A cut above: The art of Jenny Lee Fowler

When Jenny Lee Fowler moved from Oregon in 1997, she decided to mark each snowfall that first winter in the East by cutting a snowflake out of paper. Being a person who makes things by hand, it seemed like a fun thing to do. Then, like the icy flakes that drift lazily on the wind before becoming a full-fledged storm, the act of cutting paper snowflakes took on a momentum of its own as Fowler became fascinated with the folk tradition of papercutting.

One day, her father-in-law asked her if she’d ever done a portrait, like the silhouettes created by folk artists. Her interest piqued, Fowler dared herself to cut 100 portraits of people. Beginning with friends and family, she later moved on to cutting portraits of strangers, who would sit for her at the campus center at Bard, where Fowler worked.

“I practiced a lot and found that I totally loved it,” says Fowler. “It kind of surprised me because I’d thought of silhouette portraits as these kind of ‘stuffy’ things, and then I realized that they were really cross-sections of people at a moment in time. I started to see them as more dynamic.”

Fowler came across a passage in which one of the early papercutters called silhouette portraits “a moment’s monument,” a description that she finds particularly apt. “They really do capture a little moment, and even the same person can have a different portrait the next day,” Fowler explains.

Artful papercutting is now Fowler’s niche, and the images that she creates are as fresh as tomorrow, managing somehow to convey tradition and the presence of an artist’s hand with a bold, graphic verve that speaks to the modern sensibilities of the 21st-century eye.

 

Process

Fowler creates portrait silhouettes using the traditional freehand method. Observing a person in profile from about four or five feet away (either sitting in front of her or on a computer screen), she cuts their likeness directly into the paper. The process is like contour line drawing. People are often surprised that she cuts directly into the paper without sketching anything out first, Fowler says, but adds that it would actually be harder for her to do it that way.

She will go back and refine the edges of the silhouette (“It’s better to start with too long of a nose than too short,” Fowler says), but finds that after doing so many portraits, her scissors have become an extension of her hand and mind. “In the same way that that’s true for some people with their pencil,” she says, “I can doodle with my scissors, and I don’t have to think any more about what to do.”

Then there are the complex paper “snowflake” designs, which are not snowflakes at all, but are so named because they’re cut using the same folded-paper techniques as those used to make a snowflake (although they’re sometimes done as a “flat cut” without folding, too).

Many of these designs, with intricately detailed imagery, are made to commemorate special memories or an important milestone in someone’s life, like the piece on which Fowler is working now for a family where the parents are celebrating a 40th wedding anniversary. “There are 11 figures in it,” she says, “folk likenesses of family members, and I’ve taken a handful of things that are important to them, like hunting and fishing and blueberries, and worked all of that into the composition.” These complex pieces do require drawing out the image before cutting, and sketches are shown to the client beforehand for approval.

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