When you visit “Paper Dialogues: The Dragon and Our Stories,” at the American Swedish Institute, you’ll encounter the presence of the late Curt Pederson. He was senior curator of historic properties at ASI until he died on February 3, during a procedure following a heart attack. (You can read Jenna Ross’ obituary for Pederson in the Star Tribune here.) Also the superintendent of Creative Activities at the State Fair, Pederson knew the ins and outs of the museum’s Turnblad mansion and its collections intimately, and specialized in imagining exhibits within its beautiful and quirky interiors.
“The mansion was his baby,” says Erin Stromgren, ASI’s exhibition manager, who says Pederson’s death has left a “big hole,” in ASI’s team. “He was so thoughtful in just about everything,” she says. “He had this quiet curiosity about everything that we were doing. It didn’t stop with artwork coming in, it was also about the rest of the space and the feeling of the mansion that he stewarded for decades. We learned so much from him.”
A week before his heart attack in late January, Pederson was up on a Genie lift in the grand hall, checking out the best places to connect lighting for a new paper chandelier designed by Girl Friday for the exhibition. As the rest of the ASI team completed the install process, they tried to channel Pederson’s energy. “Instead of saying, ‘Hey, Curt, what should we do here?’ We were saying, ‘What would Curt do?’” Stromgren recalls.
“Paper Dialogues” results from a cross-cultural collaboration begun over 10 years ago between Danish papercut artist Karin Bit Vejle (Bit), and Chinese artist and Professor Xiaoguang Qiao (Professor Qiao). The dialogue exchange was initiated after Bit grew interested in learning about the origins of paper cutting in China, since it goes back almost 1500 years. She traveled to Beijing and met with Professor Qiao, where they spent time together, through the help of an interpreter. “They could never communicate directly, but had a number of silent dialogues,” Stromgren says. “She said they both were sitting there, working together, cutting paper, and they decided on the common motif of the dragon, as it has presence in folklore and mythology in both Norway and Denmark and in China.”
Bit’s take on the dragon theme results in a series of paper eggs, whose intricate cuts journey from mythological origin stories from Norse culture, through Scandinavian society today, into the future. Professor Qiao, meanwhile, created a 30 foot dragon that on one side looks at the presence of dragons in Chinese culture and mythology as a sign of chaos, and the other as a symbol for rebirth and regeneration.
“Paper Dialogues” has been exhibited in Scandinavia, China and Seattle, as well as at ArtHouse Jersey, in Jersey Island, amongst the channel islands between the United Kingdom and France. Jersey artist Layla May Arthur had never tried paper cutting before seeing the Paper Dialogues exhibition when it was at the ArtHouse. “She was so inspired, she joined one of the workshops that they were offering and then went with it,” Stromgren says. Another Jersey artist, Emma Reid, incorporates papier-mâché toilet paper into her paper cut designs. She uses them in one sculpture that sits inside of a glass display on a dining room table in the mansion. “We wanted to work with the mansion, and thought it was quite stunning on the table, really playing with that sense of negative positive space like you get in a lot of these papercuts,” Stromgren says.
ASI previously featured Bit in 2014 for an exhibition called, “Papercut! The Incredible Psaligraphy of Karen Bit Vejle.”
When a team of curators traveled to the Center for Papercut Art in Denmark, Bit shared with them about her collaboration with Professor Qiao and the traveling exhibition, initiating a discussion of the show that eventually brought the “Paper Dialogues” to Minnesota. Pederson wasn’t on that curatorial trip to Scandinavia, as he was on a different trip preparing for ASI’s Vikings Exhibition, but Stromgren says Pederson was excited about welcoming Bit’s work back to the museum. “He was integral to all our planning of where the eggs would go and how we would physically display them in the mansion,” she says.
“Curt had a specialty of just being able to be like, ‘I have something that would look nice there,’ either from props or collection,” Stromgren says. “Something that would compliment the artwork that was on display. We are a historic house. You want to play up the character of the house.”
For the exhibition, Pederson selected objects from the collection that complimented Bit’s eggs, which are displayed around the mansion (Professor Qiao’s dragon is shown in the Nelson Cultural Center.) “It feels quite nice to be able to display some of the original furniture from the mansion and some artwork from the collection that complements this particular egg,” Stromgren says. Pederson was integral in selecting many of those objects, including suggesting a beautiful wood-carved dragon piece that compliments one of the eggs.
Stromgren says it hasn’t sunk in yet that Pederson is gone, because it happened as they were in the midst of putting up the show. “We just kind of put our heads down in spirit and made it work,” she says.
The “Paper Dialogues” exhibition is just one of a number of exhibitions coming up at the museum Pederson had a hand in brainstorming. “His presence will be here for a while,” Stromgren says.
“Paper Dialogues: The Dragon and Our Stories” runs February 19-July 10, with a virtual dialogue at 5 p.m., Tuesday, February 22 ($12 museum admission). More information here.