By Gordon Cotton/Vicksburg Post
VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) — Don’t be fooled by Fredrick Slater’s walker or wheelchair, or that he’ll be 77 in March.
He’s really a cut-up, but not in the manner one might think. He makes paper sculptures. All that is needed is a pair of scissors and some paper.
And a keen imagination.
Slater developed the skill and talent about 40 years ago, and he gives TV part of the credit — he doesn’t like to watch it so he found something else to do. During a long hospital stay in Yuma, Ariz., he asked for a pair of scissors and some paper — and started cutting.
“First I was going to do what I did when I was a child,” he said, describing the string of little people children would cut from folded paper.
When Slater folded his paper in the hospital room and cut it “and opened it up, I had ’em flying all over the place. I did it wrong, and I said, ‘shucks,’ and started something else. It wasn’t great cutting, but I got better through practice.”
His paper cutouts have come a long way since that day when he tried his hand at making what looked like gingerbread men. He might make silhouettes of birds or animals or butterflies or characters from literature like Don Quixote.
His works aren’t limited to a flat surface. Many are three-dimensional, such as an American Indian eagle dancer amid a backdrop of mountains and trees, or it might be a family of ducks or geese. Often as he creates a scene he tells a story to go with it.
Any pair of scissors will do though Slater’s favorite is a pair discarded by a surgeon. There are no specs about the paper — any weight, any color, even a gum or candy wrapper that has been discarded. He also has used thin copper.
With a piece of paper folded several times and ways so that it’s about the size of a post card, Slater begins a silhouette. There is no pattern, no drawing, no sketch.
“It’s just in my mind,” he said. “I just think of a butterfly” and with precision he begins cutting the paper.
How you fold the paper is very important, he said, and “it’s not the scissors that makes the sculpture.” He seldom takes the scissors out of the form he is cutting.
“The main secret is I move the paper as I cut, moving the scissors and cutting at the same time,” he said.
The result was four butterflies whereas in a drawing you have only one.
He might start a sculpture which he said “isn’t special yet, but it’s going to become special, which is the beautiful thing about this. I can change it around.”
He uses his talent in different ways and for different occasions and remarked that he might be around some people who aren’t nice at all, “and I start doing this and their whole attitude changes.”
When he lived in California, he attended a church where the pastor had a special talk with the children, telling a Bible story, and as he talked Slater illustrated the account with a paper sculpture such as Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives.
Slater said he’s known some people who were afraid to go into certain neighborhoods, but with his scissors and paper he can immediately break the ice.
Thinking back to when he started, he said, “it didn’t look good at all. The main thing is you have to practice.”
When someone tells him they have no artistic ability, he will ask them to sign their name and date it, then do it again with the other hand. The difference is practice.
“In writing your name and date, you’ve used every line there is in art,” he said. “Art is fun, but you’ve got to practice.”
Slater doesn’t know anyone else who does paper sculptures other than those he has taught, and he’s never had any lessons. A man of spiritual values, he said unequivocally, “God has been my teacher.”
He was born in the Catskill Mountains in New York but most of his life has been spent in the west, mainly Arizona and California.
He came to Vicksburg about six months ago with his son, who is an engineer at the nuclear plant at Grand Gulf.
He’s had more ups and downs in life than most, and when life began it almost ended. He was born March 22, 1934, but he couldn’t breathe and was turning black and a death certificate was filled out for him. His father had gone to the barn to find something to put the baby’s body in. The temperature was way below zero, and when he came back to the house (he had no gloves and his hands were freezing) he picked up the child, “and I started screaming. His cold hands! That’s how I came into the world.”
Since then, he’s had 24 episodes where he cheated the Grim Reaper — once when he fell 45 feet but instead of his head splitting like an overripe watermelon that fell off the table, the concrete cracked instead.
As he was falling, he prayed, “God he … that’s all I got out. I was trying to say, ‘God, help me,’ but I never finished the prayer,” but God answered his unfinished plea.
Slater’s talents aren’t confined to paper sculptures. When his eyesight was better, he learned bead work and weaving from his American Indian wife, who is now deceased. Patterns in Indian art are among his favorite designs.
Because of a brain injury years ago, Slater can no longer read, but that isn’t a great concern.
“There are things I can do that other people can’t,” he said — like creating art with a pair of scissors and a scrap of paper.