When Polly Mitchell accompanied other SIU University Museum patrons to Saint Louis Art Museum many years ago, she didn’t walk away as much in awe as her traveling partners.
The group had traveled to the city to view an exhibit of works by Henri Matisse, who began paper cutting as an artform near the end of his life, when surgery to remove cancer from his body left him confined to a wheelchair.
Matisse’s works, mainly abstract designs crafted from cutting various colors of paper, left the others captivated, but they simply weren’t for Polly. When she left the museum, she decided she could do something similar — yet very different — herself.
“I don’t care for abstract art,” Polly says. “I said, ‘I think I could cut pieces of paper that people could enjoy and recognize immediately.’”
And, that’s what she’s done for the last four decades. Polly has studied practiced scherenschnitte — German for “paper cuts” — since 1970.
She began with the traditional German style of the artform, which involves cutting from only black paper. Using a single sheet, she creates different designs, although her specialty is an elaborate and intricate triple-leveled heart.
In 1993, inspired by flooding of the Mississippi River, Polly tried her hand at a different style of paper cutting. In its Polish variation, the artform usually involves vibrant colors, and the designs tell whimsical tales or aspects of high Jewish tradition.
When the rains came and caused the river to flood, the skies remained gray and cloudy for several days, creating a drab atmosphere in Southern Illinois. Polly saw a way to brighten it up, at least in her home.
“It was very dreary cutting only paper,” she says, which motivated her to expanding her horizons. But, not even the Polish style could contain Polly’s abilities and drive.
She continued exploring different means of presenting her works and finally developed a unique style — her own. Polly creates elaborate scenes with stunning detail, and most of the pieces tell a story, whether it’s a true historic event or an imagined scene.
The paper cuttings on the walls of Polly’s Carbondale home depict everything from the arrival of the Illinois Central Railroad in Carbondale to the May 8, 2009, derecho.
“I call it painting with paper,” she says. “You have to be able to create images. There are a lot of craftsmen who buy a pattern and cut it. I hope they eventually start making their own.”
While Polly occasionally goes back and uses a past pattern she’s already created, most of her works are completely original and free-handed.
Through the years, she’s perfected not only the style of her artwork, but also the practice of actually doing it. Polly said she can create a small cutout in as little as four minutes; the more elaborate ones take about six to eight hours.
For several years, Polly and her husband, Marion, a crafter who bends cherry and walnut boards to make baskets, have conducted demonstrations of their work at places like Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., and Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and amazed patrons with the quality of their work.
The Mitchells dress in period clothing from the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century and transform themselves into characters, sharing stories of the day. They have even been fortunate enough to have Dolly Parton sign one of Marion’s baskets, though a contract they signed prohibits them from selling it, so it sits underneath the couch.
Where one Mitchell goes, the other does, too. And, they can go anywhere they desire.
“We’re a pair. Neither of us will do a show without the other,” Polly says. “At our age — we’re in our 70s — we don’t really answer to anyone. We just do what we want to.”
“We haven’t made a lot of money, but we’ve had a lot of fun,” Marion adds.
What the Mitchells want to do is simple. They both want to keep making art. The skills they possess are a rarity, and they worry about the fate of their artforms.
“They’re old traditional arts,” Polly says. “If a few young people don’t pick them up, they’re going to disappear.”