Just about everyone has cut a paper snowflake or two as a kid. For artist Karen Bit Vejle of Denmark, cutting paper into fanciful shapes is more than a winter pastime. It’s an artistic calling. And she wants to share it with the world.
Her multiyear effort to inspire would-be papercutting artists and start conversations between nations is featured in “Paper Dialogues: The Dragon and Our Stories,” a cross-cultural collaboration with Chinese artist Xiaoguang Qiao, on display at the National Nordic Museum through Jan. 31, 2022.
Papercutting, or psaligraphy, has a long history. The artform originated in China more than 1,500 years ago. Denmark, too, has a robust tradition of papercutting going back hundreds of years. As a child, Vejle enjoyed creating traditional gækkebreve, a type of cut-out letter. She was drawn to the physicality and intimacy of using scissors to coax images from paper.
“When you use scissors, you use your whole body. You turn and move the paper. You bring it close to your heart,” she explained.
Her primary tool is her mother’s embroidery scissors, which she has used ever since she began creating art at age 16. It takes her a year to complete a large piece. No glues or adhesives are involved. If she makes a mistake while cutting, the work has to be scrapped. In the beginning, she used to make many mistakes, but not anymore.
“After years of ‘rehearsing’ I do not make false starts,” she said.
Several years into her artistic career, Vejle had an idea: What if she and a Chinese papercutting artist collaborated to share their work with the people of their respective countries? The project, as she envisioned it, would debut in 2014, the 60th anniversary of the establishment of official diplomatic relations between China and Norway.
“I wanted to make some kind of papercut dialogue,” she recalled. But, as she soon learned, it wasn’t easy!
Her first step was to search for “the best papercutter in China.” She found them — as well as a kindred spirit — in Xiaoguang Qiao. Qiao is a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing who spent years visiting Chinese provinces to collect papercuttings for preservation and display.
“He’s exactly the same age as me. And he’s a fantastic artist,” said Vejle. “I was sure he was the right person for the project.”
The next step was to settle on a theme that would inspire dialogue between Chinese and Norwegian art lovers.
“We tried to find a theme both cultures could engage with. All Scandinavians have a fascination and knowledge about dragons. In China, it’s exactly the same. Dragons have always been part of the world — every culture has dragons,” explained Vejle. “I suggested to [Qiao] that we could create a dialogue that starts with the dragon. I would tell the Scandinavian version of the dragon myths to the Chinese, and he would tell the Chinese version to the Scandinavians.”
To that end, Qiao chose to create a 9-meter-long dragon from black paper with the tail of a phoenix and a body composed of a DNA helix, representing chaos and renewal. In response, Vejle decided, “I will make dragon eggs. Where do dragons come from? Eggs. … Eggs are a wonderful symbol of new beginnings.”
She created seven eggs using white paper: three representing the past, one representing the present and three representing the future. Her artistic process in designing the eggs involved a great deal of research into the iconography and symbols of Chinese culture, since the primary motivation of the project wasn’t simply artistic expression: It was cross-cultural communication.
“It’s not easy to make people from a completely different culture understand what your culture is about. I tried to find things in the Chinese culture that would help them understand the Scandinavian culture. Things that would make them smile,” Vejle said. “I used a lot of humor in my art.”
As with all ongoing conversations, there was some conflict.
“[Professor Qiao] didn’t like my use of white paper. He said that, in China, white is the color of death. He preferred black paper. But in Scandinavia, it’s completely the opposite. Black is death. White is happiness; it’s spring; it’s snow,” she said.
Also, while both she and Qiao use scissors to create their paper art, his are much larger than hers — nearly twice the size — and he prefers rougher cuts, while her style features tiny, incredibly intricate snips.
Once completed, the papercuts were mounted between glass panels and hung from the ceiling to give the flat paper a sculptural, three-dimensional presence in the gallery space. This mounting technique would let visitors see the art from all angles and allow light to shine through the delicate cuts, casting shadows on the floor, walls and viewers for an immersive artistic experience.
“Professor Qiao had never before seen papercuts mounted between glass. He didn’t quite like hanging papercuts from the ceiling as I do. He felt that art should be grounded. But he decided to try hanging his, too,” said Vejle.
The artistic conversation was progressing fruitfully. But then, said Vejle, a year into the project, disaster struck.
In 2010, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. The response from the Chinese government, Vejle recalled, was swift.
“China immediately boycotted Norwegians. We thought our project would be totally impossible. The Chinese government was very angry,” she said.
It took some deft negotiating and a complicated diplomatic process, but the project was allowed to continue. Still, right up until the end, Vejle and Qiao were concerned the exhibition might not open.
But in 2014, it did. The exhibit made its debut, as scheduled, in Beijing. The event made headlines in newspapers throughout Scandinavia and was covered by numerous Chinese television stations, magazines and newspapers. Norwegian diplomats and Chinese government officials attended the exhibition’s opening.
“They did not speak to each other. But they were there,” she said. To her, it represented a first step in reestablishing communication between the two countries. “This is what art can do. The whole project was about dialogue.”
After its premiere in China, the exhibit traveled to Norway, then to ArtHouse Jersey in the Channel Islands located off the coast of France. There, local artists Layla May Arthur and Emma Reid were inspired to create their own papercuttings, which are included in the Seattle incarnation of the exhibit.
“That was exactly what Professor Qiao and I hoped for — that the dialogue would continue,” Vejle said.
“Paper Dialogues: The Dragon and Our Stories” opened in Seattle for its North American debut on Oct. 28. After Seattle, the exhibit will move to the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. Though the pandemic has forced museums around the world to modify their exhibition schedules, at times restricting artwork available for display due to issues with international transportation and travel, the process for acquiring and mounting “Paper Dialogues” was smooth, according to Leslie Anderson, Director of Collections, Exhibitions and Programs at the National Nordic Museum.
The museum plans to offer activities so visitors can try their hands at papercutting. “We have a robust arts and crafts program. Papercutting has been really popular with participants,” Anderson said. These will include a holiday-themed papercutting workshop, a Nordic paper snow star craft project for kids and a virtual program in which Vejle will demonstrate how to make paper snow crystals.
“I hope that when people see the exhibition, they will be inspired. Not just to make papercuts, but to make a dialogue with other cultures and other people,” Vejle said. “In Denmark, Christmas is papercutting time. I hope the people of Seattle will come and make papercuts at the museum.”