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Polish-American artist Grace Bazylewski connects with her heritage, inner child through folk art of paper-cutting.

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Grace Bazylewski believes that most of today’s world problems are the result of people not making enough effort to understand each other. She trying to change that by handing them some folded paper and a pair of scissors.

This is how she introduces them to wycinanki (ve-chee-non-kee), the old Polish folk art of paper-cutting, stylized by regions of Poland. The designs include flowers, trees, animals, stars and abstract forms, as well as genre scenes and multilayered glue-ons. The only limit is the paper cutter’s imagination and creativity.

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Artist Grace Bazylewski specializes in the Polish folk art of paper-cutting.

Alex Wroblewski/For the Sun-Times

“What I learned is that it will almost always start a conversation. Where are you from? Where did your parents come from? What is your family history? And all that while having fun and getting creative,” said Bazylewski, a Chicago-born Polish-American from south suburban Lansing, who has been practicing her craft for over 50 years and has taught it for about 30.

It started when, at age 16, Bazylewski was in a car accident that left her unable to walk for a couple of months. Some instructors at Harcerstwo, the Polish Scouting Organization of Illinois, which her parents helped to found, suggested doing wycinanki to fill the time. Over the following decades, it has become a way for Bazylewski, the daughter of post-World War II political dissidents, to maintain a connection to her cultural heritage. 

It wasn’t always just for fun. Bazylewski, a retired urban planner, would grab paper and scissors to calm down after a tough day at work. She remembers watching on TV the images of Solidarność taking over the Gdańsk shipyard in Poland in 1980 — and cutting. Her Solidarność cutout, which was 5 feet high and took three hours to cut, was later displayed at Chicago’s Polish Museum of America.

Bazylewski, who is fluent in Polish, teaches wycinanki to groups of various backgrounds at public libraries, museums, galleries, schools and churches. She customizes designs to the group she’s working with but always includes a Polish component because, she says, it is a part of her history. 

Wycinanki developed in the mid-1800s as a folk art tradition of Polish peasants. Two regions most famous for this craft are Kurpie and Łowicz. Early practitioners were often men, who used sheep shears in winter, when there were no sheep to shear. The finished paper creations were placed on walls and windows of homes as household decorations. Today paper cutouts are often mounted and framed as art pieces or are incorporated into greeting cards, gifts or Christmas ornaments.

The craft is not reserved to Poles. Ukraine, Lithuania, Germany, Scandinavian countries and Mexico have paper-cutting art distinctive to their cultures, in addition to China (where paper originated) and Japan.

All it takes is a pair of 5-inch scissors with pointed tips and folded card stock with patterns predrawn by Bazylewski. You cut slowly along the lines, taking your time to ensure precision and accuracy. The trick is always to leave parts uncut, so it doesn’t fall apart.

The magic happens when the paper is opened to reveal the cutter’s creation.

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Wycinanki artworks by Grace Bazylewski

Alex Wroblewski/For the Sun-Times

“That’s the same reaction for the 3-year-old as it is for the 70-year-old. It’s that moment of discovery. They are like, ‘Wow, I made it’. I do it for that moment,” said Bazylewski.

Through her classes, Bazylewski discovered that often it’s the groups she least expects who get the most engaged and creative with wycinanki: seniors, children with disabilities, disadvantaged youth and men.

“I did a class in Bronzeville library right across from Robert Taylor Homes. It was a very large group with many teenage boys, a guard with a gun, and they locked the library doors. And I had everybody paper-cutting,” Bazylewski said proudly.

At another class, for a Polish club in South Holland, she said she had to collect the scissors from the senior men because they didn’t want the class to end. The same thing happened in Little Village, where a couple of Mexican fathers working on Day of the Dead pieces with their kids refused to leave until they had finished their creations.

“Maybe it’s that men are not allowed to be that creative, and it just unleashes their inner child,” Bazylewski said.

Meg Zold attended Bazylewski’s class in February at River Grove Library. She praised her for making workshops so accessible to everyone.

“There was a good spirit in the class because people were so proud and happy they could actually do it and so delighted with what we made. I think she’s a great ambassador for Polish culture,” Zold said.

“Grace has a passion for being Polish,” said Ania Ostrowski, who leads the volunteer program for the Poland Christmas tree at the Museum of Science and Industry, where Bazylewski volunteers. “Some people born in America or who came here very young start to lose their Polishness or it gets very limited. She tries very hard to keep that alive.”

Over the last five decades, Bazylewski has shown her paper creations in various museums, galleries, public venues and clubs in the Chicago area, as well as a museum gallery in Hong Kong. Most recently, she contributed to “Back Home: Polish Chicago,” an exhibit at the Chicago History Museum, which runs until June 2024.

“The objective is to have everybody start telling their stories, whether they’re Italian, Polish, African American or whatever. We all have an immigrant history. We have to tell our stories because it is our collective history,” Bazylewski said.

Joanna Marszałek is a bilingual journalist and a staff writer at the Polish Daily News in Chicago.



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