Art by a thousand cuts

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Josefina Hernandez, The Origami

Colombian-Canadian artist Josefina Hernandez shares her passion for the ancient Chinese art form of jianzhi, or paper cutting.

Photos courtesy of JOSEFINA HERNANDEZ 


Artists, journalists and designers have a habit of filing referential scraps, magazine cutouts, photographs or annotations to work with when ideas begin to take shape. This archive of seemingly disparate elements often is intelligible only to the collector.

For Josefina Hernandez, images of geometric shapes, floral and textile patterns, tree branches, shadows and silhouettes populate her file of creative triggers.

Using bits of these references, little by little Hernandez meticulously hand-cuts—using an X-Acto knife or other blades—her nature-inspired images, with lyrical effect.

A graduate of the University of Toronto, the Colombian-Canadian artist first discovered the Chinese and Japanese art of paper cutting while doing research for a class four years ago. A project about silhouettes morphed into a more abstract paper cut rendering of nature’s elements.

Chinese paper cutting, or jianzhi, dates back to China’s Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), when it was used for ceremonial and decorative purposes. Cuttings—often in red paper—were burned with the dead and used as offerings to gods or to adorn walls, lanterns and windows in homes, often as a sign of good luck and happiness. The art of paper cutting has remained popular not just in China—particularly during events such as Chinese New Year, the spring festival and weddings—but worldwide. In 2009, Chinese paper cutting was listed in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

The art of paper cutting later evolved into many forms in other countries: Japan (kiri-e, which started in the Shinto era, 1600 to 1764, when symbols of spiritual animals were dedicated to gods), Indonesia (paper cuts are used as stencils for batik, the art of decorating cloth using wax and dye), the Philippines (used in parols, or Christmas lanterns, and as wrappers for sweets), India (sanjhi, where paper cuts were traditionally used as stencils for rangolis, or colourful patterns of flowers and rice on the floor to welcome Hindu deities), Mexico (papel picado, colourful tissue paper cut out into paper banners depicting such events as the Day of the Dead, Christmas and Independence Day) and Israel (where paper cuts are used in marriages and other festivities).

Intricately composed, Hernandez’ s works evoke the quiet vibrancy of nature, as seen in the Valley of Search, which she interprets as a seed bursting into new life. Like ink blot or cloud formation, with a slight tilt of the viewer’s head, the angles of a piece strike differently.

Josefina Hernandez paper cuts, Japanese

Paper cut on Japanese paper, (Okawara) 24″ x 36″, 2013

Paper cutting is an art in patience. Hernandez’s life-size hand-cuts (up to six feet tall) take between two to five weeks to complete, and she can go through more than 50 blades. People will often ask, “Why don’t you just get your work laser cut?”

“I feel like art should take time, and it should be about the skill,” Hernandez says.

It’s all in the hands of the artist. “There’s something in the artist’s hands. I admire those who work in professions where they still use their hands. Not everything has to be machine made,” she says.

Art is not merely functional. “Paper cutting can also be used as a stencil. With art, it’s always like that—some people need to find a use for it. But for me, I see it as a final product.”

Beauty is fleeting. Admittedly, she’ll cut through a piece of her work and use the small trimmings as a stencil. “I feel like I should save it, but sometimes I just crush it up. I like the feeling that it can break at any second.”

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