(Eds. Note: Colette Fu’s art isn’t like much of anything you’ve seen before. Her enormous fold out pop-up books work as photo essays, as collages, as sculptures. They’re so elaborate that the photography and multimedia staff at The New York Times was inspired to create interactive videos of three of her pieces that allow the viewer to rotate them in three dimensions [click to see.] In a fascinating instance of a niche creating itself, she gained a job as a “paper engineering consultant and fabricator” for an animation studio, and an advertisement for a non-profit hospital she helped create won an Annie Award last month from the International Animated Film Society. Our interview with Colette begins below the video.)
About herself, Colette writes: For the past seven years I have been making one-of-a-kind artist’s books that combine my photography with paper engineering. Pop-up and flap books originally illustrated ideas about astronomy, fortune telling, navigation, anatomy of the body and other scientific principles. This history prompted me to construct my own books reflecting ideas on how our selves relate to society today. Initially, the challenge of creating pop-up books, having to construct something that physically would fold down into a confined space, helped limit what I could create. Experience and experimentation have forced me to think otherwise; as I problem solve, the paper takes over and leads beyond what I thought was physically possible. My pop-ups are a way for me to speak and inform; the real and implied motion in the pop-ups link to a temporal element, and an inevitable corollary is to awe and unsettle. With pop-up books I want to eliminate the boundaries between book, installation, photography, craft and sculpture.
What drew you to approach pop-up books as fine art?
I studied photography in graduate school. Most of my time there was spent on the computer, scanning and photoshopping. After graduating I wanted to do something more hands on and happened upon the pop-up book section at Barnes and Noble. I was intrigued by the complexity and the way that flat images were literally made 3D, yet were still compact. I liked how the viewer feels more engaged in the process.
How did you become involved in animation?
Carolyn, a producer at Duck Studios in Los Angeles did a search on pop-up book artists and found a video I posted on YouTube a few years ago. After speaking on the phone a little, they flew me up to LA to consult for a week for 3 pop-up-book-style commercials they were making for the Children’s Medical Center in Texas. We all got along and I stayed for another month and a half.
Has being interstitial (i.e. creating art that falls outside recognized genre and marketing categories) created difficulties for you? If so, how?
Making interstitial art is hard to make a living by. You have to be more creative on how you are going to financially gain with it. It’s not easy to explain what I do to other people, even artists. I would not be happy creating art that wasn’t so unique and I’ve been lucky that I have found people who can appreciate it.
What strategies have you used to get around this? What advice would you give to another interstitial artist in a similar position?
I think with art-making, if you create what you want for yourself, the external rewards will come later. Another artist recently mentioned that he makes what he wants and the money has always come later. He was very resourceful. I am constantly searching for grant and fellowship opportunities; I spend more time researching than making art. I always have several projects going on at the same time. Some bore me but make money, some have more structure which I need once in a while, and some make me excited to be an artist. I freelance for all kinds of institutions and organizations to find what works best.
If you could change one thing about your situation as an artist, what would it be?
Not obsess so much.
Colette Fu received her MFA in Fine Art Photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2003. In 2008 she received a Fulbright Fellowship to photograph the 25 ethnic minorities of her mother’s hometown of Yunnan Province, China. She has created most of her work at artist residencies such as the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Instituto Sacatar, Bemis Center, Visual Studies Workshop, the Millay Colony, and the Alden B. Dow Center for Creativity. Colette has received awards from Fulbright, the Independence Foundation, Sovereign Foundation, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Virginia Commission for the Arts, Constance Saltonstall Foundation, En Foco, Photographer’s Forum, Nikon, the Puffin Foundation and the Society for Photographic Education. She works as a paper engineering consultant for stop animation commercials, freelances and teaches pop-up courses and community workshops at various art centers and institutions.