First published in: Movable Stationery, magazine of the Movable Book Society
Some of us have come across a very exciting fresh new talent in the movable book genre. Her name has graced the pages of the Movable Newsletter in recent times and I had the pleasure recently of conducting an internet conversation with Colette Fu and please, check her web links and be prepared to be amazed.
Thanks Colette and let's start at the beginning!
How did you start...Were you creating, drawing artwork at a young age?
My mom studied opera at the Peabody Conservatory of Music so highly encouraged art making; my two sisters Wendy and Penny liked to make things as well. Wendy went to Pratt but is a customs officer at JFK now. Penny became a biochemist.
Growing up, we always took art classes in the summer. Dad was a mechanical engineer; they met at John’s Hopkins while he was getting his post doctorate. They were both from China and ambitious so there was a lot of pressure to study and learn. Tennis, gymnastics, SAT summer camp, swimming, piano, clarinet, flute, Chinese, sewing… just to mention a few!
With such a creative family background you could have gone in many direction but you went into a very competitive and what can be a very frustrating time, full on into the graphic art world. Did your family background influence your work from the beginning?
I think my dad wanted me to be an engineer; math was my strongest subject growing up. We moved from New Jersey to Virginia during my senior year in high school. My parents enrolled me in a special science and math school which involved a lot of home tutoring to catch up with the school’s courses. After that I never wanted to take another math or science class in college. Dad would take me to his office often and I remember I didn’t want to be stuck in an office like him, and wear a suit.
Did you do any art training and if so, where?
I was a studio art major at the University of Virginia, but then switched over to French as I thought it would be easier to find a job afterwards. Shortly after graduation I was still waiting tables and working at a jewelry store. My mom took me to China and I was offered a teaching job at a university there for Chinese ethnic minorities, so I flew over and ended up staying for 3 years.
Traveling in China sparked my interest in photography so I returned back to the States to study photo at Virginia Commonwealth University. Soon after, I did an internship at Aperture magazine in NYC. After the internship I worked 4 part-time jobs in NYC and got frustrated with no time to work on my art so I decided to go to graduate school. I got my MFA from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2003.
In Yunnan I took some classes in an art form called "Yunnan Deep Color Painting". Never followed up on that though although I think about making a pop up book of that someday. My painting teacher invited me to teach paper engineering there, but I’d have to do it in Chinese!
So, what happened next and what made you combine your travels with your photos and then creating one-offs of 3D artworks? Which came first?
After finishing up grad school, I attended 4 consecutive artist residencies where I made my first set of books “My First Pop-up Books.”
Most of that imagery comes from the places I attended, so the art complemented the travels. My travels in China sparked my interest in photography and in traveling further. I soon learned that I didn’t have to travel far to hold my interest.
After my first visit to China, I had wanted to become a National Geographic photojournalist. One-offs allowed me to keep making new work, and thus keep on traveling. I wasn’t thinking about money back then.
Where does your drive come from? Looking at your work from your blogs and website you seem to run on 150% energy. Is this reflection true?
Yes I am a very manic but moody person. The underlying theme of my “Haunted Philly” series is Anxiety, and challenge, problem solving and the creative process helps me reconcile emotional conflicts. My first priority nowadays is to make artwork and make a living with it. I waitress and teach PT to pay the rent. Much has to do with the process of creating- that appeases me, and as I have always had a desire to please others, I find satisfaction in making thing that awe them. The process that happens when I create is so important to me that I almost enrolled in a graduate art therapy program here in Philadelphia this year. I moved to Philly 5 years ago with that same intent. My application is on hold right now if I decide I want to go back next Fall.
Fort Mifflin- ‘Haunted Philly’ Series
It’s hard to talk about this as I have hardly sold any work. Because of my history of ups and downs and having serious creative blocks, I had always thought that my previous piece would be my last. It’s just recently that I'm realizing that inspiration doesn’t pass and I’m learning to deal with the stresses and blocks that go with my lifestyle. Combining photography with pop-ups has definitely given me an edge,an ironically You Tube has spread my name the most.
