Portrait Perfection: Patti Pate creates art and memories with stunning silhouettes

Patti Pate creates art and memories with stunning silhouettes.

To most artists, the ability to create is as automatic as breathing, as second nature as eating and sleeping. True for 86-year-old Patti Pate, who has been drawing and capturing the likenesses of people on paper since she was a young girl living in St. Paul, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the White House.

“I have always loved to draw,” Pate recalls. “As I was growing up, everybody would pose for me, and the teachers would have me drawing on the board for Christmas and Easter.” And so she drew. And drew. A pad and paper always at the ready as she grew up and married her sweetheart Dewey, sketching her way into adult life. But one day this passion for art turned into a vocation. It was 1958, and her mother suggested a trip downtown for some shopping and chocolate at the Fannie Farmer store. Pate was living at her parents’ Victorian home with Dewey and her four kids for a while after a brief, financially disastrous stint in Florida, and was ready for an afternoon to herself.

“I took the streetcar downtown and walked around,” says Pate. “I went into the Golden Rule [department store], and as I got off the escalator, I saw this lady making silhouettes. I had never seen it before; I was fascinated. And as I watched her, I thought, ‘I could do it better.’ That was all I needed.”

Pate cuts out a silhouette of Rae Danneman, art director at White Bear Lake Magazine.

Pate daydreamed about the silhouettes on her way home, and imagined a shop on Grand Avenue one day. She started with silhouettes of her children, petite black and white profiles, and moved on to friends, family, church bazaars and fundraisers. She perfected the deft movements and concise renderings to practice the art with roots in 19th-century Europe, also known as “poor man’s portraiture,” due to the quick completion time and affordability.

Her first official gig was at Donaldson’s department store in downtown St. Paul in 1959. She was nervous, but her path had been set. One afternoon while Pate was working, a woman sat down and introduced herself as the wife of the editor of The Star Tribune. “She told me they wanted to do a story on me and my silhouettes,” says Pate. “I had no idea how wonderful that would be; I was very naïve.” The article was on the front the the the front page of the Parade section. Pate’s business took off.

For the next five decades, Pate brought her special Swiss medical scissors and the thin paper imported from France to create silhouettes at some of the biggest department stores around, including the Golden Rule, Field-Schlick, Donaldson’s, Dayton’s, Younker’s, Herberger’s, Powers, Haugland’s, Jack & Jill and others. Before she figured out she should be controlling her schedule by having folks make appointments, lines would wend their way through the children’s departments, past infant rompers, toddler shorts and preteen shirts, where moms and their progeny would wait their turn to be immortalized in paper.

“I was doing about six or seven an hour,” says Pate; her mother would sometimes assist her by keeping the kids occupied with puppets while she created the silhouettes, until VCRs and kiddie movies arrived. “That was a huge help,” says Pate.

Pate figures she’s done thousands of silhouettes over the years, for folks from twenty or so different states; she even had that shop on Grand Avenue in St. Paul with her daughter, Terri, who has learned and perfected the art form.

Pate’s work has also been featured in a blockbuster movie. Four of her silhouettes were handpicked to be in Grumpy Old Men, after someone from the movie was looking for props at a Stillwater antique store and the store’s owner said she might have something at her home to use. “Her kids’ silhouettes were used; they’re on the wall going up the stairway in Jack Lemmon’s house in the movie,” says Pate. “My work and her kids are forever immortalized.”

She’s created portraits for some notable people, including former Gov. Wendell Anderson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey and his family. Closer to home, Pate’s work adorns the walls of countless local residents. Many of those customers have been collecting the silhouettes for years, across several generations. Sara Markoe Hanson’s family, for example, has three generations of their family memorialized by Pate. “My mom has been collecting them for more than fifty years and has 20 of them gracing her walls,” says Markoe Hanson, who is the executive director of the White Bear Lake Area Historical Society. “The art form of silhouettes is simple, yet amazingly intricate. It’s incredible how Patti can take a pair of scissors and in a matter of moments, turn a piece of zpaper into a remarkable likeness of an individual.”

Now, nine years after her last department store gig, Pate still has those trusty scissors and a stack of that fancy paper; she still takes appointments and does a few silhouettes a week in her studio in the garage Dewey built for her. The wedding, graduation and baby gifts for her 12 grandchildren (she and Dewey ultimately had six kids) and 12 great-grandchildren and their families are, you guessed it: silhouettes. She donates gift certificates for a portrait to local schools and St. Mary of the Lake’s annual fundraiser.

“I guess it’s my God-given gift,” says Pate. “I was telling my friend about it one day and she said, ‘You know, you really had divine intervention.’ Because the minute I saw it, I knew I could do it. I’ve had that happen a lot in my life; God works in mysterious ways.”