Of the craft she’s been perfecting over a number of years, papercut artist Janelle Washington says, “I cut paper and design beautiful things.” But when you see what she’s able to create with nothing but black and white paper and a razor-sharp blade, you are awed by the immense talent this woman possesses and the gift she is delivering through her work, which is a stunning visual celebration of the strength and beauty of African American culture and history.
Janelle, who has a Bachelor of Arts degree, got her professional start in the fashion industry, and it was a departmental “show and tell” assignment that ignited her initial interest in papercutting. “My Creative Director asked us to bring in personal art. At that time, I was very interested in origami and kirigami. While researching these paper styles I stumbled across paper cutting,” Janelle shared. “It was right around Valentine’s Day, so I decided to create a papercut as a gift for my husband that included a verse from a love song and various love symbols. When I showed it to my coworkers, they were amazed at what I created.” This experience inspired Janelle to continue teaching herself how to papercut and from there she started to cultivate her own signature style.
Today, Janelle’s original and commissioned work includes papercut art and silhouettes she creates under the brand name WashingtonCuts. Done entirely in black and white with the most exacting handwork, each piece is a rich exploration of positive and negative space. Focusing on African American icons, quotes and proverbs, as well as African Adinkra symbols, Janelle’s designs reflect ideas and values that she says, “are important to me as an African American woman.” She adds, “I want my subjects to reflect traits that aren’t always demonstrated in the media and in society.”
“The subjects in my papercuts and silhouettes reflect ideas and values that are important to me as an African American woman.”
Detailed and intricate, Janelle’s art form not only takes a lot of time, it requires an immense level of patience, which suits her. “Papercutting is repetitive, which creates a sense of peace and I am drawn to the action of cutting and taking away.”
Propelled by her own imagination, Janelle’s process begins with writing out her ideas until she can see them clearly. “Once I know how I am going to proceed, I start drawing the design, making changes until I have a balanced design to cut.” Some pieces take her 1- 2 days, while others, like her largest papercut, to date, a 36” x 36” of Ella Fitzgerald, can take far longer.
She designed her large-scale Ella for the Downing-Gross Cultural Art Center in Newport News, Virginia after being selected as one of 100 featured artists in its centennial birthday celebration exhibit for the legendary jazz singer known as “The First Lady of Song”. Janelle based her piece on Ella Fitzgerald’s, “I’ve Got The World On My Finger”. She explained, “The papercut displays a silhouette of Ella sitting on a rainbow surrounded by chandelier hearts and raindrops falling around her while she sweetly holds the world in place with a string. Lyrics of her song surround the entire papercut within the border.” Her Ella took Janelle two and half months from concept inception to completion, and it fills her with a great sense of pride.
Through her incredible artistry and talent, Janelle continues to grow WashingtonCuts into a leading papercut studio. While she remains steadfast on her path to making it her full-time work, Janelle is currently a pre-k paraprofessional for the Alexandria, Virginia Public School system. She also teaches art with Art Brains, an after school program, and hopes to host adult papercut workshops in the future.
We had the privilege to work with Janelle during Women’s History Month 2017 on a 5-piece series of original, one-of-a-kind designs we commissioned her to create as rewards for the #BringHarrietHome crowdfunding campaign that our sister-brand – Women You Should Fund – ran on behalf of the Harriet Tubman Home. We want to thank Janelle again for sharing her vision and creativity with us and for being a critical partner in our determined mission to preserve the legacy of this great American hero.
Check out more of Janelle’s stunning work below and on her Etsy and pages.