Posts Tagged ‘paper cutting’

Photo: Kate Laster.
Kate Laster’s paper cutout “Waiting Game” (2022).

I’ve been reading almost more than I can bear lately about the Holocaust, so when I saw this unusual use of a Jewish paper-cutting tradition at Hyperallergic, it really spoke to me.

Isabella Segalovich wrote, “April 5 marked the first night of Passover. Upholding Jewish tradition, we reclined in our chairs, sang boisterously, and drank ample wine. We reveled in the joy and safety many of us are thankful to have in the present while holding close the memory of those that came before us. Alaskan-born Jewish artist Kate Laster carves those memories into delicate paper cuts. Then, she dunks that paper in the ocean.

“ ‘My art is about the people we carry with us,’ she told Hyperallergic in an interview.

“Laster’s first memories are of snow floating on water. She grew up moving from place to place in rural Alaska, from temperate rainforest of Juneau to the icy treeless wilderness in Utqiaġvik. In a world ‘dense with imagination,’ as she described it, she learned to whittle scraps of wood into small figures while hearing stories and poetry by a warm fireside. She said she first saw language being used as a ‘visual medium in the sense of people putting time aside and really either being in nature or being in warm space talking.’

“Today, she uses the visual force behind letters themselves, cutting paper into vibrant collages with fragments of poems — some collected, some written by her. The paper is thoroughly weathered as stencils, multiplying its message as it’s doused in spray paint again and again. Then, she painstakingly laminates the paper by hand, using ‘really scruffy bits of tape.’ The ritual is completed at sundown when Laster dips her works into the Pacific Ocean. As the paper undulates and floats, she understands the waves, part of a living, ‘primordial soup,’ to be reading the text on the pages.

“Laster’s youth in Alaska is proof that the Jewish diaspora spreads far beyond the urban landscape. But for all of us, Jewish practices are deeply tied to the natural world. Festivals begin with the setting sun. … As the great star sets, Laster lifts the text up from the water. And as drips fall off its edges, she uses the hollow paper cut as a viewfinder, so words are filled with the sky. 

“The water that laps at Laster’s paper cuts is of the same body that carried our ancestors as they wandered the world, searching for home and safety. “…

“Laster is one of growing number of anti-Zionist American Jews. For those who do not wish to move to Israel, it’s common to lift up and celebrate the beauty of the diaspora. Following the love of movement, this celebration is also a deep love of the places we find ourselves now. For the Laster, that place is the Bay Area, where the Mexican and Chicano paper-cutting tradition of papel picado is tied to trees lining the Mission, a historically Latinx neighborhood. Chinese paper cuts — 窗花 chuāng huā, or ‘window flowers’ — bloom in glass panes. …

“But this artist’s work is also a part of her own ancestry. Jewish paper cutting is a centuries-old tradition that used to be much more commonplace. It was practiced by both professionals and amateurs at home, not only for marriage contracts or ketubot, but also for holidays like Shavuot and Sukkot. Laster now sees herself as a part of the newest generation carrying it forth. With no other materials needed than paper and a sharp edge, she sees the beauty in paper cutting’s accessibility.

“The belief that everyone has a fundamental right to engage with and create art is central to Laster’s work, both in and outside of her visual practice. She runs suggested donation-based art history classes, and has held a position as a studio assistant at Hospitality House’s Community Arts Program, a free-of-charge art studio for unhoused and low-income residents of the Tenderloin. Today, she works as a studio facilitator at the NIAD Art Center, a creative space for artists with disabilities. …

“ ‘Printmaking and paper cut in general are about accessibility, making a message, a transmission, go as far as possible,’ she said. Laster is also in the tradition of modern Jewish graphic arts: Words that dance and shout diagonally across the page recall the utopian dreams of the 1920s Eastern European Kultur-Lige (Culture League) artists like El Lissitzky and Nathan Altman. …

“Messages can be interpreted differently depending on who hears them. ‘This is the struggle of sharing, of trying to convey anything you feel to someone else. And knowing once it’s public, it can be altered and transformed and interpreted,’ Laster noted. ‘I revel in that.’

“Laster’s work is also deeply personal, as she grieves the loss of her father during the COVID-19 pandemic. In ‘Kaddish Reunion’ (2021) a self-portrait shows the artist sitting by her father’s bedside. Spray-painted shapes bleed into each other. The text typical of her pieces is replaced by swirls, stars, and leaves. Shadows of these words return in another laminated book. Lovingly saved scraps from past paper cuts are laminated alongside a plastic bag that says ‘THANK YOU.’ The only full words are on the cover: ‘I don’t know how to say goodbye.

“Laster’s father was a pilot of a small bush plane. As a child, she studied the dense text and cartoons of flight emergency manuals, replicated today in her shining messages of grief, love, and hope. Perhaps the Haggadah is another kind of emergency manual: a guide on how to keep on going?

“On Passover, we remember those that came before us and those that we lost. … We taste the bitter herbs of longing and grief, but also wash down dry matzoh with sweet wine. And most importantly, we argue, laugh, and tell stories of our survival.”

More at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall. Check out the short video of a paper cutout floating on water.

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Art: Anna Kronick.
Anna Kronick is one of very few Judaic paper cutters practicing today.

Every time you think an artistic tradition is dying out, some free spirit reinvents it for a new age. Consider the art of sacred paper cutting and its long history in Jewish communities.

Isabella Segalovich reports at Hyperallergic, “Few today know that the walls of many Jewish homes used to be covered with intricate papercuts. Bursting with detailed ornamentation and religious symbolism, these artworks decorated Jewish homes in Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia for centuries. While some homes today may have a paper-cut marriage certificate or ketubah, the tradition has mostly evaporated. Much of the fragile paper archive was lost to the fires of the Holocaust, or has disintegrated over timeAnna Kronick is one of very few Judaic paper cutters practicing today, with a highly contemporary body of work that breathes new life into the sacred tradition. 

