Photo by Laura K. Cooper
At Large in Ballard: I choose scissors
I do not have fine motor skills. I cannot cut a snowflake out of paper, even using a pattern. I abuse scissors by cutting inappropriate materials or opening wooden crates. But from when I saw the first poster for the Nordic Heritage Museum’s “Scissors for a Brush” exhibit I was like a fly in a paper web.
On March 21, I limped home from back to back days of draining events. It was 4 p.m. and my goal was collapse … until a friend’s email referenced the opening night reception for the first ever U.S. exhibit of Karen Bit Vejle’s paper cuttings. “How do I get an invite?” I queried.
“Members only,” she replied. “You’d have to join quickly.” By the time Martin got home at 5 p.m. I had purchased a family membership to the Nordic Heritage Museum online. Ignore the fact that I’ve lived within blocks since 1988.
“We’re going to a reception for a new exhibit,” I informed him. “We need to leave in 45 minutes.” I made it clear that comparing hardships of our respective days would be futile.
An hour later, after the stunning Karen Bit Vejle had used her mother’s sewing scissors to cut the ribbon to the exhibit gallery, guess who was the first person to approach the artist with a question? That would be Martin, who had to ask whether she sharpened her own scissors.
I won’t attempt to describe the artistry in the paper cuttings that Bit Vejle envisions and then cuts freehand. The works encompass fairy tales and mythology, Nelson Mandela’s prisoner number and secret messages for her daughter. On the walls, and suspended from the ceilings in glass, the works are whimsical and wise, mysterious, astounding in their very durability and fragility, but mostly beautiful.
On opening night I wandered and absorbed the works, three rooms with a passageway that includes four of Hans Christian Andersen’s original works. Although the art of paper cutting, known as psaligraphy, dates goes back centuries in Japan and China, there are also traditions surrounding the art throughout Europe. In Bit Vejle’s native Denmark, holidays such as Christmas and Easter involve many such works, from snowflakes to the appearance of snowdrops.
In person and in the exhibit guide notes Bit Vejle discusses her revelation that paper cutting could be an art form year round, although it was mostly her secret passion, with wall length works kept under rugs for safety. Her past career, her travels, her discovery by a coworker who saw paper scraps is almost the stuff of another fairy tale. Working now on commissioned pieces (one which took six months) and as artist in residence worldwide, Bit Vejle’s finished pieces make me think it would be easier to spin straw into gold. But looking at her work, there is always a grit and reality that encourages a reinterpretation of the fantastical.
Within a day of the opening reception I had taken a Danish friend to the exhibit and started directing people to “go” with an evangelical fervor. I practically ordered an entire class to visit; for that occasion we arranged a docent tour with museum staffer Stina Cowan. I watched the video of Bit Vejle at work and observed adults and children patiently trying their hand at creating with scissors.
I wanted to visit “Scissors for a Brush” every week for as long as the exhibit’s run. After all, as a member, I could do that -- plus get the 10 percent discount at the gift store where I shop anyway. Did I do it? Not every week. Did I send at least one person there per week, who then joined the museum? At least.
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say, “It’s only four blocks, but I’ve never been to the Nordic Heritage Museum.” Or else, “I thought they moved.” The museum does have plans for a new facility on Market Street, but they’re still fundraising. They haven’t moved. The admission is still very reasonable. They host events too numerous to list.
On the night of the reception Karen Bit Vejle stood near her works, graciously answering questions. Regular copy paper. Lots of folding. Visualizing the entire work first; tracing a few guidelines. She was as impossibly beautiful in-person as her works in paper. If I had not seen the paper cuttings up close, I would not believe they could exist. Yet here they are. Not in the Royal Museum in Copenhagen. “Scissors for a Brush” is right over on NW 67th through June 16.
The exhibit is also Bit Vejle’s story, of her work being discovered after 33 years of paper cutting for the sheer joy of it, what she calls “still an exciting gift” every time. I felt the same way every visit, each time a gift. In answer to my husband’s question about sharpening, she held those self same scissors and said, “Always cut toward your heart and they never need to be sharpened.”
The Nordic Heritage Museum is at 3014 NW 67th St. www.nordicmuseum.org Hours are 10-4 p.m. daily, Tuesday-Sunday. Exhibit guide available online.
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