By Connie Esh
Some artists use a brush, but not Wilson County’s Tim Arnold. He uses a small, very sharp pair of scissors.
Arnold practices the art of cutting freehand paper silhouettes. It’s an ancient art form which grew out of the miniature movement of the 1700s, and is basically unchanged. However, as he points out, his may be the last generation to practice this complex art. “I have been cutting silhouettes for over 30 years,” Arnold says. “During that time, I have noticed that more and more of the ancient arts are vanishing. It seems so sad to me that in our high-tech era, so often, the simple things are overlooked. A few things have changed,” he says. “I use all acid-free papers,” he says. When the art began, artists didn’t know about such things. He also uses off-white paper as a background. “Customers like it better,” he says.
He learned the art from his mother, Garnett Arnold, who was a natural at it. “She sold the first silhouette she ever made,” he explores. “She made it look simple. I was an art major and I thought I can do that.” But he was slightly mistaken. It took him about five years to learn the process and most of another five to develop his current style, called “Old European Embellished Style.”
The detailed silhouettes resemble cameos, which Arnold says became popular at about the same time. His silhouettes are not big pictures, but each possesses a subtle, sentimental charm of long-ago times. “It is my privilege to create heirlooms,” he says. Arnold adds that he has had the honor of being recommended by the Smithsonian for his special skill.
A few years ago, when some antique silhouettes were discovered in the one of the oldest houses west of the Appalachian Mountains, the Bodley Bullock House in Lexington, a special event was being planned to promote the house and show the silhouettes. The promoters called the Smithsonian to have the art pieces evaluated, and asked if the Smithsonian could recommend someone to create silhouettes at a reception they planned. The Smithsonian representative recommended Arnold. “I don’t have any idea how they had heard about me, but I’m pleased to have the recommendation,” he says.
Arnold has his subject sit for a portrait much as an oil painter would, except his delicate black portraits are complete in minutes, with no need to wait for the paint to dry. Partly because it’s how the silhouettes are traditionally made, Arnold always cuts two at a time. “It’s the only art form I know that creates more than one original,” he says.
Arnold says his artistic hero is Henri Matisse. “Matisse did some beautiful paper cuttings,” Arnold says. In the last years of his life, Matisse was unable to get up and move around, so he had art students paint abstract colors on paper, then he cut out shapes and had them put up on the walls of his studio.
In 1990, Arnold was invited to the White House to collaborate on a children’s book with Sharon Bush. Arnold had the honor of meeting then-President George H. W. Bush, and cutting silhouettes of three of his grandchildren as a birthday gift for his wife Barbara. Those silhouettes were hung in the White House.
Arnold has lived in Wilson County since he married Tina, a Nashville native, several years ago. The Arnolds have five children and seven grandchildren.
He also has one other important honor. His silhouettes have been hung on all seven continents.
He even sent a set of Victorian Ladies to Australia. The customer got confused about the time difference and called him in the middle of the night, Arnold says. She apologized and Arnold accepted the commission to create 24 ladies.
“She wanted them all to be wearing hats,” he says. But he convinced her that it would be nice to see the hairstyles on some of them. That made six continents.
“About 15 years ago, I had silhouettes on all but Antarctica,” he says. “I never thought that would happen, but then this woman bought a set and she said, ‘You’ll never guess where these are going.’ She was sending them to her son, who was stationed in Antarctica.”
For those who would like to have a silhouette made by Arnold,
you can reach him by calling 615-449-2262.
Tim Arnold is holding one
of twenty-four custom Victorian Ladies silhouettes, that he sent to Australia.
Arnold has silhouettes displayed in all seven continents.