Sunday, September 9, 2012

OBJECT #15: Hans Christian Andersen scissors

    I call these my “Hans Christian Andersen scissors.”  Everyone knows that Andersen wrote fairy tales.  His complete collection of fairy tales is on my bookshelf, but I have to confess I have not yet read the book from cover to cover.  It’s a huge book and includes many classics such as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “Thumbelina,” “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” “The Princess and the Pea,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  What most people don’t know is that Andersen was also a master paper cutter.  Andersen never explained in any of his writings how he became so skilled at paper cutting.  In fact, he rarely mentions his cuttings at all.

    Andersen grew up as the only son of a poor shoemaker.  He lived in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Denmark in the early 1800s.  His father was intelligent and imaginative, however, and provided Hans a childhood full of folk tales and paper puppets.  A few times they saved enough money to be able to take Hans to a theatre to see a play.  Hans and his father would then come home and make a paper stage, paper puppets and a paper costume wardrobe.  Making this paper puppets was Andersen’s first experience with paper cutting art.

    After a trying to become an actor during his early teen years, he was told he did not have enough talent to make it in show business and he should be a writer instead.  A very generous patron volunteered to provide funds to further his education, and at age 17 he went back to school.  He went on to college, and during that time began his writing career. He began by writing plays and poetry.  Then he tried his hand at re-writing some traditional folks tales and had enough success to make him brave enough to try writing some of this own tales.

    One of the first tales we wrote was called “Little Ida’s Flowers.” A little girl named Ida had asked him what had happened to her bouquet of flowers overnight.  They had been so beautiful the day before and now they were wilted.  So Andersen make up a story about the flowers had been out dancing all night and tired themselves out.  In this story, one of the characters makes a paper cutting to amuse the little girl.

    Though Andersen’s dream of being a professional actor never came true, he found an even better outlet for his creative entertaining talent.  He would give private performances for small audiences, and would make a paper cutting while he told a tale.  He would chop away at a folded piece of paper using an enormous pair of scissors the entire time he was telling the story.  Then, at the end of the story, he would open the paper and show his audience the design he had created.  A Danish woman wrote this of her childhood memory of Andersend doing his paper cutting:  “He would always cut with an enormous pair of scissors.  It was a mystery to me how he could cut out such dainty things with his big hands and those enormous scissors!”

    Andersen’s reputation as an amazing entertainer reached the ears of those in high society.  Soon he was getting invitations to the homes of barons and dukes.  Eventually there was hardly a night when he didn’t have an invitation somewhere.  This was fortunate because though Andersen loved children, he never married and therefore never had any children of his own.  He would sit for hours telling stories and cutting paper designs for the children of his well-born friends.  (He even stayed with Charles Dickens in England for five weeks.  The language barrier was a problem, but Andersen used his paper cuttings as a bridge that didn’t need words.)  Some  guests’ homes made Andersen feel especially comfortable and he always referred to these homes as “good cutting-out places.”

    Andersen never sketched out his figures first.  He would just fold the paper and start cutting.  Most of his works are simple pieces of symmetry, where he folded the paper just once.  Occasionally he would fold the paper twice and make a four-fold pattern.

    I got my Andersen scissors at a garage sale quite a few years ago.  I believe them to be a relic from the days of cut-and-paste editing.  If you’ve got a job that requires a lot of cutting, you can’t waste time with a medium-sized pair of scissors.  These blades let you slice a sheet of paper in half almost in one snip.  Though old, these scissors qualify under the category of “they don’t make them like they used to,” and, accordingly, they have not become dull as quickly as the other scissors I own.  (Hmm... I’ll have to try making a paper cutting with them some time.)

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