Skip to main content


by Linda Murray Emmerson

Published onSep 21, 2020

Linda Murray Emmerson (American, b. 1937)

Silhouette cutting is not one type of art but many, a constellation of artforms practiced by varying cultures across wide swaths of time and space.  Indonesian wayang puppetry depends on the mystery of the shadow and silhouette for its storytelling power.  Chinese papercutting, often in shades of red, has been included on the UNESCO Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage.  Some of the earliest full-length animated films, by German woman filmmaker Lotte Reiniger, are rendered entirely in silhouette. 

Linda Emmerson first encountered silhouette papercutting via the German/Swiss art of scherenschnitte, meaning “scissor cuts.”  Vacationing in Switzerland, she found the artform immediately appealing.  Trained in architectural rendering here at Iowa State—where she was, for a time, one of very few women attending architecture classes—Emmerson worked as an architectural draftsperson, charged with translating three-dimensional spaces and structures (many of which did not yet exist) onto two-dimensional surfaces in a way that would render them comprehensible not only to architects but to clients.  The work relies on precision and the ability to imagine and then mentally flatten three-dimensional space, a specialized skillset.  Encountering scherenschnitte, Emmerson found a similarly demanding artform: in papercutting there is just one material, paper, and only the handful of tools required to cut it with the necessary delicacy.  While traditional scherenschnitte images tend to appear relatively flat—works may be symmetrical or have repeating patterns, or actions may unfold parallel to the picture plane, as though everyone is on a stage—Emmerson brings her drafting skills to the task, producing silhouettes which often incorporate a convincing sense of depth or recession into space.  In the work on view here, a professor near the top of the frame teaches a group of pupils, their bodies appearing “closer” to the viewer than his; while a stylized set of figures below them—homage to William King’s sculpture Forward, located just outside this building—stride together, some legs crossing in front of others to give a sense that the figures walk through a real space.  In the center of it all, the Christian Petersen Museum itself stands, far more than a silhouette, its architectural masses seeming to project forward above the surface of the paper.  Looking at the picture, we can imagine ourselves standing within that building, as we now are.

-Dr. Emily Morgan

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?