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April 12, 2019

Main Gallery

Deborah Ugoretz was already a working artist when she first encountered cut paper art in an exhibition at the Jewish Museum. Judaism hadn’t played a major role in her work at the time, but this centuries-old art form revealed myriad new possibilities. The art of papercutting is a traditional Jewish folk art, and many pieces include references to Jewish mythology, symbology, and scripture. Ugoretz envisioned this medium as a method of releasing words, stories and emotions into space by literally cutting them out of paper.

Ugoretz has been working with cut paper ever since that first encounter in the 1970s. Today, her work is inspired not just by the traditional subject matter but also by modernist poetry, current political climates, and more. By using centuries-old techniques to craft modern pieces, Ugoretz has carved a unique niche in the realm of cut paper art.


Releasing Words featured nearly thirty cut paper pieces by Ugoretz. Ranging from the traditional to the very modern, the exhibition was a retrospective of the artist’s work in cut paper, ranging from the 1980s to the present. The exhibition included framed pieces as well as a three-dimensional work and an installation of hanging pieces in the Museum’s historic women’s balcony. That installation, entitled Conversations, addressed miscommunication and conflict in the Middle East and was accompanied by an 11-minute “soundscape.” Meant to be heard while viewing the piece, the audio features spoken poetry in the Hebrew and Arabic languages.

The soundscape was also accessible, along with a full audio tour of the exhibition, using the Urban Archive iPhone app. The free app will feature a guided tour of the exhibition with audio and photos for each piece on view. The app is free and available for download in the Apple App Store.


The exact origins of Jewish papercutting are uncertain, but it is clear that it has a long history in communities around the world, including Jewish and Chinese. The first mention of papercutting in a Jewish community is in 1345 in a book by a Spanish rabbi. And today the earliest surviving Jewish papercuts date to the late 18th century.

Those early pieces adhere to the early origins of cut paper as an artful way to express traditional Jewish tenets. Works are created in the service of Hiddur Mitzvah – creating a beautiful object to glorify God. In the 19th century, papercutting became a popular folk craft, following the rise of mass production of paper. It was practiced by artists and amateurs alike.

Traditionally, the cut paper pieces were used domestically, to indicate the direction of prayer or as totems to ward off evil, as well as for marking momentous occasions like weddings or deaths. In the 21st century, papercutting’s popularity diminished. But with a recent resurgence in handcrafts and traditional arts, the form is enjoying resurgence.


Deborah Ugoretz is a master cut paper artist and teacher. She began “cutting” in 1978. Ugoretz was included in the monograph In the Tradition of Our Ancestors – Papercutting (2006, Folklife Program of the New Jersey State Council of the Arts) and the catalog of the exhibition Slash! Paper Under the Knife, held at the Museum of Art and Design, New York, in 2009-10.

From 2002 to 2011, she was a coordinator and participator in an Artist Beit Midrash, a group of artists who study Jewish texts and create visual interpretations. She lectures and teaches courses in the art of Jewish papercutting and manuscript illumination.

Ugoretz makes ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts), paintings, drawings and three-dimension objects, some of which include cut paper elements. She has designed stained glass windows and synagogue art for the Russ Berrie Home for Jewish Life in Rockleigh, New Jersey and other houses of worship. Commissions include the Tenement Museum, University of Michigan, Jewish Theological Seminary, YIVO Institute of Jewish Research, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and many other organizations and individuals.

Her work has been exhibited at the Milwaukee Jewish Museum; Monmouth Art Museum, New Jersey; Hebrew Union College Institute of Religion Museum, New York; Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art; The Museum of Biblical Art, New York; UJA Federation Gallery, and others.

Deborah Ugoretz was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a BS in Fine Arts and studied Art Therapy at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She lives in Brooklyn and maintains a studio in Red Hook.

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