Stahley, Elizabeth Johns (1845-1930)
She holds a many-leafed plant in her hands: not a conventional "rose" or "tulip" but a complexly articulated member of the Compositae family with every leaf elaborately contoured into dozens of thrusting points. Her hands are articulated too: deeply veined, well muscled, the tendons standing out as her fingers search and control the form. She looks intently at the plant, gazing into the intricacies of its leafy pattern while a gentle smile plays on her lips. These are the hands, and this is the contemplation, of an artist.
Elizabeth Johns Stahley turned her understanding of the structure of plants and flowers into a series of elegant, compelling paper cuttings which have been preserved by members of her family and their descendants, and which have recently inspired her great-niece, Phyllis Kramer, to turn her own hand to the art of paper cuttings. Paper-cut forms tend to be anonymous, floating out from between the pages of Bibles and old books, or namelessly framed and fading on walls or in attics, where nobody can identify them. The works of Elizabeth Johns Stahley afford a rare insight into the work of a single, identifiable practitioner of the art.
Born 3 December 1845, near Johnstown, Pa., she moved with her parents to Lagrange County, Indiana, in the spring of 1853. On 20 December 1868, she married John C. Stahley. She was the mother of nine children (five sons, four daughters), six of whom grew to adulthood.
The kind of life Elizabeth Stahley led is summarized by her nephew, Ira Miller, as follows:
"She was a farm homemaker and lived on the same farm all her life with the exception of her last days. Her schooling probably didn't go much beyond the sixth grade. (This is just a guess.) To my knowledge the cutouts she made for pastime in her later years. She made well over a hundred, no two alike. She had one son who cut out animals free hand."
These forms are not large: the biggest are not more than 10x25 cm. (4x10 inches), and the smallest are considerably smaller than that. Most of them were cut with the paper—always white—folded in half vertically. Her flowers include both round and pointed petals of composite form, and in like manner, her leaves are either slender and pointed or short and rounded. She favored a sinuous line for her stems, and provided a groundline or vessel for the base in most cases. Tucked among her leafed and floral forms one sometimes spies out miniature birds—paired, of course, as a result of her technique. They are much out of scale for a floral bouquet, and their size and presence show us that these are really examples of the Paradise tree Lebensbaum, i.e., Trees of Life out of the same primeval root from which the Bible—and her religion—sprang.
Some of the flower forms she used in her paper cuttings resemble a common Indiana wildflower, the Golden Aster (Heterotheca camporum,) a flower with numerous rays, on the end of long branches, all arising from a single base. Others resemble the genus
Centaurea (Bachelor Buttons) which have a composite head including five or more individual florets (petals with a sharply serrated end) expanding from the rounded involucre. The leaves, both rounded and pointed, are known as "simple leaves." All of these elements are found in the physical reality of the artist though she has mixed and recombined them with a fine disregard of nature. One single floral head shows especially sharp observation: the cutting includes both the ray florets (tiny central points) and surrounding disk florets (larger rounded petals) growing from the involucre. The Compositae family includes ragweed, wormwood, sunflower, and dandelion, as well as bachelor button, chicory, and golden aster; almost a survey of the "everyday flowers" in Elizabeth Stahley's environment. On the other hand these were also for her the very "grass of the field" of which Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:28-30).
The differing ways of using forms from the natural world - as subjects for observation and as images for spiritual contemplation - reflect a double trend in European history, which for modern culture has become a deep split into science on the one hand and religion on the other.
In the exquisite paper cuttings of Elizabeth Johns Stahley made early in the 20th century both elements are present. Her flowers are based upon accurate observations of the "everyday flowers" of the natural world, just as Donald Shelley says. And she has used the images of "the flowers in the meadow" in the manner described by Stoudt, as "bridges to the spiritual world," changing them by the addition of tiny birds, from common field flowers into stately Lebensbaums. Both realities—the Indiana countryside, and the pastures of Paradise—were immediately present to her, and through her art she has left us a glimpse of her deeply spiritual vision.
Elizabeth Johns Stahley died in Goshen, Indiana on 14 July 1930.
Adapted from Mennonite Life 34 (March 1979): 16-20.
"Stahley." Gospel Herald 23 (7 August 1930). Reproduced in MennObits. "Gospel Herald Obituary - August 1930:" Accessed 18 January 2006. <http://www.mcusa-archives.org/MennObits/30/aug30.html>
Shelley, Donald A. The Fraktur Writings of Illuminated Manuscripts of the Pennsylvania Germans. Allentown, PA: Pennsylvania German Folklore Society, 1961.
Stoudt, John Joseph. Early Pennsylvania Arts and Crafts. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1964.
Cite This Article
Patterson, Nancy-Lou. "Stahley, Elizabeth Johns (1845-1930)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 20 Apr 2019. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Stahley,_Elizabeth_Johns_(1845-1930)&oldid=104439.
Patterson, Nancy-Lou. (1987). Stahley, Elizabeth Johns (1845-1930). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 April 2019, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Stahley,_Elizabeth_Johns_(1845-1930)&oldid=104439.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 304. All rights reserved.
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