Between now and Christmas, there's not enough for children to do but much for adults. For years, making Christmas decorations has been the happiest way to keep children quiet and cheerful between the beginning of the school holiday and early Christmas morning.
Paper cutouts may be the best of all Christmas decorations. The materials are always at hand, so when the cry "Momma, what can I do now?" sounds again, you are prepared. A pair of scissors, scraps of wrapping paper or paper bags, new shirt or hose cardboards, and paste (Elmer's is good) are all you need. Depending on talent and skill, the results can be simple or elaborate. Some masterpieces may be worth framing to enjoy long after Christmas is over.
The experts in the art of paper cutting recently gathered for demonstrations and a symposium by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress -- nearly all started acquiring their skill when children.
Magdalene Gilinsky began with sheep shears as a small child in a country village in her native Poland. She likes to wield scissors without a pattern to follow. She feels that a drawn plan might restrict spontaneity. She folds brightly colored paper two or more times (carefully pressing down the folds with her fingernails), makes incisions and cutouts with the speed of lightning, turning and twisting the paper but always keeping a firm grip on the folds.
When she finishes and opens the paper, roosters, peacocks, flowers and animals appear in symmetrical designs as if by magic. She loves to cut folded papers because the result is always a surprise. On her first design she may paste further cutouts in contrasting colors: stylized petals of flowers, wings of birds, etc.
She covers the final version with tissue paper and irons it flat to remove the creases. The tradition of decorating with paper cutouts goes back a long time in Poland, where the country people liked to cover every inch of their cupboards and chests and the inside and outside walls of buildings with bright, stylized patterns and scenes. A limited number of framed Wycinanki designs by Gilinsky (who is now a Washingtonian) are available at the Library of Congress gift shop. They cost $25 and $35 depending on size.
Chu Chen-Kuang is a teacher and artist from the People's Republic of China. He cuts paper in a different way and very different results. He uses scissors and a sharp knife to cut landscapes, fish, birds and animals on unfolded paper, leading to asymmetrical designs of great delicacy.
The paper must be put down on some kind of base for this kind of cutting with a knife. Chu uses a block of waxy substance, but a beginner can substitute a cutting board, a piece of cardboard, or an old magazine. Paper cutting has been a major folk art in China for at least 15 centuries. Training in paper cutting was as important as in embroidery, and during festivals, ceilings, walls, doors and windowpanes are decorated anew with paper flowers, birds, human figures and mythological symbols.
Claudia Hopf's ornately delicate cutwork stems from the German tradition. She studied in Germany, Austria and Switzerland to become a master of the scherenschnitte. She likes to use Strathmore chain-laid paper stained to a parchment color with coffee for her intricate designs. They are often further treated with water color and mounted on a background of black velour paper.
Some are commissioned portraits and scenes, one of a kind. Other designs, such as her Christmas tree ornaments with homespun linen threads for hanging, are cut 25 to 30 at a time by a laser beam machine.
The ornaments are available at the Alexandria Bicentennial Museum, 201 S. Washington St. in Alexandria, and cost $1.50 each. The Library of Congress gift shop carries the tree ornaments and some handsomely framed Pennsylvania German traditional scenes of animals, angels and birds in muted colors. They cost $55 to $80. An exhibit of her art will open at Gallery 4, 115 S. Columbus St. in Alexandria, on Jan. 11.
Yehudit Shadur of Jerusalem showed elaborate cutwork in the Hebrew tradition. Papercuts have been a part of Jewish ceremonial art at least since the 18th century. They decorate marriage contracts, mizrah plaques marking the wall facing Jerusalem, and the sukkah, home and synagogue. After the Holocaust, the art was nearly forgotten.
Shadur has been instrumental in the revival of the ornate, Baroque-style art form. Her paper works are cut on a board with a small sharp knife from a folded piece of paper producing a laterally symmetrical design. She then frequently stipples them with green, red or purple acrylic paints. Her motifs are usually ancient Hebrew symbols -- the menorah, tree of life, lions, deer, birds, crowns, vines and Hebrew calligraphic inscriptions. Her work can be seen in an exhibition called "Jewish Papercuts Past and Present" currently at the Goldman Fine Arts Gallery, Jewish Community Center, 6125 Montrose Rd., Rockville, Md., through Dec. 31.
Ramond Jablonski of Baltimore, "Polish by marriage" and a skilled paper cutter and historian, introduced the symposium participants and pointed out the differences in style and method of paper cutting in countries all over the world. She emphasized the good fortune of the United States in having all these ethnic traditions contributing to our cultural heritage. She has written several books on the subject, including "The Paper Cut-Out Design Book" (Stemmer House Publishers, $7.95).
In a chapter on Christmas decorations, she writes they are made "by cutting simple shapes -- for example, an angel, bird, trumpet or wreath -- from stiff paper or poster board. Each base cutting is then decorated on both sides with more intricate designs cut from colored paper, and the finished work is pierced with needle and thread to make a hanger."
Garlands can be made from paper folded accordion-style and cut with designs.
"Stained glass" in any size -- small to hang on the tree or large to cover a window -- can be simulated using colored tissue paper. And, Jablonski asks, "What Christmas would be complete without a liberal sprinkling of white 'snowflakes' cut from paper and scattered on windows, walls and trees, and hanging from the chandeliers?"
Finally, to see how this simple art can be carried to its ultimate, visit the tower room in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art. There, in one of the most beautiful rooms in Washington, you can quietly contemplate the wondrous cutouts created by Matisse in his last years.