Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Robert Sabuda at the UMFA

Robert Sabuda looking at the Emerald City in his “Wizard of Oz”

The books of Robert Sabuda, acclaimed children’s book author and illustrator, are both mystifying and awe-inspiring to me. Which is why I eagerly anticipated his exhibition at the Utah Museum of Fine Art, which opened last month and continues through the summer. I was expecting that an exhibit by the “prince of pop-ups” would be exclusively about pop-up books, so I was surprised and disappointed to find that about half the works in The Art of Robert Sabuda: Travels in Time and Space were not three-dimensional.

Sabuda’s two-dimensional illustrations on display utilize a wide variety of media and techniques. In some, unconventional and laborious methods are used to form discrete colored shapes which are then combined to make images. The most interesting of these are in The Paper Dragon, where the colored shapes were painted on the reverse side of gessoed tissue paper, then cut out and pasted onto Japanese paper to form the figures in the illustrations. This seemed to work to preserve the delicacy of the fragile paper while still allowing sharply defined areas of color to make up the images.

Even more laborious is the paper mosaic technique used in St. Valentine. These illustrations are made from thousands of pieces of painted paper about a sixteenth of an inch wide by an eighth of an inch long which are cut out and pasted next to each other like mosaic tiles. Unfortunately, much of the effect of the detail produced by such tedious procedures, which is visible in the originals, is lost when the images are reproduced mechanically and reduced in size to produce the actual books.

In several of the techniques, the colored shapes are separated by rather heavy-handed black lines. This seems natural in The Wizard of Oz (which is a pop-up book) where the technique is hand colored wood block prints. The fake stained glass on plexiglas technique used for Arthur and the Sword lacks the luminosity of real stained glass and since the illustrations are much smaller than a stained glass window would be, the lead lines seem wide in proportion to the areas of color. It’s a bit hard to see the point of the procedure used in Tutankhamen’s Dream, where colored shapes are painted onto large sheets of papyrus and then the black lines which outline all the objects are cut out of a large sheet of black paper and dropped over the papyrus, again like the lead in stained glass windows. The only places where the papyrus texture is really apparent, even in the originals, is in large open areas such as sky which are left unpainted.

The illustrations for The Blizzard’s Robe are much more satisfying. The medium used there is batik on paper, which is also an uncommon technique, but it seems to work in this instance. The colors are vivid and the images are more lively and flowing than those in the techniques that rely on cutting and pasting shapes of color.

Most of the exhibits pop-up books are on a table in the middle of the room where anyone can look through them. This makes it possible to look at many books and pop-ups instead of just a few. The pop-up books which are examined in more detail in the displays hung on the walls include working models of some of the pop-ups — the uncolored dummies used to work out the details of the paper engineering aspect of the books. It’s interesting that the mechanisms designed to hold the dummy books in plexiglas cases while still allowing the viewer to open and close the pop-up magnifies the experience of turning the page in a book until the book and mechanism combine to form a piece with a presence of its own.

Although it’s interesting to see a city or a house as a pop-up, such objects are basically static, that is they are either folded up or unfolded. Some of the animals, though, convey the idea of movement as they are in the process of unfolding. In The Jungle Book, for instance, as one unfolds the wolf, the figure leaps out of the page toward you, baring its fangs and pinning its ears back as it comes. This is the experience that the title of the exhibit (Travels in Time and Space) refers to, because the best pop-ups really exist in four dimensions — the three spatial dimensions plus the dimension of time as the construction is unfolded.

It is perhaps for this reason that natural history subjects seem particularly well adapted to the pop-up format There is a sense of marvel and delight in seeing the natural world magnified which is wonderfully amplified by the three dimensional presence of the pop ups and the experience in time of seeing the creatures unfold. It calls to mind time-lapse photographs of insects metamorphosing between stages in their life cycle. The two Young Naturalist’s Pop-up Handbooks, one on beetles and one on butterflies are presented in detail. On these, Sabuda collaborates with Matthew Reinhart a pop-up artist who also has a degree in biology.

One interesting aspect of the exhibit is a table with supplies and instructions for making your own simple pop-ups. This kind of hands-on experience is encouraged by Sabuda on his web site (www.robertsabuda.com) where a whole section is devoted to detailed instructions for making a variety of simple pop-ups. Although not part of the exhibit, anyone interested in pop-up books or paper engineering should visit this website. The FAQ section of the site details every phase of design and production of the books down to the type of glue and weight of card stock used. In addition, there are links to other pop-up sites and recommendations of paper engineers.

What I had hoped to see in this exhibit but didn’t were the ideas that didn’t make it to full production books. I was hoping that in addition to the behind the scenes insight into the making of commercial projects there would have been some more personal explorations that were pursued even though the artist knew that it wouldn’t translate into a mass market item. Instead, the exhibit, organized by the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, simply presents a packaged overview of Sabuda’s commercial work and a bit of introduction to the production aspects of making pop-up books.

In conjunction with this exhibition, which runs through September 9, the UMFA will offer a series of films, lectures and art classes for children and adults: Film: The Wizard of Oz, 12:00 p.m., May 19. Third Saturday Art Project for children ages 4 – 12 (Free and open to the public): Take a tour through the fantastic pages of Robert Sabuda’s artwork in The Art of Robert Sabuda: Travels in Time and Space. Gather ideas for new ways to illustrate and engineer books written by you, using our tools and templates to create something totally new. Film: Travels in Time and Space, June 16, 12:00 p.m. Adult Class: Calligraphy, Wednesdays June 13, 20, 27, 6:30–8:30 p.m.
Pop-Ups and Paper Engineering Class: Tuesday-Friday, July 17-20, 10 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. This class for kids ages 6 – 12 explores all aspects of book illustration. To register call 801-581-6984. Lecture:Paul Johnson: Pop-up Magic, July 18, 6:00 p.m. Artful Afternoon: Turning Paper into Art: Join us for a FREE day at the Museum with performances and fun-filled book making activities for the whole family, July 21, 12:00–4:00 p.m.
Film: Camelot, August 18, 12:00 p.m.





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