Berkeley artist creates Judaic stories, layer by layer

In contrast to a painter who adds lines and color to a blank sheet or canvas, a papercutter slices away miniscule shreds of parchment paper and a story unfolds underneath the surface.

Jonathan Lyon

Jonathan Lyon of Berkeley discovered the lost art form on Sukkot two years ago and quickly became hooked. “[Papercuts] are special because the pictures are already there,” he said, “all I have to do is cut away pieces of paper to reveal them.”

A speech pathologist in the Hayward Unified School District, Lyon uses art as a way to connect with his students in the classroom. “When you are working with kids, you need to be flexible and playful,” he says. “That’s what art has always been to me.” But two years ago the 58-year-old says he discovered that papercutting could also be a therapeutic outlet.

“I felt like I needed it to tell me what I was feeling when I couldn’t find the words,” the Berkeley resident says, looking over framed papercuts in his living room that have a three-dimensional quality. His images depict diverse scenes ranging from World War II Europe to his local synagogue.

“Sacred Fragments,” Prague synagogue

“The process is different for each one of them, but each one has to do with visualization and dreaming,” he says. With some papercuts based on photographs and dreams, Lyon takes artistic license with the majority of his work, such as replacing a train car with a barbed-wire fence. “I interpret the pictures and change some of the lines to make the photos more meaningful to me.”

One of his papercuts interprets the Passover commandment that compels each individual to imagine oneself as personally leaving Egypt. It creates a panorama of Jewish history, from the pyramids to the Holocaust to the return to Israel, depicted by the Western Wall. Another is inspired by a visit to Prague, home to historic synagogues that he said “seem to function mainly as museums.”

The son of a Holocaust survivor, Lyon is drawn to images that portray Nazi-occupied Europe and scenes from Auschwitz. One of the nine papercuts Lyon has completed over the last two years depicts a young boy in the camps, reminiscent of photos of children behind barbed wire during the liberation.

“I’ve always been stuck on this idea that surviving the Holocaust isn’t enough,” he says. “I told my mom she can no longer be a Holocaust survivor, but instead she needs to be a Holocaust thriver.”

Papercutting is a labor-intensive hobby, says Lyon, who is self-taught. Images take him from a few hours to a grueling 72 to complete. The papercuts are crafted with a blade on thin, delicate pieces of paper, often held together by the smallest margins.

Has he ever cut too far? “Oh yes,” he chuckles, “several times.”

The process of intricate papercutting dates back to sixth-century China. But it became a common Jewish art form during the Middle Ages, often associated with High Holy Days and ceremonies. Today papercuts are often used on ketubot, Jewish marriage contracts.

While Lyon has sold a few of his papercuts, he primarily gives them away to the local Jewish community as a way of expressing his gratitude. A member of Berkeley’s Congregation Beth Israel since 1978, Lyon says after his wife’s second bout with cancer, he wanted to thank Rabbi Yonatan Cohen with a papercut that he now displays at the shul. “I don’t think I could stop making them at this point; they mean too much to me.”

Abra Cohen