Scissors for a Brush
Karen Bit Vejle creates images of air and paper. Using a pair of scissors as a tool, she cuts her own multi-faceted world into the paper. The works are formed from a large, continuous piece of paper that is folded one, two, and three times, and then cut using only a pair of scissors. Every single scissor cut is carefully planned, as the slightest mistake can have disastrous consequences for the finished result. This is a slow art of painstaking patience that demands the utmost concentration. The distinctive character and development of paper cutting has been much overlooked in the history of art. Many may call themselves paper cutters, but few count themselves true artists of the discipline. It is in this rare category that Karen Bit Vejle is at home. Her form of expression, psaligraphy, literally means the art of drawing or painting with scissors.
Karen Bit Vejle’s magical cuttings in the travelling exhibition Scissors for a brush are rooted in a tradition that has known a long journey through history. But she has created a personal style and technique that are entirely her own. For more than 30 years she has been absorbed, fascinated, and deeply committed to this art form that developed from small, simple snowflakes to unusually large and
highly complex image cuttings. She is one of very few in Scandinavia who can cut at such an advanced technical and artistic level. There is a great degree of humour in Karen Bit Vejle's world of imagery; humour and the ability to identify joy in small things. Just as often, though, she confronts deep seriousness and themes intended to invoke involvement and reflection. Her works are captivating surprise packages. By meeting Karen Bit Vejle’s images of air and paper we can find ourselves both surprised and inspired!
Paper cutting in Denmark
Paper cutting’s strong position in Karen Bit Vejle’s homeland of Denmark can be linked to the tradition of sending Gækkebrev, a type of traditional letter sent at Easter containing a riddle. The forerunner to this custom was the German “Binding letter,” which was also seen in Norway in the 1600s. If one received a binding letter on his or her birthday and could not manage to solve the riddle included in the letter, the recipient was obligated to hold a dinner gathering. A gækkebrev is a little paper cutting with a verse inside. It would be sent in the spring when the snowdrops were twinkling up from the ground. Since this often took place around the Easter season, the gækkebrev became a tradition closely associated with this holiday. Gække is a word for snowdrop in Danish, and a little snowdrop is supposed to be included in every gækkebrev – as a messenger of the coming spring. The gækkebrev was sent to a person one was fond of or in love with, and the sender left his or her name conspicuously absent. If the recipient managed to guess who had sent the letter, the sender either had to offer a kiss, an Easter egg, or a ticket to the theatre. In the opposite case, the recipient had to offer the same.
Hans Christian Andersen - the most well-known paper cutter
"Cutting is the fledgling beginning of poetry...” wrote Hans Christian Andersen in a letter to a good friend in 1867. He was undoubtedly the most well-known paper cutter in Scandinavia during his time, and certainly helped contribute to the great popularity of the art form in Denmark. H.C. Andersen was an excellent paper cutter and not only considered cutting a delightful diversion, but also a challenge for the spirit. He was therefore never without a small pair of scissors that he kept together with his pen.
It is said that while H. C. Andersen would also tell an exciting story while he cut paper. The story ended when the cutting was complete. As a finishing touch he would unfold the folded paper and reveal the content to his audience – a magical moment.
The History of paper cutting
Paper has great potential as creative material. It can be cut and shorn into patterns, folded into one- or three-dimensional figures, or soar through the sky in the form of fantastic kites. Ever since paper was invented in China more than 2,000 years ago, the use of the material in art works has been significant. In fact, paper was used to decorate long before it was used to write. The oldest known paper cutting, stemming from the 500s, is a symmetrical circle from the Xinjiang province. "I cut paper to summon my souls...” said Chinese national poet Tu Fu some 200 years later.
In the beginning, when paper was still something of an exclusive item, paper art was primarily practised by members of imperial courts. Written sources speak of a number of paper cutters who demonstrated great variety in pattern and technique. The motifs were both purely decorative or contained scenes from everyday life. While professional paper cutters were primarily men who often worked together in workshops, a feminine tradition developed in the rural areas of mainland China. It was expected that every young woman would master paper cutting, and brides-to-be were often judged on the basis of their skill with scissors. Paper cutting is still a highly valued form of folk art in China. Doors and windows are decorated with colourful and spectacular cuttings for special occasions.
The art of paper cutting spread with the Silk Road to the rest of the world during the 1300s. From India we know the Sanjih tradition, a ritual cut that is associated with the adoration of the Krishna figure. In various countries such as Japan, Mexico, Poland, Germany and Switzerland, paper cutters made considerable contributions to Christian and folk art. In Jewish tradition stemming from Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere, paper cutting has played a central role in mysticism and symbolism, where religious texts are often incorporated in the work.
Paper later became a more affordable item, a product that most could afford to acquire. Paper cutting therefore became an art form accessible across the spectrum. And from less costly paper grew the most fantastic works of art and decorations.
One variant of paper cutting is known under the name silhouette cutting or shadow outlines. The origin of the silhouette as an idea goes all the way back to classical antiquity, but became established as a form of art in Europe in the late 1600s. The name was taken in honour of the French finance minister Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767). His favourite hobby was cutting profiles and portraits in black paper. It has been claimed that Johann Kaspar Lavater’s text from the 1770s on human physiognomy stimulated interest in this activity, as the book was richly illustrated with silhouettes. The silhouette caught on and became fashionable, even in royal circles where several members of the court would spend time cutting out portraits and landscape scenes.
Travelling silhouette cutters made a good living from this popular art form and visited towns large and small to cut out silhouettes, family portraits and scenes from everyday life for a reasonable fee. It was much less costly than having one’s portrait painted. Meanwhile, it became increasingly common in the 1800s to paint silhouettes instead of cutting them. With the introduction of portrait photography, interest in the silhouette waned.
By Sissel Guttormsen