James Rada, Jr.
When Emily Kline saw how much her mother enjoyed cutting pieces of paper, she decided to try it herself. She attended a class with her mother, Joyce, at the Blue Ridge Summit Library, and spent an hour cutting shapes from an 8.5×11-inch piece of paper. After an hour, she held up the paper and smiled at the image of a parrot she had created.
Once the paper was mounted on a black, uncut piece of paper, she had created her first piece of scherenschnitte artwork.
Many people consider scherenschnitte a lost art form.
Although the name scherenschnitte (pronounced SHARE-en-schnit-tah) is German, meaning “scissor snipping,” it is believed to have originated in China. The Chinese version is more directly related to cutting out silhouettes, though.
The Germans are the ones who popularized the paper cutting still practiced today. The early pieces were cut from white paper and mounted on black paper.
“The Germans and some of the Swiss brought it to America,” says Bill Hammann, who has been practicing scherenschnitte for 20 years.
Many of the earliest traditional forms of scherenschnitte are displayed in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, at the Ephrata Cloister. Monks and nuns created them to display religious themes. Other religious sects in Pennsylvania, such as Mennonites and Schwenkfelders, used the art form for designing school awards, birth and wedding certificates, and Liebes Briefen or love letters. This form eventually melded with the English Valentine.
“Women tended to work with scissors and men tended to cut with knives,” Bill says.
The patterns used today are intricate designs that are often done with X-acto Knives that allow the artisan to make small, precise cuts.
Experienced cutters have worked without patterns and cut freehand. Another variation involves folding the piece of paper and cutting through multiple layers of paper that creates a symmetrical design when unfolded. There is also a method of layering the paper to create a 3-D effect to the finished piece.
Enjoying the Art
Bill enjoyed oil painting as a hobby when he was discharged from the U.S. Army in 1999. His brother collected scherenschnitte and encouraged Bill to try it. Bill purchased some books from a store in Lancaster and tried his hand at scherenschnitte.
It was challenging, and at times, frustrating. He gave the work up for six months at one point, but started again because he couldn’t leave the piece he had been working on unfinished. Now he can’t imagine not doing it. His pieces are in demand and he often sells them at local shows.
He estimates he has created 2,700 pieces of scherenschnitte over the years.
Joyce finds scherenschnitte relaxing, and it consumes her attention. “I was sitting there one night working on a piece and before I knew it, three hours had passed.”
She has completed dozens of pieces now. Each new one seems to be a little more complex than the last.
Bill meets with anyone who is interested in learning scherenschnitte on the first Tuesday of each month at the Blue Ridge Summit Library. The group works on cutting designs while he is on hand to offer help and advice if needed. It’s a free class and everyone is welcome.
Joyce has cut a few dozen pieces in nearly two years. She said that just like doing anything new, there is a learning curve, in particular holding an X-acto Knife for extended periods of time and making precise cuts.
“The first night I did it, it was really awkward then I started to pick it up,” Joyce says.
Katrina Ambrose has been cutting for slightly less than a year and is enjoying the cutting and the resulting designs.
She says, “You are only limited by your imagination.”