April 5 marked the first night of Passover. Upholding Jewish tradition, we reclined in our chairs, sang boisterously, and drank ample wine. We reveled in the joy and safety many of us are thankful to have in the present while holding close the memory of those that came before us. Alaskan-born Jewish artist Kate Laster carves those memories into delicate paper cuts. Then, she dunks that paper in the ocean.
“My art is about the people we carry with us,” she told Hyperallergic in an interview.
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Laster’s first memories are of snow floating on water. She grew up moving from place to place in rural Alaska, from temperate rainforest of Juneau to the icy treeless wilderness in Utqiaġvik. In a world “dense with imagination,” as she described it, she learned to whittle scraps of wood into small figures while hearing stories and poetry by a warm fireside. She said she first saw language being used as a “visual medium in the sense of people putting time aside and really either being in nature or being in warm space talking.”
Today, she uses the visual force behind letters themselves, cutting paper into vibrant collages with fragments of poems — some collected, some written by her. The paper is thoroughly weathered as stencils, multiplying its message as it’s doused in spray paint again and again. Then, she painstakingly laminates the paper by hand, using “really scruffy bits of tape.” The ritual is completed at sundown when Laster dips her works into the Pacific Ocean. As the paper undulates and floats, she sees the waves, part of a living, “primordial soup.”
Laster’s youth in Alaska is proof that the Jewish diaspora spreads far beyond the urban landscape. But for all of us, Jewish practices are deeply tied to the natural world. Festivals begin with the setting sun. “That’s often when I take my books out, as sundown happens,” said Laster. As the great star sets, Laster lifts the text up from the water. And as drips fall off its edges, she uses the hollow paper cut as a viewfinder, so words are filled with the sky.
The water that laps at Laster’s paper cuts is of the same body that carried our ancestors as they wandered the world, searching for home and safety. “The movement is true,” she says. “It’s not losing a sense of self. It’s just understanding that where we’re at is in flux.”
Laster is one of a growing number of anti-Zionist American Jews. For those who do not wish to move to Israel, it’s common to lift up and celebrate the beauty of the diaspora. Following the love of movement, this celebration is also a deep love of the places we find ourselves now. For the Laster, that place is the Bay Area, where the Mexican and Chicano paper-cutting tradition of papel picado is tied to trees lining the Mission, a historically Latinx neighborhood. Chinese paper cuts — 窗花 chuāng huā, or “window flowers” — bloom in glass panes. Laster seems to have soaked in the art of her new home: The perforated rainbow squares at the top of “Turnover Vulnerability” (2022) lightly echo these Mexican and Chinese traditions.
But this artist’s work is also a part of her own ancestry. Jewish paper cutting is a centuries-old tradition that used to be much more commonplace. It was practiced by both professionals and amateurs at home, not only for marriage contracts or ketubot, but also for holidays like Shavuot and Sukkot. Laster now sees herself as a part of the newest generation carrying it forth. With no other materials needed than paper and a sharp edge, she sees the beauty in paper cutting’s accessibility.
The belief that everyone has a fundamental right to engage with and create art is central to Laster’s work, both in and outside of her visual practice. She runs suggested donation-based art history classes, and has held a position as a studio assistant at Hospitality House’s Community Arts Program, a free-of-charge art studio for unhoused and low-income residents of the Tenderloin. Today, she organizes gallery exhibitions at the NIAD Art Center, a creative space for artists with disabilities.
The act of spreading justice through art is intrinsic to the techniques Laster uses, as well. “Printmaking and paper cut in general are about accessibility, making a message, a transmission, go as far as possible,” she said. Laster is also in the tradition of modern Jewish graphic arts: Words that dance and shout diagonally across the page recall the utopian dreams of the 1920s Eastern European Kultur-Lige (Culture League) artists like El Lissitzky and Nathan Altman. Today, Laster is accompanied in revolutionary paper works by artists like the Rebellious Young Anarchist Jews Collective, and prints from Etai Rogers-Fett, whose Passover-themed print shows burning American and Israeli flags, declaring: “Nationalism is chametz.” Laster and her peers make as many copies as possible, wheatpaste their work on street walls, tape them in the windows, display the woodcuts themselves, and throw everything up on the internet so that their messages of liberation can be heard far and wide.
Of course, those messages can be interpreted differently depending on who hears them. “This is the struggle of sharing, of trying to convey anything you feel to someone else. And knowing once it’s public, it can be altered and transformed and interpreted,” Laster noted. “I revel in that.”
Laster’s work is also deeply personal, as she grieves the loss of her father during the COVID-19 pandemic. In “Kaddish Reunion” (2021) a self-portrait shows the artist sitting by her father’s bedside. Spray-painted shapes bleed into each other. The text typical of her pieces is replaced by swirls, stars, and leaves. Shadows of these words return in another laminated book. Lovingly saved scraps from past paper cuts are laminated alongside a plastic bag that says “THANK YOU.” The only full words are on the cover: “I don’t know how to say goodbye.”
Laster’s father was a pilot of a small push plane. As a child, she studied the dense text and cartoons of flight emergency manuals, replicated today in her shining messages of grief, love, and hope. Perhaps the Haggadah is another kind of emergency manual: a guide on how to keep on going?
On Passover, we remember those that came before us and those that we lost. We may never have been slaves in Egypt, but we hold with us those that did not escape bondage in the violence of the Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust (Shoa), and countless other trials. We taste the bitter herbs of longing and grief, but also wash down dry matzoh with sweet wine. And most importantly, we argue, laugh, and tell stories of our survival.