The Surprising Art of Wycinanki (Polish Papercutting)


Artist Magdalena Nowacka-Jannotta

Polish folk artist, Magdalena Nowacka-Jannotta, has been making papercuts, or Wycinanki (vee-chee-NAN-kee), for nearly sixty years. Despite her long history with the art form, Magdalena says she never tires of it.

“No matter how many times I cut a design,” she says, “there’s always that element of surprise as I unfold it and see what I’ve created. That’s what keeps it exciting for me.”

Papercutting is practiced in various forms around the world, and Polish papercutting, or Wycinanki, is one of the most colorful. Originating in the mid-1800s, Wycinanki involves the symmetrical cutting and layering of several pieces of paper.

While other forms of papercutting in Western Europe originally served utilitarian purposes, Wycinanki has always been a purely decorative art, practiced by the people of rural Poland. The term “Wycinanki” is plural; it refers to more than one paper cutout or the art form in general. A single cutout is called “Wycinanka.”

Historically, Wycinanki has been cut using sheep shears because they were often the only cutting instruments available to people in the rural areas. Wycinanki designs are generally cut freehand—that is without preliminary sketching—and from a single sheet of paper.

Magdalena still makes her Wycinanki cutouts in the traditional way. Born in Warsaw before World War II, she grew up in the Polish countryside. Although her parents were both artistically inclined in other areas, it was a neighbor who taught Magdalena the various folds and cuts of the art of Wycinanki.

After the war, Magdalena moved to California. Life was vastly different there and she decorated the walls of her house with papercuts to make herself feel at home. In this way she began to weave her Polish heritage into her new American lifestyle. Her papercuts were eventually featured in newspapers and on television, which led to numerous workshops and art shows in the area.

After the family moved to Washington, D.C., Magdalena taught the art of Wycinanki through the Smithsonian Institution. Her award-winning works are preserved in the Archive of American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and are collected and shown nationally and internationally. She has also provided illustrations for numerous books and greeting cards.

Wycinanki can be used for wall or window decorations, notecards, stencils, bookmarks, lampshades, placemats, holiday decorations, frames for poems or important documents, and three-dimensional mobiles.

Just like the paper snowflakes that we talked about last week, no two Wycinanki designs are ever exactly alike. The element of the unexpected in the creative process adds a dimension of joy and fun.

Stay tuned! We’ll post the directions for making a Wycinanki bookmark later this week.

You might also be interested in:

Wycinanki: The Art of Polish Papercutting Step-by Step Guide

Wycinanki: Polish Papercutting Poster

Wycinanki: Polish Papercutting DVD

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For more information about Wycinanki, please visit our Squidoo lens on the topic.

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  1. stevie mack says:

    Kitty, I am always amazed when I see Magdalena’s work when I remember that she uses a sheep shears to cut her designs! It is fascinating to watch her cut and lots of fun to try and make a papercut yourself (with a pair if scissors, I might add). Some of the qualities that appeal to me about the Wycinanki are the use of bright colors and the contrast that results from layering a variety of colors. It is beautiful art form and we are so lucky to know Magdalena, who is a master crafts person.

    Kitty Williams Reply:

    Yes, Magdalena is an amazing artist and an amazing person!


  1. [...] be surprised by your own creativity when you make this beautiful Wycinanki bookmark. These directions are for a ribbon-like design, called Wstenga (FSTENG-gah) that comes [...]