He’s blind in one eye. So at sil­hou­et­ting, he’s a nat­u­ral.

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Gra­ham Am­brose

Sit still. Karl John­son needs just 90 sec­onds.

That’s how long it’ll take him to cap­ture, cut and com­plete a per­fect like­ness of your pro­file.

John­son, 52, is a pro­fes­sional scis­sor artist and third-gen­er­a­tion sil­hou­et­tist. And he’s com­ing to Colorado to ren­der your shadow por­trait in a quick, $30, fiveminute ses­sion.

His mas­tery of vis­ual arts sprung with an un­likely source: blind­ness, in one eye.

“I see two-di­men­sion­ally, with­out binoc­u­lar vi­sion,” he said. “So I ren­der well. It’s a two-di­men­sional art form, and I see in two di­men­sions. I took to it like a fish to wa­ter.”

What be­gan in 1975 as a child­hood hobby with his fa­ther, also a pro­fes­sional, slowly evolved into a full-time calling in the mid-’80s as a “starv­ing art stu­dent” at the Art In­sti­tute of At­lanta.

“My goal when I en­tered art school was to do art ad­ver­tis­ing,” John­son said. “This was 1985, pre-com­puter. But sil­hou­ette work al­ways paid the bills, and it ended up be­ing some­thing I could live on.”

He’s since made a highly-suc­cess­ful ca­reer cap­i­tal­iz­ing

on in­born ad­ver­sity. Since launch­ing his craft pro­fes­sion­ally in 1986, he’s sil­hou­et­ted chil­dren, cou­ples, fam­i­lies, pets and celebri­ties. His star-stud­ded list of for­mer clients in­cludes Tom Cruise, Ali­cia Keyes, Oprah Win­frey, Steven Spiel­berg and Tom Hanks.

John­son has re­ceived praise from Martha Ste­wart and Oprah Win­frey, been a guest at Jen­nifer Lopez’s 40th birth­day party and Reese Wither­spoon’s wed­ding, did sil­hou­ettes for the cast of “How I Met Your Mother” and “Amer­i­can Idol,” and high­lighted more bar mitz­vahs, char­ity galas, fundrais­ing din­ners, state fairs and toy stores than he can count.

His tools: old sur­geon scis­sors and a sin­gle sheet of black pa­per. No com­put­ers, soft­ware or any­thing dig­i­tal — just steady hands and an ex­act­ing eye.

His process: a look over his subject, with the zeal of an un­der­grad­u­ate in lec­ture. Then he cuts. No sketches, trial runs, mea­sure­ments or fuss.

Two min­utes later, he’s pro­duced an orig­i­nal, one-of-a-kind work of art that cus­tomers can take home on the spot.

He rarely makes mis­takes, but will redo a cut when not fully sat­is­fied. “I’m my own worst critic,” he said. “But I’m re­ally mind­ful that each per­son that comes to me is hav­ing their first ex­pe­ri­ence with the art. I take that se­ri­ously. My job is to make them smile, and give them some­thing they can keep for­ever and cher­ish.”

The pa­per mae­stro, now based in Los An­ge­les, hasn’t been to Colorado since 1990, when he lived for a year in Colorado Springs. He’s now a jet-set­ting crafts­man, trav­el­ing 10 days each month for gigs in Alaska, Hawaii, New York, Florida and Eu- rope.

He’s cut more than a mil­lion pro­files over his 30-year pro­fes­sional ca­reer — a rate of roughly 80 each day. Once, at a pri­vate wed­ding, an un­yield­ing bride re­quested that he pro­duce a cutout for all 200 guests.

“It was Drew Bar­ry­more’s wed­ding,” he said. “She was very adamant about hav­ing ev­ery guest sil­hou­et­ted.”

The work can be te­dious and tax­ing. But like a vir­tu­oso re­hears­ing for a per­for­mance, John­son finds har­mony in the rep­e­ti­tion.

“I cut at a cer­tain tempo,” he said. “I like to work fast so I don’t over­think it too much. It’s like mu­sic to me when I’m cut­ting.”

Men­tal con­cen­tra­tion helps him stay un­ruf­fled, even when han­dling dif­fi­cult clients. Emily Blair Char­nelle of Lomita, Calif., took her 17month-old daugh­ter to sit with John­son as a Mother’s Day gift in 2016. “At first I was wor­ried be­cause she was hav­ing a tantrum and wanted to play out­side in­stead of sit,” she re­called. John­son kept his cool, snip­ping away while chat­ting eas­ily with the young girl and her mother.

“He was so pa­tient and kind to her,” Char­nelle said. “I was so thrilled with his work be­cause it re­ally truly was her sil­hou­ette, bow and all. Over­all he has this friendly, pa­tient, open and kind de­meanor which puts you at ease, re­gard­less of how wig­gly and grumpy your child is be­hav­ing.”

John­son es­ti­mates that 95 per­cent of his Amer­i­can sub­jects are chil­dren. (By con­trast, most of his Euro­pean cus­tomers are adults.) Sil­hou­et­ting, though, is an ag­ing art that has wit­nessed a long and steady de­cline from peak pop­u­lar­ity in 19th cen­tury France. Each gen­er­a­tion loses more and more pro­fes­sion­als. John­son, the most pub­licly rec­og­nized scis­sor artist in the United States, knows by name ev­ery full­time sil­hou­et­tist in the coun­try — all six of them.

“It’s not some­thing any­body as­pires to, be­cause it’s not some­thing on any­body’s radar,” he said. “Kids don’t as­pire to play glock­en­spiel, they as­pire to play gui­tar.”

Still, he draws hope from his son, who’s ex­pressed in­ter­est in tak­ing up the fourth gen­er­a­tion of the fam­ily trade.

“My son is wel­come to do it,” John­son said. “I’d love for him to do it. But only if he wanted to.”

Photos pro­vided by Karl John­son, Cut Arts

A col­lec­tion of sil­hou­ettes by Karl John­son.

Karl John­son, a third-gen­er­a­tion sil­hou­et­tist, cuts the pro­file of a young girl.

Emily Blair Char­nelle, Spe­cial to The Den­ver Post

Lorelei Char­nelle of Lomita, Calif., on the day John­son cut her sil­hou­ette.

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