Back in July, I had the opportunity to talk with Nina D’Angier, graphic designer, writer, silhouette artist, and much more. We had met previously at several historical reenactments including the amazing Chicago Poetry Bordello. She is one of fifty artists still working in the artform.
I asked her about her work as a silhouette artist. Nina D’Angier told me, “Silhouette art sorta found me. I was already here in Chicago at the time. Just starting my life in Chicago, I was in school. My husband...is also a magician. We both share a love for history and people. We had watched a documentary on his favorite magician Dai Vernon. [Magic] was the thing that he eventually made his name doing.... Prior to that, he was a silhouette artist. I’ve always liked them. You’ve seen [silhouette art]. I grew up in Florida so everyone had ones from Disneyworld. I always thought they were nice…. That’s a really cool thing from the time period. How sad that’s not a thing people do any more. I never made the connection that ‘Hey, why don’t you do it’ until we watched the documentary.
“It’s a rather curious thing that I happened to be rather good with scissors. It came from being a careful child. When you gave me something, and you told me to connect the dots or cut on this dotted line, I wanted to cut directly on it…. I really appreciated the way stickers—I had a sticker collection as a kid, cause the 90s— I really appreciated how the image had a perfectly spaced white border around whatever it was. When I got into things like collage, later on, I liked being able to cut the 2 mm of space around whatever the image was that I cut out. I remember perfecting that as a child. I remember having this impulse as a child at 7 and then doing it forever. I could cut out a perfect circle by the time I was 12. It was this weird thing, it was not super useful, but a skill I had cultivated over time.
“Anyway, we had watched this documentary about Dai Vernon. Aaron looked at me and said: ‘I think you’d be really good at that silhouette cutting.’ I said, ‘I think you that you are crazy. That’s insane. Look how fast he’s cutting those people out and it’s perfect.’ He was, “Let’s just try it.’ He runs out of the living room and comes back with the giant bulky kitchen shears and the a piece of college ruled loose leaf paper. He said, ‘Just do mine.’ So I indulged him. I am looking at his face and cutting out this image. It’s very a subtractive sculpture art. All of sudden it felt just like sculpture to me in that it’s like I was taking out of the pieces of paper that wasn’t his face. And it just felt really natural. Afterwards, both of us looked at it and we said: ‘Oh my god, that’s your face.’ And he said: ‘I told you would be good at this.’ To be fair, I wasn’t very good at first. It was enough to recognize him but not striking.
“I worked on it. And then about maybe four months later, I booked my first gig; it was a graduation. It was great. It was a thing I’ve continued to do for the past five years or so. I’ve started studying other people who’ve done it, what little the nuances and tricks they used. How do they differentiate between a child head and adult head... How do you cut out curls? That’s the hardest thing for me. It’s been very exciting. A fun art to learn and very immediately rewarding.”
That’s just a tiny taste of the longer interview and all of the amazing work of Nina D’Angier.
Check out her Instagram: @ninadngr