ONE OF MY favorite Charles Addams cartoons showed a smirking child holding up a string of paper cutouts in the shape of little people, the sort kids make in kindergarten. And in the middle of those little identical cutouts was a ghoulishly different cutout.
But paper cutting is not child's play. A folk art of ancient and modern dimensions, as intricate and beautiful as a painting, paper cutting is found today in Mexico, Portugal, Poland, China (where it probably originated, shortly after the invention of paper), Japan, Switzerland, Holland, Israel and the United States. Each country and culture uses its own identifiable images, available materials--and similar techniques.
Jerry Novorr, a paper-cutting artist in Los Angeles, says most of his cuts are made on paper that is folded once, so a mirror image is revealed when the paper is unfolded. Any writing, of course, has to be cut out after the unfolding. Artists use X-Acto knives, single-edge razor blades or manicuring scissors to make the cuts, the scissors giving "smaller and better curves," Novorr says. He cuts the paper on a plastic self-healing board, the same used by quilters and seamstresses, and he uses 100% rag-content, acid-free paper because it won't yellow with age and will last a long time. Artists do not draw designs on the paper; the marks might show, and sometimes the work is too delicate to risk an erasure. Novorr draws his designs on tracing paper and then transfers the finished design to the back of the cutting paper.
Novorr teaches paper cutting at Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, the University of Judaism in West Los Angeles and at separate workshops "here and there." The extension classes at University of Judaism are open to the public.
Olga Ponce Furginson, who teaches Mexican paper cutting through the Los Angeles Unified School District and at Plaza de la Raza in Los Angeles, uses small chisels to cut through several layers of tissue paper--as many as 70--at one time. "These are used for different occasions, such as weddings, Day of the Dead, and so on," Furginson says. The Mexican paper cuts are not mounted like pictures, as are Novorr's. (Sonrisa Gallery in Los Angeles frequently carries Mexican paper cuttings.)
Furginson says that the art of paper cutting is flourishing in other countries; a recent exhibit in Holland had 800 registered paper cutters participating. There are still a few master paper cutters in Mexico, she says, but in this country she couldn't find more than "one little book" on the subject.
In addition to teaching paper cutting, Novorr and Furginson each make paper cuttings on commission. Furginson will be decorating the Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles with paper cuttings for the holiday season. Many of Novorr's projects are commemorative works commissioned by Jewish institutions, but he recently completed one for "People's Court" Judge Wapner's 70th birthday.