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Active Cultures: whizzes with scissors

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Doris Sikorsky can remember being embarrassed about her Polish-speaking grandmother as a kid. "We lived near Devon and Milwaukee," she says. "My parents, first-generation Americans, had moved out here early, and it was far from the ethnic neighborhoods. So most of my friends were non-Poles." Still, the old-world traditions were alive in her home and at the parochial grade school she attended, where Polish nuns taught her the rudiments of the peasant art of paper cutting.

Sikorsky was smitten with color but wasn't interested in folk art. She went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she studied painting, going into the galleries to learn from the masters by copying their work. When she graduated, she says, "I was greatly surprised that I wasn't prepared to earn a living." She took a job as a graphic artist and wound up as a buyer and advertising manager for a department store. It wasn't until her grandparents died, in the mid-70s, that she started to feel the pull of the art that was her heritage. She joined the Polish Arts Club of Chicago and began to study Polish paper cutting, or wycinanki (pronounced "vicheenonkey"), with the group's elders.

Paper cutting has a long history. It originated as early as 300 AD in China (done with a knife on a block of wood) and was known in the Middle East in the eighth century. By the 17th century it had made its way to Germany, where they call it Scherenschnitte and execute it with surgical scissors. It surfaced in Poland in the 19th century and may have begun there with the functional, decorative cuts peasants made in sheepskins hung over their windows. They used sheep shears to make those cuts, and when colored paper came along they applied the same shears to the new material, cutting designs that reflected everyday life or marked special occasions. It became customary to paste the designs, like modern wallpaper borders, to newly whitewashed walls in their houses every spring.

Various regions of Poland evolved their own cutting styles and the folk art continued into the 20th century, subsidized by the communist regime. But since the fall of communism, Sikorsky says, wycinanki has become an endangered art. The paper isn't available and the cutters, after losing their subsidies, have had to look for other work. Polish immigrants to this country, she says, are generally too busy assimilating to bother with an art that must be learned not just by the head but by the muscles and nerves of the hand. Though Sikorsky usually cuts with scissors, now she takes the traditional sheep shears in hand to demonstrate. It's a crude instrument, a pair of heavy forged-steel triangles bolted to a barely flexible handle. Unlike most scissors, she points out, this is a grasping tool--that's what made Polish paper cutting distinctive. The work is done not with the fingers but with the hand. She makes a single fold in a small square of shiny green paper and raises it to the shears, starting to cut at a corner of the outside edge. As the paper meets the blades it twists and turns, launched on a journey down an invisible path. When Sikorsky puts her tool down and opens the paper, the two halves of a perfect flower emerge.

Sikorsky is concerned about passing this art along and teaches it whenever she can. She and a sister are the only surviving members of their family, but when their parents died six years ago a child came into her life. Meggie Sorensen, whose mother sang at Sikorsky's parents' funerals (and who is one-quarter Polish), told Sikorsky she had been cutting paper since she was old enough to hold scissors. Sorensen, now 14, became Sikorsky's apprentice. They've won two grants from the Ethnic and Folk Arts Master/Apprentice Program of the Illinois Arts Council (Sorensen is the youngest recipient ever, Sikorsky says), and are working together to make wycinanki as meaningful now as it was when it first decorated the whitewashed homes of rural Poland. Sikorsky pulls out a recent kodra by Sorensen--an oblong, storytelling piece in the multicolored style of the Lowicz region. It shows the artist and three of her friends enjoying that time-honored custom of American girlhood, the sleepover.

Sikorsky will conduct a wycinanki workshop at 1 PM Sunday, November 19, at the Polish Women's Alliance of America's national headquarters, 205 S. Northwest Highway in Park Ridge. Bring your own scissors; there's a $4 fee to cover the cost of materials. Call 847-384-1208 to register.

--Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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