Rachel Asarnow’s Papercut Art is a Visual Feast

This interview was conducted by Jake Rosenberg. Jake is a playwright, folklorist, producer, and founder of American Lore Theater. Discover more about him at www.metarosenberg.com.

Rachel Asarnow leads me up the stairs.

“It’s beautiful, but isolated here.” I had come to visit her in her workshop in Maplewood, New Jersey, covered in trees and beautiful greenery on a fresh spring Sunday. As I entered the studio, I was treated to a sumptuous visual feast of paper, cut in the most exquisite detail. Bountiful bouquets of flowers and the intimate and ornate swirls of Hebrew calligraphy greeted me, as I sat down with Rachel at her desk.

Despite the flurry of activity, her workspace was clearly the altar of a practiced student, with every tool and reference book carefully arranged. I asked her how she got her start in traditional Jewish paper cutting.

“I was an artist prior to picking up paper cutting,” she says. “I had this idea that I wanted to make art that was beyond just pretty, something that was useful and functional. Something that has real ceremonial use to it.” Had she been a paper cutter for long?

“I began paper cutting in 2017, after I applied for the Folk Arts Apprenticeship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. I got it for two years. And that’s when I began to work with my mentor, Deborah Ugoretz. She’s a master paper cutter and she taught me. Before, I had made copies of master artists, but I didn’t start with paper cutting until after the grant.” The Museum at Eldridge Street has just recently closed an exhibition on Jewish papercutting, featuring stunningly ornate work by Deborah Ugoretz. I asked her to tell me about the tradition of the artform.

“This art has been around since the 1700s, and it’s been an Ashkenazi practice, and a Sephardic practice and there are traditions in North Africa…Morocco. But each culture puts their own mark on it.” As she swiveled on her chair, my eyes were drawn to her work station, covered with her tools. Tiny blades and compasses, pencils and clips placed perfectly in position. I wanted to know what it was like to take an idea for one of these works from beginning to end.

“First, I take notes, and there’s a brainstorming process. I might take written notes for a given piece, might google and see roughly what some of these things were like. Then I’ll transfer the image to paper using light or carbon paper, what you would use to make a duplicate. One other step is to tape the paper down and dampen it, making sure to pat the paper so it absorbs less water. The image will transfer. Then I cut. And that’s then something that can take anywhere from a day to weeks. It’s very meditative. You have to be completely exact. Any point sticking out makes the piece less stable.”

I asked her where she drew her inspiration from.

“Often the Ashkenazi pieces have verses or words on them in Hebrew calligraphy, which is very interesting. And of course, I’m inspired by the Eldridge Street Synagogue…Look at this one I am creating, based on the beautiful window.” She shows me an incredible cut, inspired by the cosmic swirl that is unmistakably Eldridge. I asked her if she was excited for the festival.

“It’s going to be an interesting event. It’s changed a lot over the years, and people can look forward to me demonstrating and showing all of the different stages required to paper cut, and teach some of the symbols. And there will be paper cutting from different cultures too. There will be a Chinese paper cutter at the festival. I’m hoping he will want to trade. I’m curious to see how he works. I want to see the paper cutting from other cultures too. Maybe there is one in Puerto Rico.” As I leave, I ask her, what’s next for her?

“I am working on a piece inspired by the theme of eggrolls and empanadas and the foods of the festival. Beyond that? I’m working on one on the memory of my grandfather and also making one for lag b’omer [a minor Jewish holiday that represents a break from the omer, when music, weddings and other celebrations are generally prohibited], which has many shiefs of wheat. I’m making one that commemorates the Tree of Life synagogue shooting this year…All of the shootings around the world, there are places to expand the Tree of Life work. But for something like that, I’d want to do something with maybe metal or stained glass. I want to try on a piece of wood. Something permanent.”   

We’re so grateful to Rachel for welcoming us into her studio and sharing her art. Come see Rachel in person at the Museum’s Egg Rolls, Egg Creams and Empanadas Festival on Sunday, June 16!

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