Hoffritz brand scissors in hand, silhouette artist Deborah O’Connor reduces a profile to a mere line.
Her eyes start at the chest and move up the neck, around the chin. She cuts as she sees it, always freehand. Then the face—lips, nose, eyes, forehead—to the top of the back of the head. She stops, pulling her scissors from the double-sided, black-and-white silhouette paper and beginning again at the bottom, cutting up the back until the two lines meet.
“You have to have a certain amount of trust,” she said of silhouetting during a telephone interview last week. “You’re not looking at the paper. You’re looking at the person and letting your hand go.”
At 60, Ms. O’Connor is one of the few remaining of her kind, she said. There are fewer than a dozen professional silhouette artists nationwide, she said, but she’s fighting to keep this art form alive by constantly traveling to different shows.
Her next stop is her debut on the East End: the Harvest Day Fair on Saturday, September 24, at the Southampton Historical Museum, where she will be cutting in the music room of the Rogers Mansion.
“The silhouettes that she’s creating are tomorrow’s heirlooms,” said Lynn Egan, director of programs and special events for the Southampton Historical Museum. “Historically, she ties in. It’s a perfect fit for the Harvest Day Fair.”
Silhouette cutting originated in Europe in the early 1700s, Ms. Egan said. Prior to the French Revolution, the royal class hired the artists to cut their profiles in the latest fashions and elaborate wigs.
By mid-century, Etienne de Silhouette, the finance minister of France, had crippled the country with his tax policies. He was much more interested in his paper-cutting hobby. Mimicking his black cutouts, peasants wore only black and said, “We are dressing a la Silhouette. We are shadows, too poor to wear color. We are Silhouettes!” according to Ms. Egan.
“The nickname for his hobby stuck,” Ms. O’Connor explained. “He was laughed out of office and ended his life cutting silhouettes in his house until he died.”
Silhouette reached its golden age in the 1800s, until photography grew popular. Trying to keep up with the times, artists competed by embellishing silhouettes with chalk, Ms. O’Connor said. Today, the art form is underappreciated, she said, and unrecognized by many.
“It’s this art that has all this historical significance,” she said. “It’s so neglected, but appreciated by the few. The few that love it will seek it out. But it’s getting harder. Prime targets—parents of young children—don’t know what it is unless I’m doing one.”
After 35 years of practice, simple silhouettes can take Ms. O’Connor a minute to make, but she usually spends five times that when creating her artwork. Traditionally, the paper is folded in half, which fosters cutting stability and yields a by-product of an extra copy that faces the opposite direction, sold at half-price, she said.
“There’s a mysterious quality that shocks people when they see it finished,” she said of the silhouette. “They say, ‘Oh my God, it’s scary. It’s more me than me.’”
Silhouetting has taken Ms. O’Connor all around the world. In 1999, she moved to Japan where she worked at Tokyo Disneyland. Then, 15 months later, she was in Hawaii collecting sea glass, painting and cutting silhouettes in Lahaina, a popular port for cruise ships, she said.
“I needed to recuperate from working 14-hour days,” she said of her time in Japan. “In Hawaii, the tourists knew what silhouettes were, but the natives, it didn’t have any cultural meaning to them, particularly.”
Just a couple years ago, Ms. O’Connor finally returned to her childhood home: Wakefield, Rhode Island. Her daughter, Andrea Peitsch, inherited her mother’s talent and has joined the family business. The two women travel the East Coast, silhouetting adults, children as young as 5 days old, and even their pets, she said.
Contrary to what might be popular belief, the art form catches a truer representation of its subject than even painted portraiture, according to Ms. O’Connor.
“Portrait painting is a picture of someone with something wrong with the eyes,” Ms. O’Connor said. “There’s always something wrong with a painting. With silhouettes, if you get the line right, less can go wrong. It’s served its purpose as an inexpensive form of portraiture. But people don’t realize it’s the superior form of portraiture.”