A Cut Above

A silhouette artist with soul

Kerry Cook isn’t just a silhouette artist—she’s a storyteller. Since she first became interested in the art form when she was 10 years old, she’s been passionate about perfecting her craft. She’ll be coming to Bellingham Oct. 20 to share her talents here for the first time, and we caught up with her to find out what to expect.

Cascadia Weekly: What is the most important detail to include when it comes to cutting a silhouette?
Kerry Cook: That depends on the silhouette, and the story you’re trying to tell. A good silhouette artist looks for the secret of each face, not just an unusual feature, such as a caricaturist might catch. The real silhouette artist looks for subtle lines, or a harmony of lines.

CW: Do you remember what it was that attracted you about the art form when you were a kid?
KC: My dad put me up to it. I used to cut silhouettes out of the side of my mom’s portrait booth in art fairs and county fairs around Washington State. Doing silhouettes gave me a way to participate in the world that was happening all around me. It was fun!

CW: What was the most important lesson your dad taught you?
KC: My dad taught me how to see. He taught me to examine every part of every line, looking for curves, planes and angles, and how those nuanced lines fit together in context to the rest of the face.

CW: This seems like such a specialized talent.
KC: When I started there were three of us in Western Washington, me and two older women. Now, so far as I know, I’m the only professional silhouette artist in the Pacific Northwest, and there are fewer than 10 quality artists in the whole country who still do the real thing.

CW: Are there fakers out there?
KC: Most people today who promote themselves as “silhouette artists” are actually doing a formula cut developed for use in theme parks. This means they essentially cut the same head over and over again, very fast, and customize it just enough to sell a quick illusion of likeness.

CW: Do you find the silhouettes are something people hold on to for a long time?
KC: Yes, definitely! Silhouettes become heirlooms. I’m always interested to hear when and where people have had silhouettes done in the past. Sometimes I find the work of my mentor, Flo Konecke. Flo lived on Lummi Island, and did a lot of work in the Bellingham area.

CW: How long does it typically take to do each silhouette?
KC: Usually about 3 to 5 minutes. It depends on the amount of detail.

CW: What are your tools of the trade?
KC: I use customized surgical scissors, with specially sharpened blades.

CW: What are your challenges?
KC: Because a silhouette has only one line with which to tell a story, every millimeter should “speak.” The fun challenge for me artistically is to try to find what is unique in each face, and express it in a way that is artistic and appealing.

CW: You say “the best silhouettes have soul.” Can you elaborate?
KC: There is a magic about silhouettes. Because the line is so simple, silhouettes come alive in a way that is very different from other kinds of art. A good silhouette can trigger a special kind of “Aha!” response—a sudden, intense experience of recognition. This makes silhouettes feel both intimate and magical. If they are well observed and if the artist captures something evocative—some nuance of line, likeness, expression, posture—then a silhouette from 100 years ago can make you feel as if you know the subject, and what kind of person they were. Careful observation is the key.

Kerry Cook will hand-cut portraits, by appointment, from 11am-6pm Sun., Oct. 20 and, if there’s overflow, Mon., Oct. 21 at the Fairhaven’s Toy Garden, 1147 11th St. Call 714-8552 to schedule a time. Cost is $25 for the original, $10 for each copy and $14 for an oval frame (optional).

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