Sitting for a Silhouette at the Statehouse

My silhouette, by Tim Arnold

A scissor-snipping artist transformed sheets of paper into one-of-a-kind treasures at the Statehouse Museum Shop today.

Ohio native Tim Arnold has been cutting silhouettes for decades. He learned his craft from his mother, Garnett Arnold, who still lives in Hamilton.

In just a few minutes, Tim captured not only my likeness, but also the characteristics of my signature style. When my friend Cheryl from the Ohio Statehouse Museum happened to walk by, she was just as delighted as I was with this charming portrait.

Before his next appointment arrived, Tim showed me some other examples of his work. Shadow profiles of dogs, brides and grooms, and even a 12-year-old harpist were on display. He also described how he executed a Noah’s Ark scene that was a clever example of scherenschnitte (German for “scissor cuts”). He can even snip silhouettes from photographs that are e-mailed to him.

I’ve been a fan of papercutting ever since I sat for two childhood silhouettes. When I went to Denmark, I brought home three special replicas of Hans Christian Andersen’s papercuttings, including a bouquet-holder, a mobile and a tea towel. And it’s always a treat when one of my mother’s scherenschnitte creations comes my way.

Tim Arnold’s silhouette of a harpist

So it was timely that I happened to read “Faces in Black and White” (Early American Life, June 2009) earlier this week. Thanks to the article, I learned that artists have been capturing the personalities of their sitters with shadow profiles since antiquity. In the 18th century, cutting “shades” and pasting them in commonplace books became all the rage, even among royalty (Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, and their daughter, Princess Elizabeth, were avid shadow-cutters). The term “silhouette” takes its name from Louis XV’s controller-general, Etienne de Silhouette, who is said to have spent his retirement days snipping shade profiles. I also added two new words to my vocabulary of historic artifacts. The physiognotrace, a five-foot-tall tripod with an easel, helped artists trace their subject’s profile onto a sheet of paper, while the pantograph copied, enlarged or reduced an image onto another sheet of paper.

After spending time with this talented artist, I’m even more appreciative of papercutting and the special works of art that it creates.

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