Pop-up Art Education

Colette Fu, Return to the Land of Deities from We Are the Tiger Dragon People, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.

Although pop-up books are largely associated with children’s literature, their origins are in both scholarly and esoteric teachings such as astronomy, anatomy, fortune telling and navigation. One of the earliest prototypes for today’s pop-up book was A Complete Treatise on Perspective in Theory and Practice, on the Principles of Dr. Brook Taylor, published in 1775. The author, Thomas Malton, the elder, was a mathematician and architectural draughtsman. The book was the first mass produced moveable book to feature interactive mechanisms such as pulleys that form three-dimensional geometric shapes. Its interactivity made learning about perspective tangible and it became the standard English text on linear perspective.

Perspective is one of the key vocabulary words that defines the beneficial impact pop-up books have on our sensory processing. The interactivity and spatial awareness prompts readers to carefully observe text and images, which leads to more nuanced understandings and interpretations. Perspective can be defined in the mathematical sense, like the subject of Malton’s premiere pop-up book. It can also refer to the vast personal and communal experiences within human nature, which are themes expressed within the immersive pop-up books by contemporary artist, Colette Fu.

With pop-up technology, Fu incorporates layers upon layers of imagery, which enhances the way a viewer sees and engages with the work. Her multidimensional arrangements of people, places and things have a profound impact on the work’s symbolic meaning.

Fu’s pop-up books are conceptual art pieces with educational intent. She traces the origins of the pop-up book as a resource for scientific and sociological exploration, and creates contemporary pop-up portraits and landscapes reflective of diverse cultural experiences. These books feature images of ethnic minorities from China, India, Morocco and Kyrgyzstan. Rather than sitting on bookshelves, they are presented as installations. Some of her pop-up book pieces are larger than life, measuring up to five feet tall, which allows viewers to actually step inside and interact with the work.

Fu’s impetus for making pop-up books stems from her love for travel. Her conceptual representation of multicultural identity was inspired by a trip to Yunnan, a province in southwestern China. She was teaching English in the capital city Kunming, where her mother was born, and had a cultural epiphany that shaped her identity as an artist, educator and person of Chinese heritage. She describes the insights she gained from her time in Yunnan in her artist’s statement: “I discovered that my great-grandfather had not only helped establish the university where I was teaching but was a member of the powerful black Yi tribe, and the governor and general of Yunnan during the transitional years of WWII. I stayed in Yunnan for three years; it was these experiences that helped me find a new sense of pride and identity and encouraged me to pursue a profession as a photographer and artist.”

Nearly half of China’s fifty-five minority tribes reside in Yunnan. In 2008, Fu photographed each of the twenty-five ethnic minority groups in the province. The result is a series of intricate pop-up books, collectively titled, We Are Tiger Dragon People (2008). These books portray the vibrancy of Yunnan’s local culture through the lens of its minority tribes. As the pages are flipped, photographic compositions of food, festivals, folklore, clothing and of course, people, pop up to raise consciousness around the traditions and daily life within Yunnan’s diverse populations. These artworks are combinations of landscape and portraits that depict not only the likeness of the various ethnic tribes, but also expressions of their psyche.

The three-dimensional perspective afforded by the pop-up mode aptly reflects the energy of the people and their traditions. One of the most striking examples is the Wa Hair Swinging Dance. On her website, Fu educates us on about ritual dance: “The Wa people regard the wooden drum as a divine tool that has exceptional power and is the symbol of existence and prosperity. Wa women uninhibitedly swing their long black, shiny hair to the beat of  the drums. Their beat is slow and fast, representing anger and sadness, anxiety and happiness.”

The manner in which Fu has arranged the photographs of the Wa women in performance clearly illustrates their identities and aesthetic movement. As you turn the page, waves of hair flick and whip up in the air, mimicking the motion of the dance.

Fu’s pop-up book titled Tao Hua Yuan Ji (2019), which translates to “The Peach Blossom Land,” is the largest of its kind in the world. When the work of art is on view, visitors are able to walk in and around it. The title and subject of the piece is culled from a fifth century fable written by the Chinese poet, Tao Yuanming, describing a utopia where citizens live in harmony with one another and their natural surroundings and are completely unaware about the rest of civilization.

Fu’s rendering of her own utopia is inspired by the landscapes of Yunnan. She enlarged the photographs she took of the flora, fauna and geological formations within the province and created a pop-up that envelops viewers to make them feel as if they are residing within the landscape.

Fu’s own account of how creating pop-up books helped her develop artistically and discover her cultural identity, can be an overarching educational experience for us all. She says, “Constructing pop-ups allows me to combine intuitive design and technical acuity with my love of traveling as I try to understand the world around me.” Pop-up book construction strengthens fine motor skills and ingenuity due to the mechanisms and attachment techniques required for paper building. And of course, the storytelling element of bookmaking bolsters communication and expression. With layers of colorful content and revealing narratives, pop-up books are a great artistic medium to keep audiences of all ages engaged and informed.

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