Is there an opportunity or place to purchase any of your existing work?
Yes! I haven’t decided if I just want to sell the work as one-offs, or edition them. Sometimes I feel like I should just get rid of what I’ve already done and move on. I have not been actively pursing ways of selling my work, as my main goal was to exhibit and get my name out. The books in my “Haunted Philly” series are over 3x4 ft but I’m working on making smaller versions to edition. Moving in general from one project to another, and from one place to another has made it difficult to focus.
How do you get your commissions and do you actively chase them or does the work come from referrals? I presume you have to make a living?
I am a spiritual person who relies too much on chance and fate. In fact that was how I was able to meet paper engineer Sally Blakemore. I went to Santa Fe for a photography portfolio review and stayed with my best friend Zia that I met in China. Across the street from Zia’s house was Sally Blakemore's office. I had a copy of her Circus book so she was already a star in my mind. Sally took me to lunch with Andy Baron while they discussed details on a book they were working on. Another paper engineer came over to our table to say hello. I think this was the first time anyone addressed me as a paper engineer (I’m still getting over calling myself a photographer). Zia had a pop up party for me; invited friends and Sally over and served pop refreshments like pop tarts, popcorn, pop rocks, soda pop. I've kept in touch with Sally since and she is a big inspiration and resource for me, not only in the paper-engineering realm. She really knows how to have fun with it and I am in awe of her creative spirit and colorful life.
I haven’t been actively pursuing projects; most of them have come to me. To take it to the next level though I am starting to reach out as I would like to publish my China pop ups and sell some one-offs to finance it. I really enjoy personalizing commissions but that involves a lot of work from the client as well. The last commission I did was for a guy in Mexico who was proposing to his girlfriend. He needed to get high-resolution photos and provide me with some sort of background information so we could plan out the design. She liked roses, Kinder eggs and stars. I added a music chip and a Spanish poem, all that he chose himself. By the way, she said yes!
This interaction with other people working in the field must be important and bouncing ideas of each other can be very inspiring...?
I don’t interact with many paper engineers or pop-up enthusiasts in general, and with the few I do, I can’t say we talk about pop-up stuff. For me, my inspiration comes from bouncing ideas with all kinds of artists and people in all kinds of fields. Since I work in a Thai restaurant, I spend a lot of time with Thai people, and that actually inspired my project on Haunted Philadelphia. My Thai friend Brenda read my Tarot and said that I would become famous but not rich. The people in the restaurant are very superstitious and are always talking about ghosts and other kinds of spirits. I also spend a lot of time at the gym and at the dentist, this helps me mold ideas relating to the body and the physical realm.
Do you win scholarships/grants for projects?
I am always applying for grants; the last big one was the Fulbright last year. Because of the nature of my subject matter and medium, it’s getting harder to find them.
Can you give us a description on your China project and what the project means to you?
Shortly after graduating with my French degree, I went to my mother's birthplace in Yunnan Province in Southwest China to teach English at the Yunnan Nationalities University. I learned the language and how to blend in. While in Yunnan I discovered that my great-grandfather Lung Yun had not only helped establish the university where I was teaching, but was a member of the powerful black Yi tribe, and governor and general of Yunnan during the transitional years of WWII. His nickname was “the King of Yunnan. 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. After 3 years, I moved back to the US to increase my artistic and technical skills so that I could one day return and document the evolving lives of the Yi and their neighboring tribes.
Did you receive a grant?
With the help of a Fulbright fellowship, I traveled once again to Yunnan specifically to photograph for a pop-up book of the 25 ethnic minority groups that reside there. 25 of the 55 minority tribes of China reside in Yunnan and comprise only 8% of the nation’s population, with the Han representing the majority. Many people inside China and most people outside are unaware of this cultural richness. These ethnic groups have customs, histories, religious practices, languages and lifestyles that greatly differ from their Han majority neighbors. While I am directly unable to help these groups preserve their identity and ways of living, I can only use my skills as an artist to spread knowledge and provide just a brief portrait of their existence.
