Cutting Anew with Iso E. Setel

Iso E. Setel has cut out quite a year for themselves. With support from the Museum of Jewish Montreal’s (MJM) microgrant program they created a short book called Eruv: Queer Installations in Jewish Space, set on eruvin in Montreal, and have so far held a walking tour (with another one scheduled for July 18) and three inclusive and accessible workshops, two of which were at the MJM, for papercutting enthusiasts and newbies. 

It was not so long ago that Setel dove into the art of papercutting. Though their mother taught them how to make papercuts as a child they didn’t practice the art form intentionally until they started work on Eruv. 

When the pandemic interrupted their film projects, the interdisciplinary artist moved to writing. However, in forming their book, they still wanted to find a way to visually represent their interest in exploring what queer Jewish space looks like. An Eruv is a boundary usually enclosed by existing boundaries, like railways or hedges, and are then signalled as such by erecting wires inside the enclosures. These areas permit observant Jews to carry or push items that would otherwise be forbidden to carry or push outside of the home during Shabbat. “Papercuts came to mind as a method for doing that because they are a particularly Jewish visual practice. So I made some, very simple papercuts of street maps from the different areas where the Eruv are in Montreal and filled them with floral elements.” 

Papercuts have been tied to Jewish practice since the 14th century and have been used throughout history and different parts of the world to beautify spaces, visually interpret sacred texts, and comment on the political happenings of the day. 

Setel continues that tradition.

Based between Montreal and Rochester, New York, I spoke with Setel from their home in Montreal, where we discussed the tradition of papercutting, combining art with faith, and Jewish joy. 

Iso E. Setel in action! Photograph courtesy of the Museum of Jewish Montreal. 

Can you tell me a little bit more about the project you did with the Museum of Jewish Montreal and how that led to further collaborations?

I ended up thinking about the Eruv as a queer object because I was interested in the way that it sort of undoes a binary between the public and the private. I was also interested in reading that through Sarah Ahmed’s queer phenomenology. And wrote a little book and got to do a walking tour. Then I was lucky enough that the tour was popular, so they asked me to do it again. I became more involved in the museum through the relationship I developed with Austin [Arts Programming and Communications Manager] and the rest of the team. It felt like an easy collaboration that sort of just happened, but the microgrant project was a great introduction to them. 

Well, it’s amazing there was such an appetite from the public. It’s so nice to see that people love to hear the theory behind your work. I find that’s rare.

When we’re talking about bringing queer life into conversation with Jewish ritual, I think there’s a strong interest in that right now. So it was cool to get into all those conversations with folks.

Has Judaism and your Jewishness always been something you’ve explored or was it new territory? 

My mom is a rabbi. Jewishness was a huge part of my life growing up and I always kind of joke that she’s my silent collaborator on these projects because I’ve learned so much from her, especially in the papercutting work that I’ve been doing. 

What’s the experience been like at the workshops sharing your papercutting wisdom, your work on Eruvs, and your focus on queering Jewish spaces?

It’s been lovely. I also got to do one workshop with my mom’s synagogue in Rochester. And that was particularly lovely because that’s a special intergenerational community. I keep telling people the youngest person there was a young trans teen and the oldest person there was a 101-year-old woman. That felt really special.

When I’m doing papercutting I really feel I am participating in a conversation with Jews that I’ve known and that I haven’t known. And getting to do that in an actual community with other people feels like what we should be doing: sharing it and making it accessible. The space the museum has provided to let that happen feels special and unique. 

A yellow papercut from a workshop at the MJM. Photograph courtesy of the Museum of Jewish Montreal.
A white papercut from a workshop at the MJM. Photograph courtesy of the Museum of Jewish Montreal.

And in doing so, it’s creating warm environments for people to have experiences of Jewish joy. 

The more that I learned about historical papercutting in the 17th and 18th century—throughout Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Iberian Peninsula, Jewish communities all over—papercutting was prolific and available. People would make little stencils of animal shapes or floral shapes and presumably share them with others. This idea that you had to be a fine artist to make them wasn’t present at all. So it’s important to host these workshops where you do not have to be an artist, you do not have to be able to draw. It’s not about having an artistic vision. It’s about participating in a craft that belongs to everyone.

No one is saying that we have to put pressure on ourselves. But suddenly–

But people do.

People feel a lot of pressure to excel and it’s strange when all we want is just to have a fun relaxing time. But instead, we’re like, oh my gosh, that flower is not how I wanted it to be.

One thing that’s really important for me in the workshop is to provide templates I’ve drawn that people can use. What’s also really cool is that at every workshop I’ve done some people use the template. At my first one, I said, “Wow, people have made such beautiful things.” And Austin was kind of teasing me by telling me, “That’s your drawing.” 

But at every workshop people have taken that template as a base and then added their own things or changed them or combined them. If you make people feel like they don’t have to start from scratch they are more empowered to make creative choices and try things out.

Have there been one-on-one conversations with the folks in the workshop or simply when you’re looking at the art they’re making that moved you in an unexpected way?

At the last workshop a person came up afterward and said, “I don’t think of myself as an artistic person but this felt like something I was able to do.” And that always gets me. That’s what I want. I mean that’s sort of the dream. You don’t have to feel like an artist to make art. 

A papercut by Setel. Photograph courtesy of Iso E. Setel.
A papercut by Setel. Photograph courtesy of Iso E. Setel.

Now that you’ve done two papercutting workshops, have you thought about other projects where papercutting can come into play in a way that isn’t necessarily tied in with your Judaism, or is it something that’s always in conversation with your Jewishness?

I think it’s always in conversation with Judaism. In my workshop I say that papercutting isn’t uniquely Jewish but there are things that are unique to Jewish papercutting. And one of the things that I’m particularly interested in is the way that these ornamental objects are incorporated into ritual life and practice, and the ways in which the domestic and the divine become linked with papercuts. In Ashkenazi Jewish communities, there’s this practice of making Mizrach [marking the eastern wall of the home with art and integrating the word east on the design]. Papercuts were one of the ways you would mark it so you knew which direction to face when praying. And I’m really interested in the way that bodies become oriented in space and the ways we make links between the domestic and other spaces, especially when they become these different ritual technologies we deploy to make space together. 

You’re bridging the old and new together because you’re using modern motifs as well. 

Papercutting relies a lot on symbolism and the use of symbols to portray meaning, both in historical examples and in the revival of papercuts during the ’60s and ’70s. 

My mom got me The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols. I find myself treating each symbol as its own archive of folk meaning and finding ways to dig into those archives and pull out the meanings that already exist there that resonate with modern, queer, Jewish life. I’m doing something that’s specific but I’m not doing something new because there have always been queer Jews who’ve been papercutting, there have always been people making these kinds of spaces and finding ways to participate in that conversation and find those resonances and pull them out. I feel like I’m digging down in the depths.

As you should be, that’s where all the good stuff is. But, what are the do’s and don’ts of papercutting? 

Historically, specifically in Jewish life, it’s a practice of the poor. It’s a practice of making with what you have at hand. And I love that. Sometimes the fancy nice paper is actually not the best option because it’s too thick, it’s too hard, it hurts your hand to cut through it.

For the last round of workshops I did we were making rosettes where you’re cutting through four layers of paper at once. So we used printer paper because it’s the thinnest paper and doesn’t hurt your hand. It does depend on what you’re working on, but what I love is that any paper can be used for papercutting. You don’t have to invest a ton of materials to get started. You can just do it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Header image design by Orly Zebak. Photographs courtesy of the Museum of Jewish Montreal.

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