by Kimi Eisele
To look into one of Magdalena Nowacka-Jannotta’s colorful and intricate papercuttings is to look into another world and wish you could go there.
At least that’s how it is for me.
Magdalena practices the art of wycinanki, or papercutting in the Polish tradition, a form said to have originated with the cutting of designs by shepherds in tree bark and leather. Wycinanki has long been used as decoration on roof beams, in windows, and on walls. In fact, says Magdalena, twice a year for Easter and Christmas, families would whitewash surfaces in the home and glue papercuttings straight to the wall.
Magdalena has been practicing the artform for over 70 years. Her work reveals delicate, brightly colored flowers, farmers, dancers, maps, landscapes, and more—from Poland to the Sonoran Desert. The images conjure joy and history and heritage all at once.
For me, someone who makes papercuttings with an X-acto knife, what’s most astounding about Magdalena’s paper masterpieces is that she creates them using a traditional Polish technique, cutting with large, double-bladed sheep shears!
“Often these were the only scissors available after the war,” Magdalena said. “Also there was no paper. I used wrappers from cheeses and even from candy, which were colorful.”
When I started my own papercuttings in 2011, I knew nothing of the Polish artform. Meeting Magdalena was also an invitation to explore my own heritage. My grandmother, a second-generation Polish woman who grew up in Minnesota, died when I was a baby. She wasn’t a papercutter like Magdalena, but she was creative and crafty. My mom used to show me birthday cards my grandmother made with collaged cut-outs from wrapping paper and recycled greeting cards.
Meeting Magdalena, I felt an immediate kinship.
Layers of Love and Sorrow
In Poland, Magdalena lived a complex childhood, layered with love and sorrow. Born in Warsaw, she spent summers at her grandfather’s estate in the countryside.
“My mom would take us out to the meadows. We would pick flowers. ‘How many petals does a buttercup have?’ she’d say. I was learning to count. Today when I sit and look at flowers I still count the petals.”
Her mother would then take the flowers home and press them between parchment papers, then cut out the pressed flowers and pin them to fabric as a template for embroidery. “I would look at the shapes of nature, the outlines,” Magdalena says. “My mom wanted me to learn embroidery but I hated it because it was so tedious.”
After the German invasion of Poland, her family was taken to a “re-settlement camp” back to Warsaw, but Magdalena was sick with tuberculosis so she was sent to live in the foothills of the Tatra mountains, where a mountain family cared for her. When she recovered, she returned to Warsaw for high school. She went on to attend Warsaw University learning Chinese studies.
While the horrors of World War II still can haunt her, Magdalena’s parents impressed upon her the importance of a positive attitude and playfulness. “When bombs were falling we would be hiding in a cellar, and my father would grab my mother and say, ‘And now we have to tango.’ So they would dance.”
She still uses movement to find peace, she says, and is a devoted practitioner and teacher of tai chi. “I love the softness of this movement,” she said.
Agile hands for folding and cutting
As a girl, Magdalena learned papercutting from Madam Helena, a friend of her mother’s who showed her how to fold and cut newspaper. Now almost 85, Magdalena’s hands still move skillfully around a piece of folded paper.
As we sat in her studio to “play,” she handed me a pair of sheep shears. “An Italian hairdresser sharpens these for me,” she said. “They have to be really sharp.”
I watched her fold a piece of colored paper then begin cutting shapes from the fold, much like you would if making a paper snowflake. I prepared my own paper and started cutting, clumsily.
I work on a flat surface, drawing on one side of a paper then cutting along the lines I’ve made. Magdalena draws nothing, creating all of her work visually, with folding and cutting. This impressed me, considering the variety of shapes and concepts that emerge from the paper: lovers, birds, angels, roosters, even the San Xavier mission. And of course, so many flowers.
Many of her pieces involve layered cuts of various colors, a style from the Lowicz region of central Poland. Other cuttings, borrowing the style of the Kurpie region, are made with a single color.
Magdalena has also evolved the traditional forms to create works that blend contemporary themes and autobiographical stories. One work-in-progress she showed me—the profile of a head filled with cut-outs and the start of an ear–expresses her experience of hearing loss. “I’m just playing, but it’s my story.”
The Smithsonian Years
After finishing her university studies in Warsaw, Magdalena got a scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles.
“We used to say, ‘I’ll see you in California.’ It was a joke that meant ‘I’ll never see you again,’” she said.
From California, Magdalena moved to Washington, D.C. with her then-husband and her two children. After her divorce, she began selling her papercuttings in front of the Natural History Museum on the Washington Mall, and would often bring her children with her.
“It was a difficult time, because I was poor,” she said. But she recalled the generosity of many, including a Korean hot dog seller. “He noticed my kids and said it looked like they were hungry. He said he could sell me hot dogs for 25 cents, which is what he’d paid for them. It was so kind.”
One day two representatives of the Smithsonian approached her and asked if she wanted to participate in a symposium on paper. She said yes and was soon teaching the art of wycinanki at the Smithsonian.
Once, during a visit from her mother and a friend from Poland, there was an exhibit of violets. Magdalena’s mother and the friend wanted to take some of the flowers, as it was custom in Europe to save and share seeds or plantings. “I said, ‘Mom you can’t pick here, it’s against the law. The next year when I went to Poland, I saw violets on the windowsill. ‘Oh, we just took a leaf and then another. Look how beautiful!’ That’s my mom in a nutshell.”
Magdalena met folklorist Jim Griffith at the Library of Congress and for many years taught her craft at the Smithsonian Associates Program. Many of her works are preserved by the Archive of American Folklife and the Library of Congress.
Because she struggled with severe asthma, Magdalena moved to Tucson in 1992 to heal. Eventually Griffith invited her to Tucson Meet Yourself, where she shared her craft for many years.
Recently Magdalena has started teaching again. Many of her students are members of Lakjonik, a Tucson group that studies and performs traditional Polish folk dances as a way to preserve Polish culture. The troupe is a favorite among audiences at Tucson Meet Yourself, where it performs annually.
As I fumbled with the sheep shears, trying to decide what cuts to make and where, Magdalena supervised my practice, encouraging me to be playful.
Surprise, she says, is an important element of the process. “You fold and cut, but you never really know what you will get until you are done.”
When she unfolded her own paper, I saw a complex, flower-like shape in her hands. “I just love flowers. That’s the gift from my mother.”
When I unfolded my paper, it was… well, maybe a flower, but a strange, clunky one.
“You just have to practice,” Magdalena said.
Tak. Yes, yes I do.
Here’s some video I captured of Magdalena at work: