Behind the scenes… Adventures in Papercutting, Part 4

To continue from the last post…

My all-time-favorite-most exciting-inspiring part of our days in Lancaster was getting to see the Pennsylvania German papercuts and fraktur in the collections of both Landis Valley Museum and the Lancaster Cultural History Museum. In two areas, we were allowed to bring our cameras, and in another our sketchbooks were okay, but the camera wasn’t allowed. Either way was fine for me… I was just thrilled to see the stuff up close! Landis also mounted a special exhibit in their Visitor Center because the Guild was coming, but I think it’s going to be up for a while, so if anyone has a chance to visit, make sure you go in and see the papercuts. You won’t believe how intricate they are! We also had special presentations by Sukey Harris, focussing on the heart in papercutting, and by Dr. Robert Kline on fraktur, giving special attention to the tulip. (He also pointed out quite a few “Tree of Life” depictions, Penn-German style!) My only wish was that I could have stayed longer, just me and my sketchbook, and maybe some watercolor pencils and a brush. (However, I think the curators would have gotten rather nervous, had any of us whipped out watercolors!)

The information about the fraktur and papercuts was very interesting. It was neat to see the copying the artists did… the printed copies mirrored the early hand-drawn fraktur, and then later on, folk artists imitated the printed fraktur while making home-made versions again. The artists also drew what they saw… from thistle finches (the “distelfink”) and the now extinct Carolina Parrot, to etchings they saw in the family Bible and designs on various other items… textiles, quilts, butter prints, pottery, etc. Inspiration was all around them, in every day life. One artist even used the English coat-of-arms as a design, but replaced the official English shield with a parrot. After all, the fraktur was made just after the Revolutionary War, so a parrot just seemed more appropriate. (Okay, wow.)

I did have to respectfully disagree with something said concerning the symbolism of Pennsylvania German folk art. The copying of a great variety of artworks and designs was pointed out, as mentioned above. The fact that nobody ever wrote down that they were using a specific symbol to signify a specific meaning was pointed out. It was pointed out that the current meanings of the symbols may have been construed by 20th century scholars. Okay, I understand all that about the symbolism… or the lack thereof. However, the main comment I disagreed with was this…

…it’s highly unlikely that a housewife with children tugging at her knee would have taken the time to think about the meaning of the things she was drawing or the decorations she was creating for her home in her spare time…

Not an exact quote, but more of a paraphrase, and I honestly don’t think it was meant with evil intentions or a demeaning attitude toward housewives. However, when I started papercutting, I was a housewife with children tugging at my knee. And when I got a few minutes to draw, paint, or papercut, I DID put a lot of thought into what I wanted my artwork to portray… what I wanted it to say. Yes, sometimes I did just doodle or copy a pretty design, but I was also thrilled to think my art might have multiple layers of meaning. Not that I was a terribly deep thinker or that I was into superstitious beliefs, but I did know what I was thinking when I designed my papercuttings. I thought about how much joy I hoped they would bring to the home they ended up in, and I really enjoyed adding Christian symbolism to them. Having a place to express my thoughts meant a lot to me as a young mom with children tugging at my knee. And I’ll bet those housewives (and schoolmasters, and schoolchildren, and itinerant artists) thought about their artwork too.

One thing I do know about folk art, is that a lot of skills and meaning weren’t written down, but were passed down by word of mouth, or by working alongside an older artisan. Artists themselves tend to express themselves visually rather than verbally, and it’s very unlikely that they would pick up a pen to write down why they drew a heart or a tulip on something, especially if it was generally understood by everyone around them. As a homeschool family, we once studied the meanings of the symbols and colors in coats-of-arms, and the girls designed their own personal coats-of-arms, using symbols that were important to them. Last summer, I met a older gentleman who was a Schwenkfelder, and he told me about all their fraktur, and that it was filled with their beliefs. When Ester Shilo gave me a Jewish papercut at Collection, she pointed out to me several symbolic elements in it, and told me what they meant. When our Chinese visitors gave their presentation, it was full of symbolism. And when we came back from the last museum visit, I went to Trudy Kauffman’s workshop on making a Haus Segan (a Pennsylvania-German House Blessing… thanks Trudy for helping me learn how to pronouce that word!!!), and right there in the packet was a list of symbolic meanings! See, somebody DID write it down!

And besides… symbolism in art is just plain fun.

Okay… I’ll step off my folk art soapbox now, and show you a few pictures!

Here’s how close we were to the real thing…

My favorite…

And we had a wonderful Pennsylvania German picnic dinner in the Yellow Barn…

And couple of things that resulted from sketchbook sketches… not quite finished, but they seemed to fit with this post!

Let’s see… for future scholarly reference, the heart symbolizes God’s love and protection on those inscribed therein, the doves symbolize peace, but also love and union between two, the berries symbolize fruitfulness, and the vine symbolizes that we’re grafted into God’s family!

2 thoughts on “Behind the scenes… Adventures in Papercutting, Part 4

  1. Oh, beautiful! I’m so excited to know we’re so close to the museums you mentioned. We’ll have to take a visit there as part of our new paper-cutting unit.

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