Artist blends Polish paper cutting with Cajun culture

ELTON, La. (AP) — Sam Wróbel has gone from a kid in Chicago cutting paper to an adult in southwest Louisiana cutting paper — professionally.

Wróbel, whose last name is Polish for sparrow, studied art in college and worked for years as a sign artist, making mostly illustration-type artwork for Trader Joe’s.

Years of full-time travel brought them to Acadiana and its nature, music and country Mardi Gras traditions. That was all it took.

“I came here and fell in love with the culture,” they said.

Wróbel moved to Lafayette in 2017 and started Sparrow Papercraft a year later. The business focused at first on painting and illustrating but over time returned to their artistic and Polish roots — papercutting.

Wycinanki is the Polish folk art of papercutting, which Wróbel learned as a child from a good family friend named Doris Sikorsky. She was a professional papercutter and passed that tradition on to little Sam through two master/apprentice grants in ethnic art from the Illinois Arts Council.

“It took me until I was older to realize what had been passed on to me,” Wróbel said. “Everyone always says find your niche. I had my niche all along.”

Now 36 and based in Elton, Wróbel uses only scissors and paper to hand-cut traditional folk designs blended with the nature and culture of Cajun country to produce original wycinanki art.

“When I first started doing it I just never thought people in Louisiana would care about my Polish folk art, but they do,” they said.

The traditional Polish folk art of papercutting was done mostly by peasants, farmers or women living in rural areas. They’d traditionally use heavy sheep shears because that’s what they had, Wróbel explained, but over time they also came to use scissors.

Some of the common designs include roosters, flowers, farm or wedding scenes.

“They were depicting scenes from their daily lives,” they said. “That’s something Doris taught me. Don’t just copy the old pictures.”

So she had Wróbel depict scenes from their own life. Wróbel remembers putting scissors to paper to create a sleepover scene.

They’re still incorporating common scenes from daily life, although the optics have changed a bit. Now there are crawfish boats and Mardi Gras courirs in their pieces.

“The culture here is so vibrant and inspirational,” Wróbel said. “I’m also a Southwest Louisiana Master Naturalist, so I’m very inspired by nature — birds, animals, plants.”

While the designs change, the spirit of the art remains the same. It’s fanciful, they said, referring to the angles, colors and intricacies within the designs. But it is still a simple art reflecting daily life and common items.

“I feel like I’m still doing it in the spirit of it,” Wróbel said. “It’s important to carry it on but also important to put your own spin on it. People think of tradition as static, not changing, but that’s not how it’s ever been.”

The art evolved well before Sikorsky introduced Wróbel to it in the ’90s, becoming more intricate as tools and materials improved. But the heart of it has stayed the same, they said.

“I do some traditional style and try to keep the traditional feel to it,” they said. “Like with any art, you develop your own style after a while.”

That’s reflected on the Sparrow Papercraft website, where colorful roosters and intricate flowers share space with alligators, pelicans and Mardi Gras costumes.

“I want people to still recognize it,” they said. “My first Mardi Gras piece, it looks so Cajun and so Polish at the same time.”

They do commission work as well as their own pieces, which can be found in the online shop. There are original works made of paper as well as prints of those designs converted into stickers, greeting cards and T-shirts. Sparrow Papercraft items also can be found at some markets.

Stickers tend to be their best sellers, and it makes Wróbel happy to see the Mardi Gras sticker on cars around town.

Mardi Gras holds a special place in their heart, which translates into new pieces for the holiday each year. Wróbel does an annual limited edition Mardi Gras print and has designed the patch for a Mardi Gras run they attend each year near Eunice.

The amount of time papercutting takes depends on the project. Size and layering make a difference. With so many tiny details and thin paper, Wróbel uses a high-quality, extra-strength glue stick.

“It’s like gluing a piece of lace down,” they said.

They work with paper of all colors rather than dying it themselves. It gives the work an added challenge they enjoy.

“That’s one thing that’s so great about this work,” they said. “I can be having a bad day and then I just go to my desk and it’s covered in colorful paper. It’s hard to be in a bad mood around so much color.”

When Wróbel was first taught wycinanki, it was a dying folk art. It has had a bit of a resurgence, but much of the work being done today is digital rather than paper, the artist said.

That reminds Wróbel how precious and fleeting this work can be.

Wróbel calls Sikorsky, now in her 80s and still in Chicago, to check in every week.

“She gave me this gift; I want to honor that,” they said. “I guess she saw something in me.”