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Cutting Out Masterpieces

Discover the magical power of paper with Karen Bit Vejle, founder of the first Museum of Paper Art in Europe.

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“My heart and soul are at peace when I have the scissors in hand and the paper dances between the blades.”
—Karen Bit Vejle

Karen Bit Vejle was caught in the act about a decade ago. For some 40 years, she had been creating massive works of fine paper art, using a little pair of scissors to cut out elaborate scenes and patterns—and she had been neatly folding and storing these masterpieces underneath her rugs.

As a teenager, Vejle was ashamed to spend so much time on papercuts while others were out doing “cool” things. As an adult, she continued to 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 art.

“My heart and soul are at peace when I have the scissors in hand and the paper dances between the blades,” says Vejle, who used her art to cope with chronic illness—myalgic encephalopathy—a neurological disorder characterized by chronic pain and exhaustion.

Vejle previously 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 the beautiful work she had been hiding all those years, he called the National Museum of Decorative Arts in Norway. “You must come to see what Bit has under her carpets!”

That led to the first of Vejle’s many exhibits and a major shift in her life. She quit her television work to focus on papercutting, also known as psaligraphy. She has since shown her work in museums all over the world, and her paper 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.

Paper art by Karen Bit Vejle. Photo by Adam Gronne

From observation 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 beautiful repeating pattern. In Vejle’s native Denmark, little girls traditionally make papercut flowers called gaekkebrev at Eastertime.

The girls write poems on them and cryptically mark one dot for each letter of their names to give the recipient (a boy) as a hint to who had given it. If the boy can’t guess the sender, he either has to kiss her or give her an Easter egg.

These childhood crafts are simple, but the challenge becomes significant when you’re creating a large allegorical work through papercutting. It requires mathematical precision and an understanding of angles and lines. “You really have to use your mind to fold lines in the paper,” Vejle 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 mistakes and I had to start all over again, but now my skills are so good that I don’t make mistakes any longer,” she says.

Vejle says it’s a magical moment to open up the papercut and see the design she has imagined unfold before her eyes. Photo by Marjaana Malkamakli

An especially large and elaborate papercut can take her a year to create, but she pours her heart into each piece. Only with decades of practice, starting from her love of the art when she was 5 years old, has it been possible for Vejle to understand the way scissors and paper work together with such precision.

Order the Magnifissance print edition to read the full story.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 118

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Inspired for a Beautiful Life

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