Magic in its wake
Karen Bit Vejle takes the art of papercutting to a new level of inspiration
Can you remember making paper snowflakes as a child—experimenting with how many times you could fold the paper, yet still have the ability to cut shapes, followed by the sheer magic of opening each fold to reveal an unexpected beauty of intricate filigree
Danish-Norwegian artist Karen Bit Vejle, known to her friends and following simply as “Bit,” takes this once popular tradition to an entirely new level, bringing this very unpredictable process to the lay person. She works with intention through precision to illustrate mythologies and traditions with mere pieces of paper, transforming it into an intriguing art in both form and content.
A time-revered artistic tradition
Papercutting is a handicraft found in many parts of the globe. Other terms for it are psaligraphy or, in German, Scherenschnitte. The art has a long history in Scandinavia.
I remember first becoming aware of the extent of this delicate craft while walking through the streets of Bornholm, Denmark. At dusk, the front windows of homes served as displays for flickering candles highlighting round lacelike scenes. The charming displays meant to please the passerby as well as the owner.
On a visit to Hans Christian Andersen’s home in Odense, I was delightfully surprised to see that he was adept at papercutting. He could conjure images with paper, as well as he could conjure images with words. He would simultaneously tell stories and clip. His tangible fabrications were offered to his young, as well as adult, listeners. At the museum, there is a book about his paper art and over 400 of his seemingly effortless gifts.
An artist’s journey
Vejle was inspired not only by Andersen, but also “from Norway’s medieval wood carvings” and papercutting traditions from China. Scissors and paper have been her tools since childhood. In a recent artist talk with Eric Nelson, CEO of the National Nordic Museum, Vejle elaborated about how her interest began:
“As a child in Denmark every Easter, we cut a little paper … like a snow crystal [and] add a drawing of a snowdrop; [an initial] sign of spring and a poem. At 16, while visiting Tivoli, [I] saw a paper cutting artist at work for the first time …. Something happened in my brain that day, because when I came back, I grabbed my mother’s embroidery scissors, and I never ever stopped cutting after that.”
Vejle kept her scissors snipping into adulthood. She moved to Trondheim, Norway, but her craft remained a secret pleasure. One Saturday, lost in her task, as scraps of paper drifted and scattered across the floor, a friend stopped by. The friend immediately contacted the city’s Museum of Decorative Arts, saying, you have to see what Vejle has “under her carpets.” This led to her first exhibit.
How did the audience respond? “People really liked it. They liked the stories that I was telling,” Vejle said. “They liked the technique. And also, I think there was a fascination about these … huge paper cuts that I [was] making.”
All of Vejle’s skill, curiosity, and experimentation has converged, into the dynamic exhibit she is co-curating with Chinese professor and artist Xiaoguang Qiao, “Paper Dialogues: The Dragon and Our Stories,” on display at National Nordic Museum in Seattle.
Why did Vejle turn to China? First of all, it is the place where papercutting originated more than 1,500 years ago. But she also had the goal to build bridges between countries whose tensions were accelerating. “Norwegian-Chinese diplomacy would [be] celebrating … their 60th anniversary in 2014,” she said. Vejle saw it as an appropriate and timely fit.
The collaboration, however, was not above the political upheavals between the two countries. Luckily, the tenacious Vejle persisted.
“It’s always wonderful to see how artistic exchange can lead to fantastic public diplomacy,” commented Nelson in his interview with the artist.
Although there was a language barrier between the partners Vejle and Qiao, it was decided that dragons would be the unifying theme for their collaboration, as these creatures have a long history and strong significance within both cultures. The artistic techniques of the two artists, however, did vary.
Vejle explained, “We are quite different in our style, he has a very masculine expression, whereas my papercuts are more effeminate and ornamented.”
Mythology of the past
At the National Nordic Museum, their installation is organized around a colorful 30-foot-long dragon created by Qiao, depicting traditional Chinese symbols on one side and the human genome on the other. It is surrounded by seven white dragon eggs produced by Vejle.