“After graduating from the New York Academy of Art as a sculptor in the ’90s, Kronick was working as a conservator when she came across a richly illustrated book, Traditional Jewish Papercuts by Joseph and Yehudit Shadur. ‘When you come across paper cutting, it’s usually Chinese or Polish. So when I came across Shadur’s book, I was amazed to find that Jews had been doing it too,’ she told Hyperallergic. …

“Some 25 years of practice later, Kronick has earned a place as a master artisan who not only continues this little-known craft but brings a fresh approach that allows the tradition to live on and evolve. 

“Traditional Judaic papercuts are made by slicing through a folded piece of paper, which is then unfolded to reveal a perfectly symmetrical design. While Kronick fell in love with their intricacy, she found this strict symmetry too confining. Instead, her pieces are defined by movement: Her compositions curve as if being blown by the wind. Stunningly, she rarely sketches out her designs. Kronick often draws with the knife itself, allowing her visions to guide her as she cuts through thin silkscreen paper.

‘In the beginning, I drew more,’ she said. ‘But the more I cut the less I drew.’ 

“Some of her papercuts bring life to old Yiddish songs. A navy blue paper rendition of ‘Belz, mayn shtetele Belz’ (Belz, my shtetl belz) lovingly depicts a group of Klezmer musicians — appropriate for a song about longing to return to a life of Jewish community. But while her Yiddish illustrations often contain English lettering, she prefers the graceful lines of Hebrew. ‘I don’t really do a lot of English text, because it stops the eye. It prevents movement,’ she says. ‘But Hebrew just flows.’ 

“Hebrew lettering is woven into her visions of passages from the Bible, like the story of Joseph. … This piece is dense with lush palm trees, bending piles of grain, and billowing patterned textiles. Look closely and you can find tiny cattle, brick walls, and a vast array of plant life swirling together in a dazzling vortex of religious symbolism. 

“The earliest recording of Jewish paper cutting comes from a whimsical 1345 treatise titled The War of the Pen Against the Scissors. The Spanish Rabbi Shem-Tov ben Yitzhak Ardutie describes how he resorted to cutting letters out of his parchment when his ink froze on a cold winter night. Since paper is so delicate, there is little physical evidence to trace the history of papercuts,. … Expert Joseph Shadur has written that the ‘more we learn about Jewish papercuts in one form or another, the more reason we have to believe that they were once exceedingly common.’ 

“While ritual art like spice boxes and Torah crowns were made out of expensive materials, paper was cheap and plentiful in many Jewish homes. Anyone could take up a small blade and develop their own masterpieces at home for very little money, thus fulfilling the Jewish principle of creating beautiful spiritual art known as hiddur mitzvah.

“Papercuts were hung from walls and windows as decorations for holidays like Sukkot and Shavuot, as calendars, and even as protective amulets to ward off the evil eye. We often imagine life in the shtetl as cold, gray, and dull. Rather, it was bursting with color and life. ‘Of all Jewish ritual and folk art, papercuts … lent themselves to the freest expression of religious spirit,’ Shadur wrote. 

“ ‘I think in pictures. When I listen to a Yiddish song, I just see it,’ said Kronick. ‘Maybe that’s why I don’t need drawing — I just cut it.’ But it’s nothing compared with how she sees passages from the Torah: ‘For me, the [Yiddish songs] don’t flow as much, even though it’s music.’ When she reads the texts, ‘it just moves differently. I can see the letters interwoven with the pattern.’ In work that keeps a beautiful craft from being forgotten, the results are deeply spiritual pieces, where we can witness Jewish joy and ancestral memories with our own eyes.”

Lots papercuts at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall, but subscriptions encouraged.

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An early stage in the creation of a Hari & Deepti light box

Do you ever click on the links to the right, in my blog roll? My Dad’s Records, for example, has old blues recordings you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

And This Is Colossal is a constant wonder. Today the art and visual-culture site posted illuminated paper light boxes that have to be seen to be believed.

Says Colossal: “Deepti Nair and Harikrishnan Panicker (known collectively as Hari & Deepti) are an artist couple [originally from India] who create paper cut light boxes. Each diorama is made from layers of cut watercolor paper placed inside a shadow box and is lit from behind with flexible LED light strips. The small visual narratives depicted in each work often play off aspects of light including stars, flames, fireflies, and planets. The couple shares about their work …

‘What amazes us about the paper cut light boxes is the dichotomy of the piece in its lit and unlit state, the contrast is so stark that it has this mystical effect on the viewers.’ ”


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Some outstanding musicians have performed in the Cambridge and Boston subways over the years. I never know quite what to expect.

New Yorkers also get some nice surprises in the subway. Alex Vadukul of the NY Times writes about a paper-cutting portraitist who works fast:

“In the congested world of subway performers, where dance troupes, conga circles and violin players blur, Ming Liang Lu, 57, is an alluring presence. A self-described ‘master paper portrait cutter,’ he has the ability to trim facial portraits out of frail paper within minutes, compelling some riders to willingly miss their trains.

“Mr. Lu practices several ancient Chinese art forms, and says he hails from a noted Shanghai teaching lineage. On weekends, he teaches calligraphy, painting and cutting at the New York Chinese Cultural Center. He said that in Shanghai, his birth city, he was renowned for stone sculpture and stamp seal carving. He credits the facial portraits to his formative training in a three-dimensional form.” 3-D before 3-D. Read all about it.

Photograph: Joshua Bright for the NY Times

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