Paper Cuts – The New York Times


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“Schweizer Fest,” or “Swiss Celebration,” took Erika Hager approximately 25 hours to make.


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Niels Ackermann for The New York Times

WENGEN, Switzerland — My husband, Paul, surprised me with a special gift this year: a handmade Swiss Scherenschnitt, or “scissors cut.”

Amid the lace-like silhouettes of mountains, fir trees and cows often featured in this traditional folk art, the artist Erika Hager tucked in our daughters Sarah and Claire; the flags of the United States and Singapore, where we were born and where we live now; and symbols of our holiday life in the Bernese Oberland. There is the Wengernalp cog train, the village chapel and, in the center, our chalet with its distinctive arched window. Also included: Lucy, our golden retriever, even though she lives full time in Singapore and only romps in Wengen in our dreams.

We first admired Ms. Hager’s artwork in 2013 at Cafe Haueter in Adelboden — a favorite lunch spot in the region, where she regularly exhibits. Her prices range from 50 to 1,500 Swiss francs, roughly the same amount in dollars. Also on sale, reproduction cards of her work to send to friends.

The following year we tracked Ms. Hager to Einigen, a small village between Thun and Interlaken. “Herzlich willkommen,” she said, ushering us into her home workshop that overlooks the Thunersee. She spends her morning hours — “while the light is good” — at a table near the window cutting patterns into special Scherenschnitt paper, which is black on one side, white on the other. Her small box of tools includes a pencil, ruler, eraser, diluted glue, a craft knife and tiny Scherenschnitt scissors. (Ms. Hager buys these very sharp, pointy scissors — she uses straight rather than curved tips — from Klötzli, a knife smith near Bern.)

We were accompanied by the mother of our Swiss neighbors (they live above us in the chalet); she gives talks on Scherenschnitt around her home in Wisconsin. So, as she and Ms. Hager conversed in Swiss German, we picked out several little framed paper cuts for Christmas gifts — among them, the silhouette of a boy playing an alphorn. Each one had taken Ms. Hager several hours to design, cut and finally mount on white watercolor paper and matt board.

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Erika Hager taught herself the craft, beginning in 1996 with a book of templates.

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Niels Ackermann for The New York Times

Last December, it dawned on my husband that commissioning a Scherenschnitt would be a perfect gift. He and Ms. Hager met at the cafe to plan a design a bit larger than three feet long and a foot high, a project that would take her 35 hours to complete.

By late March, my husband could not resist telling me about his surprise, saying we should visit Ms. Hager while she was working on it.

After our arrival, we chatted over strawberry tarts and coffee, joined by her husband who would later hang the artwork in our chalet. “Every artist has a personal style,” Ms. Hager said. “It’s like handwriting.”

Like most of her contemporaries, she taught herself the craft, beginning in 1996 with a book of templates, and quickly moving on to her own drawings. “I was always creative and dabbled in painting,” she said, adding that as an avid skier and hiker, she is inspired by nature.

Ms. Hager buys Scherenschnitt paper from Ernst Oppliger, a fellow artist, who has sheets made by a local stationer and then dyes them. To cut symmetrical designs, she double folds the paper and begins in the center, working outward. For my piece, she fashioned the asymmetrical chalet and chapel separately, inserting them before the final mounting.

“Thinking about the idea and drawing the piece takes nearly as much time as cutting it,” she said, noting the chalet’s balconies and windows proved the most challenging. “I made several attempts before I got it right.”

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Ms. Hager uses small, pointy scissors and special paper for her art pieces.

Credit
Niels Ackermann for The New York Times

Under the artwork, Ms. Hager normally places a sheet of watercolor paper and a mat to produce a 3-D effect. For this piece, she struggled to find underlays long enough — and decided she will never attempt such a large piece again.

Scherenschnitt has enjoyed a commercial renaissance in the last few years. In 2006, Anne Rosat designed a Découpage scarf collection for Hermès. In 2012, the Nestlé chocolate company Maison Cailler commissioned Ueli Hofer to design its Ambassador gift box range. (Mr. Hofer also helped design the Klötzli Scherenschnitt scissors.) And last year, Samsung wrapped the Wengernalp cog train in a Scherenschnitt by Ueli Hauswirth, using the slogan “tradition meets innovation” for its Galaxy S6 phone.

As an art form, Scherenschnitt — known as decoupage in the French-speaking cantons of Switzerland — is believed to have originated in China sometime after paper was invented in the first century, and there are indications it was still being practiced in the sixth century. It emerged in Germany and Holland in the 1600s where several artists rose to prominence; in America in the 1700s; and in Switzerland in the 1800s. Today, there is “scissors cut” art in those countries and others, including Mexico, Indonesia and Japan. But Switzerland remains the enduring leader; perhaps because its national symbols — cows, mountains, and fir trees — fit the art form perfectly.

“Scherenschnitt’s popularity is on high altitude flight,” said Hans-Jürgen Glatz, noting there have been eight national exhibitions on the craft, the last one drawing a total of 70,000 visitors as it traveled to three museums in 2014-15.

Mr. Glatz, who has created intricate Scherenschnitt for 27 years, manages a 600-piece collection spanning five centuries and an archive of 1,000 books at his Hüsy Restaurant and Gallery in Blankenburg near Gstaad, which is a mecca for Scherenschnitt design. Nearby in Château-d’Oex, the Musée du Vieux Pays-d’Enhaut, or Museum of Swiss Folk Art, has a permanent 60-piece collection that includes the work of Hans Jakob Hauswirth (1809-71), known as the father of Scherenschnitt and his protégée, Louis Saugy (1871-1953).

In May, I took the famous Golden Pass train to Château-d’Oex for the last day of “30 centimeters 30 ans,” which featured works from 100 Swiss artists in the consortium Freunde des Scherenschnitts. In keeping with a 30-year anniversary theme all the artworks were 30 square centimeters, or almost a square foot, and ranged in price from 140 to 3,900 Swiss francs. Of the 68 pieces displayed, 63 were sold.

My Scherenschnitt now hangs on the bedroom wall in our chalet. As Ms. Hager said while she was making the piece: “I enjoy telling someone’s life story in a Scherenschnitt — I call it my ‘labor of love’.”

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