Folk Art

Antique Scherenschnitte by Midwestern Artist John Walker Brown
  • This is an American Scherenschnitte (a/k/a scissor-cutting) by one of the few known 19th century paper-cutting artists. Most Scherenschnitte that we find from the 19th century and before were cut by anonymous artists, and the majority of the early American pieces were from Pennsylvania. John Walker Brown (1815-1908) was an itinerant artist who cut fancy paper designs in the rural areas of Pennsylvania, northeastern Ohio, Indiana and Michigan between the years of about 1880 to 1907. Little was known about him until the early 1960s when a family collection of about 100 pieces came to light in Burton, Ohio. The collection of Helen Hotchkiss Coats and her sister, Hilda Hotchkiss Hosmer, represented works that Brown created for three generations of the Phillips-Hotchkiss family. The collection included stencils, valentine-like gifts, patterns, an elaborately cut Independent Order of Odd Fellows record made for the sisters' grandfather, letters and greetings decorated with elaborate cut-work or penciled decorations. Helen Coats discovered that other residents near Burton also owned Walker cuttings and that the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn Michigan owned examples. Walker's letters included in the collection tell the only story of John Walker Brown that we know. Despite his itinerancy, Brown developed and continued close relationships with the families who commissioned his work, sending them notes that often included his artwork and discussed family members, crops, pets and important events. His relationships with the families often lasted decades.

    His cutwork ranged in size from 3" x 5" to large family records reaching 22" x 28". His stylized designs were elaborately cut by knife and contain his favorite elements in different compositions. He is known for his jagged edged maple leaves, fuchsia flowers, other three and five-petaled flowers, cuffed hands on which he pasted complicated and delicately-cut hearts. He also used birds, a few horses and deer, keys, jagged stems and a brush & ball terminal that is considered one of his trademarks. He often cut his designs from thick white paper and used pieces of glazed colored or gilded paper behind certain elements to make them appear more three-dimensional. He laid the white paper upon glazed dark papers, usually black or very dark blue. However, some of his pieces were cut from a dark paper which was laid upon light backgrounds. As was the tradition of the Pennsylvania German cutters, he did not use different designs to distinguish his Valentine, Christmas or New Year’s greetings by holiday.

    This is a wonderful example of Brown’s smaller works, measuring 6 ½” wide by 6” tall. It is cut from a medium weight, stiff, white paper with the fushia flowers, birds, leaves and other elaborate cut-outs backed by glossy red and green papers. The center medallion is a red heart cut with extra swirls and jags and placed atop the white paper. Brown’s characteristic blocks of text are in the lower corners of the cutting. Both blocks bear Brown’s lightly penned cursive writing. The left block says "Mrs. White, Feb. 22nd 1892 / This Present to you I give / to keep a while on this earth you be. / With Compliments of your friend / J.B. Walker.” The right block bears the inscription "Long may you live / and never sorrow see, / But in your happiest moments / please sometimes think of me."

    This lovely cutting was found with the original shiny blackened paper backing (which we used to call “flint paper”), folded in half and put in a 6” x 3 ½” envelope printed in the upper left “BUTLER’S HOTEL / KILLBUCK, OHIO / J. Butler Proprietor”. I have visions of Walker sitting in his hotel room during his working travels and cutting this love token for his wife at home. I picture Mrs. Walker opening the token when John got home and the two hugging each other fondly. We know little about John Brown Walker except that he traveled and worked heavily in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. He seemed to create several works for many of the families that he worked for, showing a continuing interest and friendship with his clients. We know that during the 1880s he was making a living with his itinerant cutting but we don’t know when he started or when he stopped. Records show that he died in a poor house in Michigan in 1908. We don’t know the identity of “Mrs. Walker” but I hope and assume it was his wife. Brown was 77 years old in 1892 and I hope he and Mrs. Walker had many more years of wedded bliss.

    I’ve lightly floated the beautiful Scherenschnitte atop the original black background paper and then floated that on acid-free red paper. Wanting to keep and display the envelope as part of the artwork’s history, I’ve floated that below the cutting. All has been placed in a late 19th century decorated gilded frame from the same era as the cutting. I think it makes a lovely package but the pieces are lightly held to the paper with Japanese rice paper and can easily be removed and reassembled if another arrangement suits you. Framed size 9 ½” x 11 ½”. We see few John Brown Walker pieces and they are highly prized.

    In 1979, the Museum of Michigan State University presented an exhibition of 60 of Brown's works which later traveled to three other Michigan museums. A first edition copy of the exhibit catalog is included with this piece. The catalog is a wonderful 56 page book that analyzes Walker's work within the spectrum of the art of paper-cutting. The catalog also gives us a glimpse at his life and feelings by quoting many of his written messages.

    Let me end this description with the conclusion drawn in the catalog.

    Influences from many sources, centuries old and contemporary, appear in John Brown Walker's work, yet in his hands they were transformed. Traditional motifs of hearts, gloves, birds, horses, scrollwork, etc., became new with the precision and delicacy of his cutting. Although stylized, the motifs that came from his own environment--his favorite maple leaves, fuchsias, and jagged stems--have a greater vitality than many naturalistic renderings. The greetings and poetry, integral parts of his work, also reflect inherited verse patterns and lore, and nineteenth-century customs, as well as his own love of nature, his friendliness, his religious attitudes, and his humor. All of these divergent strands he wove together to make an artistic fabric that is American, yet uniquely his.1

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    1"Your Wellwisher, J.B. Walker"" A Midwestern Paper Cut-Out Artist, Michigan State University Board of Trustees, 1979, 18.