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A Cut Above

Artist Mary Gaynier’s intricate snowflake-like designs infuse a sense of humor into the traditional craft.

Mary Gaynier says people frequently miss something in her art when they first look at it. Her eye-catching works are reminiscent of scherenschnitte, the German folk art of using scissors to cut delicate designs into paper.  

But her pieces only truly reveal themselves upon closer inspection, when the viewer has had time to discover the offbeat imagery contained within, be it a cow jumping over the moon and crashing into a UFO or a cat smoking a cigar.

“When I started doing this, I was much more serious,” says Gaynier, who has a passion for monsters, aliens, zombies, Halloween and the classic “Twilight Zone” TV series, all of which have shown up to some degree in her paper art. “Now, I like adding humor to my work.”

Gaynier displays several of her favorite pieces in her Lucas County home. One is inspired by a print that hung in her great-grandmother’s house. It was part of the famous Dogs Playing Poker series — a group of paintings by C. M. Coolidge that featured anthropomorphized canines playing cards around a table. The kooky art reflects just the kind of slightly off-kilter humor Gaynier appreciates.

“So many artists focus on what is bad in the world, what horrific things happen in politics or to the environment,” Gaynier says. “I’ve done a few pieces like that, including one that shows a dinosaur ripping off the roof of the Capitol and pulling out a politician.”

Born in La Salle, Michigan, Gaynier began her informal art education on her family’s farm, which taught her what animals felt and looked like. Her mother was a biology teacher and, as a young girl, the artist was fascinated by the drawings of skeletons and muscles found in anatomy books.

While majoring in drawing at the University of Toledo, Gaynier further studied anatomy. After graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1989, she became a security guard, working the midnight to 8 a.m. shift at the Toledo Museum of Art. It was an opportunity that left her alone with the collection for long stretches of time and allowed her to get to know and fully appreciate the works on display.

But she found her passion and specific talent — what Gaynier refers to as her “groove” — in 2001, when her mother told her it was her turn to host the family’s Christmas festivities. Gaynier’s nephew had been born the previous August, and the artist wanted to create a winter wonderland for him and the rest of the family in the basement of her home. She began by cutting out simple paper snowflakes. The more she made, the more artistic they became.

“All the art training and everything I had ever learned came into play,” recalls Gaynier. “Suddenly, I was making much more than just simple snowflakes.”

Following the snowflake extravaganza, the artist searched for four years before finding the most suitable paper — not too thin, not too thick — for her creations, which continued to evolve. She also had difficulty finding paper big enough for the larger pieces she prefers to create now, which have grown beyond the confines of the standard 8 1/2-by-11 sheet of paper.

Her creative process sounds deceivingly simple. Gaynier first draws an original design on a slice of pie-shaped paper that is one-eighth the size of her completed work. She then photocopies that design onto the paper from which she creates her art, folds it and begins making her cuts with an X-Acto knife. When all cuts are made, the paper opens to reveal the design replicated over and over in the snowflake-like shape. Gaynier then very carefully glues each piece to a backing. (For paper-cutting tips and tricks from Gaynier as well as how you can download patterns to try simpler versions at home, see the box below.)

As Gaynier’s art competition wins grew, so did her admirers. She now presents workshops at art institutions and for private groups across the Midwest, and her pieces have been exhibited as far away as Iceland. Over the years, her cut-paper works have changed in size and appearance.

“Larger pieces of art get all the attention in galleries, so I’ve gone bigger, too,” says Gaynier. “I’d like to make one of mine as big as possible and still be able to get it out of the front door.”

She is dabbling with color after having remained true to a white cutout on a black backing since the beginning. Gaynier is also experimenting with transferring her cutout designs to ceramic slabs, which combines two of her interests — paper art and clay.

Gaynier has discovered along the way that her skill with her knife precedes her, sometimes in the unlikeliest places. Once while in the hospital for a minor procedure, she encountered a nurse whom she had previously met at one of her art exhibits. “Oh, this is Mary Gaynier,” she recalls the nurse saying. “She can cut better than the surgeon.”

To contact Mary Gaynier about workshop presentations or commissioned work, email her at mfgaynier@yahoo.com. Her paper-cut kits can be purchased at Art Supply Depo, 29 S. St. Clair St., Toledo 43604, 419/720-6462, artsupplydepo.com.

HOW TO: Make Cut-Paper Art of Your Own
Mary Gaynier shares her expertise during paper-cutting workshops. You can download a few of the simpler patterns she’s created and get advice on the craft from her at ohiomagazine.com/marygaynier.

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