With surgical scissors, Ruth Monsell began cutting the contours of my face out of a small square of thin, black paper. Keeping my chin up, I stared out the window of her Darmariscotta studio at the snowy Huston Cove. She mentally traced the shape of my profile as I sat perpendicular to her desk.
“It’s easy to establish the reputation of a silhouette artist because there’s so few of us,” said Monsell, who says she is the only silhouette artist in Maine and has been practicing the art for 30 years.
A silhouette is a portrait depicted in an outline that has been filled in, resembling a shadow. The ancient art form, found in Paleolithic cave paintings, was popular in the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries, and remains the cheapest form of portraiture.
Monsell usually creates a single silhouette on a traditional 5-by-7-inch black mat with an oval opening for $20, and can work from a live seating or a photograph.
“I was always the most fascinated by faces and figures,” Monsell said.
Monsell, originally from Rhode Island, began her professional art career drawing portraits in charcoal, pastel, oil paint and conte, or soft pastel crayons. She’s a student of famous portrait artists Daniel Greene and Margaret Carter Baumgaertner and is a member of the Portrait Society of America.
In New York, she competed fiercely with portrait artists during art shows, and constantly felt the pressure to produce accurate, lifelike portraits in 30-45 minutes.
“One day, a little light went off in my head,” Monsell said.
When Monsell was a little girl, her mother paid a silhouettist to cut her silhouette. Though silhouettes are a much simpler portrayal of a person, they’re more affordable for the customer. But what really appealed to Monsell is that the art form has become a rarity.
“I practiced [creating silhouettes] on my family and my neighbors, not sure if it would be popular or that I’d get such a positive response,” Monsell said.
Using her experience as a portrait artist, she adjusted to capturing a person’s likeness with a new tool — scissors. And though she is completely self-taught, she has studied the work of famous silhouettists such as Auguste Edouard who practiced the art in the early 1800s.
“I heard two things the day I started cutting silhouettes: ‘I didn’t even know anyone was still doing these,’ and ‘I’ve been looking for years for someone to cut a silhouette of my children and grandchildren,” Monsell said.
The word “silhouette” was derived from Etienne de Silhouette (1709-67), a French comptroller general of finances who cut silhouettes as a hobby. He portrayed kings, queens, nobility, athletes and statesmen in Europe and America.
Monsell used to sketch a person’s profile with a pencil before picking up the scissors, but her sketches became obsolete when she began using the scissors to fix her pencil marks and add the minute details that makes a person’s silhouette unique.
Today, she uses just scissors.
When I walked into her studio, I looked around at the shelves and easels, expecting to see some sort of light contraption to cast my shadow. She sat down and flipped on a desk lamp to illuminate her paper. While people sometimes cast shadows to trace silhouettes on paper, a silhouettist cutting a traditional silhouette simply observes their subject in the light.
About half of the silhouettes she cuts are from live sittings, the rest are from photographs sent to her from people all around the country who visit her website, www.artfulheirlooms.com. People can visit her at her studio or she’ll travel to cut silhouettes for groups at weddings, celebrations and other events.
“It’s really fun to do weddings,” she said. “I always find that they’re kind of floored at the wedding reception when you’re giving people their portrait instead of a bag of candy or the regular favor.”
She also has cut silhouettes at celebrations, historical societies and schools throughout Maine. She’ll be cutting silhouettes from live sittings at the Owl & Turtle Bookshop in Camden from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, just in time for Valentine’s Day.
“People love to come behind me and watch,” she said. “They say it’s like magic.”
Monsell, who has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, has worked a number of jobs. She was an English teacher for several years, and before she came to Maine, she worked telecommunication sales in Connecticut. She’s in love with three art forms: portraiture, singing and theater, and she has always made time for all three, even while raising two sons. But now, she can truly focus on her artwork.
“It’s very rewarding to come back to doing what everyone thought I was going to do,” Monsell said. “I moved to Maine 11 years ago and realized that it’s artist city. Up and down the coast, there are thousands of artists.”
Though Monsell hasn’t cut the silhouettes of many famous people, I was sitting in the studio that Liv Tyler — actress in “Armageddon,” the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Incredible Hulk” — had posed in two years ago. Tyler came to Monsell for a silhouette of her 3-year-old son, and while she was there, Tyler’s grandmother convinced Tyler to get her own silhouette done.
Monsell also cut the silhouette of folk rock singer Harry Chapin.
But silhouettes aren’t just for people. Monsell started cutting animals while displaying her art at the weeklong Fryeburg Fair. She became bored while standing at her booth and wandered around taking photos of livestock, which she used to cut animal silhouettes on her spare time. She now cuts silhouettes of beloved pets.
She’s also cut building silhouettes for places such as Larson’s Lunch Box in Damariscotta, Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro and Red’s Eats in Wiscasset. Her decorative silhouettes — animals, buildings and fictional people — are on display at Sweet Bay! gift shop in Boothbay.
But no matter how her art varies, people are her focus. She keeps a scrapbook of carefully spaced duplicates of the people she has cut over the years in her studio, and her favorite silhouettes are displayed on her wall alongside her oil portraits.
Silhouette paper is white on one side, black on the other. She folds it in half with the white side out because she can see the white edge more easily as she cuts.
It took her about five minutes to shape my profile and put the finishing touches on my hair. Unfolding the paper, she held up two mirror images. I recognized the silhouette with excitement. It had the high bridge of the nose, the long neck, all of the angles of the face that only a silhouette artist could easily pick out. The end result was simple, yet captivating. The resemblance, not displaying any three-dimensional aspects, retained some mystery.
Using dry mount adhesive, she glued the silhouette against a white mat, framed by a traditional oval. Before I left her studio, she instructed me to frame my silhouette and preserve it behind glass. It’s a treasure.
To view Ruth Monsell’s art, visit www.artfulheirlooms.com. Her work, including beach and alewives paintings, can be seen at the Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset, River Arts Gallery in Damariscotta, Boothbay Region Art Foundation, Saltwater Artists Gallery in Pemaquid, and at her home studio and gallery in Damariscotta.