Delicate design: Chinese artist brings leaf cutting to Columbia

Wednesday, June 6, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:41 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Yun Fan, a leaf cutting artist from Weifang, China, gave demonstrations Saturday at the 54th annual Art in the Park event at Stephens Lake Park.

COLUMBIA — The mid-afternoon light on Saturday shone through lace-like designs cut into Chinese Pepsi and Coca-Cola paper cups on Yun Fan’s table, casting shadows on the sparkling glass pebbles inside them.

Fan smiled as visitors to her tent at Art in the Park peered through the spaces in the flowers and leaves she had cut in the cups. Their response was always the same: "Whoa."

If you go

What: Columbia Friends of China presentation and reception for Fan Yun

When: From 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Columbia Public Library, 100 W. Broadway

Who: Open to the public

Using a tiny pair of sharp, red-handled scissors, Fan snipped patterns in yet another cup while Hsiao-Mei Wiedmeyer of Columbia Friends of China greeted passers-by and explained the artist's work.

Fan, 38, is visiting from Weifang, a city in the Shandong province of China. Unlike many of the other artists at Art in the Park last weekend, Fan doesn’t work with traditional mediums such as paints, clay or cameras.

Instead, she looks up for inspiration at the canopies of trees.

When Fan isn’t teaching art in Weicheng, China, she is a leaf cutter, meaning she cuts designs and patterns into tree leaves.

"She really is amazing, isn’t she?" Wiedmeyer said as she pulled Fan's pressed leaves out of a magazine and held them up to the light.

Blue sky peeked through, illuminating a wolf’s head surrounded by flowers. The background was cut out, leaving a pattern of squares around the leaf's veins. Even the wolf’s fur was delicately snipped, bringing the design to life.

As bunches of people gathered around the table, Wiedmeyer pulled more and more leaves out of the magazine, each with a different design, snowflake-like. Wiedmeyer said the magazine was meant to keep the leaves from blowing away, a necessary measure against the winds snapping against the sides of the tent that day.

The breeze blew little scraps of the red Coca-Cola cup Fan was cutting into the grass. When someone asked what design she was making, Fan turned to Wiedmeyer and asked, in Chinese, for the English word for dragon.

"Dragon," Fan said, laughing. She does not speak much English, although Wiedmeyer said Fan understands more than she speaks. 

Weidemeyer is the artist's interpreter during her month-long stay in Columbia. By the end of Fan's visit, Wiedmeyer doesn’t think her services will be necessary.

"I promised her after a month she’d speak English," Wiedmeyer said.

Long before she began cutting leaves and cups, Fan was cutting paper, a traditional Chinese art form her grandmother taught her when she was 7.

According to Fan, paper cutting developed in China about 1,400 years ago. The designs were used to decorate paper windows. They also were used as embroidery patterns or, when cut into foil, as hair decorations. Fan experimented with cutting some of her designs into fabric to make a dress, Wiedmeyer said.

Her experimentation didn’t end with fabric. While attending art school at the Shandong Normal University in China, Fan developed her technique and eventually was inspired to start using leaves instead of paper.

"I read a Chinese poem about an empress sitting by a window cutting leaves," Fan said.

She started thinking about what people used before paper was invented. Leaves came to mind. 

Fan decided to start practicing her paper-cutting techniques on leaves. She can use almost any leaf, as long as it’s thick enough that it won’t break when she cuts it. That morning, she used a leaf in Columbia because they’re not that much different from leaves in China, she said.

Wiedmeyer pulled a plastic page protector out of the magazine to show the newly cut leaf. About the size of a hand and a deep, dark green, it had gone through only the first half of Fan's involved creation and preservation process.

Before she can cut her leaves, she must first select them and wash them with water. After they have dried and rested, she puts them in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to keep them at a constant temperature.

Only then is she able to cut her designs, all of which are freehand.

"She follows the character of the leaves," Wiedmeyer said. “When she looks at the leaf, she has an image in her head, but she follows the leaf.”

Fan said the veins determine what the design will be. She might look at a leaf and see the image of a dog in the veins, but the exact layout of the dog comes to her as she cuts. Because the designs rely on the leaf, "not a single one is the same," Wiedmeyer said. 

Cutting the leaves takes about two to three hours.

After the design is finished, Fan preserves the leaves using a 20-step process that she developed herself. After a lot of experimentation, she has finally perfected the process, which takes six to eight months.

One of her most involved works is a set of Chinese zodiac signs cut into leaves. Each leaf has one of 12 zodiac animals on it. The entire collection is in the Chinese National Museum in Beijing.

Her work is also on display in museums in England, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Malaysia.

Columbia residents don’t have to travel that far to see Fan's work. She will demonstrate her technique in several presentations and workshops in town throughout June. 

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, she will be at a public presentation and reception at the Columbia Public Library. The event is hosted by Columbia Friends of China, which is partnered with one of Columbia's sister cities in Laoshan, China, in the Shandong province. Wiedmeyer invited Fan on behalf of the Friends of China after meeting her on a trip to China.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey:; 882-2632.

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