I am a descendant of one of these tribes although my mother and I had been completely Americanized. As I grow older I start to understand the importance of preserving one’s identity and culture, and the significance of learning one’s roots.
During my time in Yunnan, one old Yi man told me, “Although an eagle flies far into the distance, its wings will fold back. For the Yi, the ultimate goal of life is to find the path of your ancestors.” Another Yi man advised me, “Don’t follow the black road, which is madness, dampness, illness and the ghost road. You should follow the white road, which leads you back to your ancestors.”
From that philosophical base what are your future aims and where do you want to take your art and particularly the movable and pop-up segment of your endeavors?
I have a habit of learning things and than moving on to something else. I moved from photography, to digital photography, to pop-ups and now am experimenting in silkscreen (I've developed an allergy to inks) and would like to learn animation and how to build sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I would like to publish my China series; the pop ups are simpler than my previous ones because I had that intent from the beginning.
The ‘China Pop-up’ Project needs to be published! Let’s hope there is an enterprising publisher out there who can help you realize your vision.
I’d like to exhibit the work at the Asia Society (anybody got any connections?) In the near future I plan on approaching various institutions to work on projects with them so that I have incentive, the deadline, and the financial support. A few years ago I started a project where I wanted to make pop-up coats, sort of like menus. I wanted to make a coat for different restaurants, starting with the Thai restaurant I worked at. In the end, I wanted to have a fashion show on Main Street. I never got passed photographing Pad Thai.
I like to break categories; I’m also interested in creating installations- eliminating boundaries between book, fashion, installation, photography and sculpture. Artist residencies give you "uninterrupted" time to work on projects, I really miss that.
This direction for your work sounds very exciting. If the opportunity arises that you could work on a collaborative pop-up project would you be interested?
I have always wanted to collaborate on pop- up projects, it would give me the incentive to sit down and focus! Rubén’s pop-up proposal was the funniest thing: http://www.colettefu.com/video/
I’ve done in months (riding that zip line across the Dulong river in China with my fancy SLR was a close second!) but how I would love to work with those students at MIT that are experimenting with paper based electronics!
The link above, shows your recent work in amazing detail. The 'Haunted Philly' pop-ups would make a fantastic wall sculpture/installation!
Here comes a tricky one to finish on! Who are your inspirations and influences on your work?Pop-up engineers? Artists? Photographers?
I have always like photography but never had any favorites, although I did envy William Wegman. When I was little, I wanted to be a veterinarian but than I got found out I had asthma and allergic to cats, guinea pigs, rabbits and anything with fur. I had to get rid of my over 300 stuffed animal collection. I played with them constantly and created stories with them daily which I believe nourished my imagination. I don’t remember how upset I was when I had to get rid of them.
I used to stalk Robert Sabuda’s website : htpp://www.robertsabuda.com/ and bought all of his books. Matthew Reinhart’s Star Wars book blows me away! The first pop-up books that inspired me were David Carter’s Who Took the Cookie from the Cookie Jar, and Sabuda’s Wizard of Oz, I even bought the t-shirt that he used to sell on his website. When I was finishing up graduate thesis work I wanted to do something more hands-on to balance all the computer work I was doing. I went to Border’s to look at the game/board books and the pop-up books were in the next section. I read Ann Montanaro’s history of pop-up books online, and learning that the history of moveable and pop up books began with philosophical revolving disks that illustrated ideas about natural science, astronomy, fortune telling, navigation science …and the human body, I wanted to create my own books on how our bodies relate to society today.
Soon after, I wrote a proposal to the “Alden B Dow Center for Creativity” in Michigan to attend an artist residency. Alden’s parents founded Dow chemical and he was an architect and engineer. His “Way of Life Cycle” is based on the tenants of honesty, humility and enthusiasm.
I got in and they gave me 10 weeks of time and support to learn how to make pop-up books. Thank you, thank you to the Dows! I spent the stipend they gave me on buying pop-up books on eBay and started taking them apart. I also started buying them and reselling them so I could buy more!
I can see your entrepreneurial skills started early but I'm pleased those skills have been honed into amazing pieces of art.