely every art form, and in fact this was seen as a strength! This led me to working for 7 years as a creative practitioner where I got to do some amazing projects from leading family activities in museums and galleries, to planting a sensory garden, to animation workshops and working on parades, carnivals and other celebratory arts events.
During this time I would say my specialism was in visual storytelling with 5 – 11 year olds. This included using illustration, animation and puppetry to explore with children how stories are created or re-told, and leading activities where they developed their own visual storytelling skills. In 2010 I began an MA in Art as Environment at Manchester School Of Art. I spent my time on my MA exploring how art and creativity could empower people, and completely immersed myself in learning everything I could about the art of puppetry and puppet making. I was lucky enough to work with some puppet theatres, celebratory arts companies and practitioner like Horse + Bamboo, Thingumajig Theatre, Handmade Parade and Ulverston Lantern Festival in this time. Yet again, I saw puppetry as the dream art form because it allowed me to do many things including draw, paint, sculpt, sew, animate and write stories.
As someone who loved to draw, I was especially interested in shadow puppetry and began to create my own shadow puppets, and to teach shadow puppet workshops and stop-motion animation. I read or bought every book I could find, and I have to say I don’t remember ever seeing a papercut mentioned…although I may not have been looking at this point! However, I liked my shadow puppets… I struggled seeing them getting bashed about, or being bound in a laminator to make them more hardy. So I began to cut pictures out of paper as well, and at some point I realised that the art of Rob Ryan which a friend had shown me wasn’t just screen prints, but were also an artform in it’s own right called papercutting!
I know this must seem funny now that paper arts have gained so much recognition, but papercutting just wasn’t talked about as much then as it is now, and up until 2010 there was no Instagram to easily show you the world of creative possibilities (also being somewhat un-hip I only joined Instagram in 2015). I had seen Scandinavian papercut collages in museums, and I’m sure I must have seen papercuts in the V&A, as well as traditional Victorian cut portraits. But it took me a while to realise that I could call myself a ‘papercutter’. Finding books like ‘Paper: Tear, Fold, Rip, Crease, Cut’ by Hatori Koshiro and Richard Sweeney showed me what it was possible to achieve with paper.
I spent my evenings googling paper art – trying to work out what the best tools were, which papers worked well and what adhesives to avoid. And I made many many mistakes…including using the same blunt scalpel for a month, trying to cut copy paper into an intricate papercut and getting a papercut I’d spent hours on stuck to brown paper after I coated it in cheap PVA. But eventually I began to use better tools and materials, and my technique began to improve too. It took me a while to work out what I wanted to represent as an artist. I began by making papercut borders for local business or for events posters for my community, all with a pretty whimsical, fairytale inspired feel.
But in 2014 I began working towards a solo show in a local cafe, and I decided to make a series of British birds with ornate patterns on their bodies, as I liked how this referenced Chinese and Scandinavian papercutting history without directly imitating these styles. And from there the world of representing nature in paper was opened up to me, and it’s been my focus ever since!
So, as I warned at the beginning of this post, my journey to making the artwork I do now was long and complicated! But I also feel glad I didn’t close too many doors too early, as this just doesn’t suit how my creativity works. I think the thing I love about paper art is how many different crafts that umbrella term can contain – from papercutting, sculpture, origami, book folding, papercut animation, quilling and more. It can involve drawing, cutting, construction, book making and paper engineering. There are just so many possibilities. And of course I want to do them….all!
But do I think I’ll be calling myself a paper artist for the rest of my life? In all honesty I doubt it. I’m sure over time my practice will evolve as my interests will change. But I do feel that at this point paper art is a key aspect of my work as an artist that excites me, and often brings me a lot of joy. And I hope that I can make a worthy contribution to this ancient way of producing art, and hopefully inspire other people to engage with their own creativity. For me, creativity is about the process not the final outcome, and being an artist is my way of life, not my ‘brand’. I have developed an approach where I focus more on certain aspects of my interests, and in order to make a living I communicate these in specific ways which I guess is branding. But I wanted to write this more for those, like me, who feel like they are never able to find their ‘thing’, and therefore they are somehow doing it wrong. I think having one clear practice is a way of being an artist, not neccessarily the way and it’s ok to try things, to experiment, to move on. After all isn’t that an inherent part of being creative and learning?