But that is only the surface of this exhibition. Free standing and entirely encased in plexiglass, an intimacy is offered, so each piece can be viewed from all angles. This medium and display choice adds another layer of experience, as the light freely passes through the open bits, bestowing replica shape shadows that bounce off adjoining surfaces.
Vejle’s intricately designed dragon eggs “take us on a journey through [Norway’s] past, present, and future,” coding myths, resources, and stories from Norway’s history. Hardanger handiwork is woven into the center of one piece, and delicate, airy snowflakes encircle the oval.
Another intriguing piece depicts an egg with the beautiful woman sitting on a dragon throne. She could be a Madonna or a Viking queen. She holds keys, a symbol of power for Viking women, as these gave them control of the household stores. It seems to be marking the transition from the pagan to the Christian world around the year 1000, when the Norse people incorporated both pagan and Christian symbols into their stave church iconography, and architecture.
The artist’s inclusion of the unique arching deer, found on the carved doors of the Urnes Stave Church delights the eyes. Even more impressive is her ability to replicate the intertwined foliage encompassing the animal. She has the ability to slice paper into poetry.
Connection of past and present
Vejle does not limit her work to Scandinavia’s past but also focuses on contemporary issues. In a reference to the theme of cooperation between the two cultures, the artist interprets the symbolism within one egg: “Two small dragon eggs … have just hatched … a Norwegian and a Chinese [dragon]. They look at each other and it is love at first sight … They immediately start a dialogue about how to solve the pollution problems. And that conversation evolves in the picture or in the paper cut with cars and factories and all the smoke and pollution that comes from that.”
Vejle’s “Dragon Egg of Knowledge” connects the Norse past to its present to resolve contemporary concerns. In a video, she explains the symbolism, the story she is unfolding. First, she describes the lovely curvaceous twisting edge as a web representing technology or DNA. Incorporated into that web are symbols of nature, which she credits with genius. Both are necessary to solve future and current problems facing the world.
Lovely oak leaves are also incorporated into the piece, perhaps a reference to Yggdrasil, the tree that lies at the core of the Viking world. She keeps some nuts intact, so they can be uncracked for future generations. Vejle’s intention is to make her work a puzzle that one has to ponder. She wants to slow down the viewer because we are often speeding through each day so quickly that we “might forget to stop and live our own lives.”
Inspiring and evolving art
These pieces are more than skillful, whimsical, and soulful. They are also transcendent in their form, and their culturally intrinsic content touches on the political. Eggs, symbols of fertility, are a most appropriate and prescient symbol for this exhibit. This element presages what is to evolve: the hatching of new ideas and opportunities.
ArtHouse Jersey, an artist’s cooperative located on the island of Jersey off the coast of Normandy in northwest France, has contacted Vejle about bringing the exhibit to their island, which she learned has its own dragon lore.
The exhibit text there speaks about the dragon being “a very accessible story.” And it is. A cooperative community project evolved, where students carved individual dragon scales to construct a three-dimensional creature that was suspended from a library ceiling for the enjoyment of all.
The island’s art teachers held papercutting classes throughout the island, along with discussions about the dragon before the exhibit arrived. Later, Qiao and Vejle held workshops with the teachers who relayed what they learned to their students, imparting further knowledge and encouraging further discussions.
Another outcome was that two local artists, Layla May Arthur and Emma Reid, were chosen by ArtHouse Jersey for commissions. Their work is now included in this traveling phenomenon.
Visit the exhibit
The exhibit “Paper Dialogues: The Dragon and Our Stories” will be on display at the National Nordic Museum (nordicmuseum.org) through Jan. 31, with its next stop at the American Swedish Institute (asimn.org) in Minneapolis, Feb. 18 through July 10. It will also be traveling to China, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Norway. One cannot help but be excited as to what other connections, dialogues, creations, and artists might evolve from this exhibit as it travels through the world, leaving magic in its wake.
To learn more about artist Karen Bit Vejle, visit her website at papercutart.no.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 21, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.