Karen Bit Vejle was caught in the act about a decade ago. For some 40 years, she had been creating massive works of fine art out of paper, using a little pair of scissors to cut out elaborate scenes and patterns — and she had been neatly folding and tucking these masterpieces away underneath her rugs.
As a teenager, she was ashamed to spend so much time on papercuts while others were out doing “cool” things. Papercuts were as cool as stamp collections, she says. As an adult, she continued to literally sweep her art under the rug because she had no desire to advertise her skill or display her work — she simply enjoyed the meditative feeling of focusing on her art.
“My heart and soul are at peace when I have the scissors in hand and the paper dances between the blades,” she says. She has used her art to cope with her chronic illness, myalgic encephalopathy, a neurological disorder characterized by chronic pain and exhaustion.
Papercutting, called psaligraphy, has been a soothing therapy for her. She had a career as a television producer, but she was forced to take leaves of absence because of her condition. During one such absence, a colleague came to visit her at home. He knocked on her door, and opened it to find bits of paper littered all over the floor. “What in the world are you doing?!” he asked.
When he saw what she had been hiding all those years, he called the National Museum of Decorative Arts in Norway. “You must come see what Bit has under her carpets!”
That led to the first of Vejle’s many exhibits over the past 12 years, and a major shift in her life. She quit her television work to focus on psaligraphy. She has shown her work in museums all over the world, and her art has decorated the storefront windows of luxury retailers such as Hermès and Georg Jensen. In March 2018, she opened her own papercut museum in Denmark, the Center for Papirkunst.
From craft to fine art
The simplest version of a papercut is the snowflakes many of us made as children: you fold a piece of paper a few times and cut little holes in it, then open it up to reveal a beautifully repeating pattern. In Vejle’s native Denmark, little girls would traditionally make papercut flowers, called “gaekkebrev,” at Eastertime.
The girls would write poems on them and cryptically mark one dot for each letter of their names to give the recipient (a boy) a hint as to who had given it. If the boy couldn’t guess the sender, he would have to either kiss her or give her an Easter egg.
These childhood crafts are simple, but imagine the mathematical precision and understanding of angles and lines required to create detailed allegorical scenes this way. “You really have to use your mind, folding lines in the paper,” she says. “If you cut the wrong places, it will fall apart.”
If a painter makes a mistake, he can paint over it. If Vejle makes a mistake, the whole piece is ruined. “For many years I made a lot of faults and I had to start all over again, but now my skills are so good that I don’t make faults any longer, fortunately,” she says.
One of her especially large and elaborate papercuts can take her a year to create, but she says each piece has really taken her “a whole life.” Only with decades of practice, starting from her love of gaekkebrev-making when she was 5 years old, has it been possible for her to understand the way scissors and paper work together with such precision.
From the time she was a child up to today, she has often lain in bed at night mapping out papercuts in her mind. She goes over each detail multiple times, memorizing it so she can cut it the next day. Even with all her foresight, the moment of unfolding the paper and revealing its patterns is one of surprise and wonder.
“It’s just a magic moment every time, because you have figured out in your mind how it will look, but you could never fully know.” After it’s unfolded, she cuts out more detail. She does most of it freehand, without drawing the design beforehand, and never uses a knife to cut.
Her bedtime musings also include conjuring the fantastic stories she will tell in her papercuts.
Telling great stories without any words
Vejle believes psaligraphy is perfect for allegorical scenes. “[Paper] is so fragile, though it’s also very, very strong,” she says. “It’s almost like a human — we are very fragile, but also very strong.”
Papercuts make shadows, revealing other dimensions. “That, symbolically, is very close to us humans, because we also have a shadow in our lives,” she says. “There’s always something behind us.” She likes to mount her art between two sheets of glass so that light can shine through and cast shadows.
The Danish author Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875) is one of her role models. Famed for his fairy tales, Andersen was also a papercut artist. “His papercuts are just like his fairy tales,” she says. “There are deep layers, different layers. Children will hear one story, but adults will hear another.”
“That’s exactly the same with the stories that I’m telling with my papercuts,” she says. “There will always be a very, very deep level, and there will be a light level where it just seems like a fairy tale.”
Twittering in the Royal Copenhagen Tree is one such work. The tree, three metres tall, is a symbol of life and wisdom, its branches filled with stories.
Each of its 100 characters — people, birds, and other animals — has a story. There’s a hungry bird named Miss Robinson who was forced to give up her breakfast to the king of the birds. There’s a ballerina balancing on one of the tree’s branches.
Vejle has always been impressed by the hard work and strength it takes to make the art of ballet seem so effortless and gentle. She says, “The ballet dancer is a symbol of what we are actually able to achieve if we want it enough.”
The conductor’s … scissors
While creating Twittering in the Royal Copenhagen Tree, Vejle listened to the orchestral piece Champagne Galop by the Danish composer Hans Christian Lumbye (1810–1874). She listened to it nearly every time she worked on the piece, for a whole year.
She is often inspired by music, mimicking the overall tone and feeling of a musical piece in her art, but also following its melodies in the flow of her papercut. A light, waving pattern in her papercut may represent a dainty and upbeat part of the musical piece; a large and dramatic scene may represent the piece’s crescendo.
Champagne Galop is upbeat, some of its sounds bringing to mind the pops of champagne bottles being uncorked. “It’s a light story,” Vejle says of both Lumbye’s composition and her papercut.
While the cadence of her cutting is slow and steady — “All your body, your heart, and your soul will simply slow down to be able to perform,” she says — her compositions reflect a variety of tempos. She listens to classical music, jazz, and rock and roll, depending on her mood. All work their way into her creations.