Pop in for a story or two

By By Chistopher Wallace and

By Chistopher Wallace

Art appreciation usually contains an implicit, “do-not-touch” restriction. “The Travels Through Time and Space” exhibit, featuring the art of illustrator and author Robert Sabuda, at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts is different. There are beautiful originals behind glass on the walls, but the main attraction is the collection of dog-eared pop-up books strewn across a table inside the gallery.

According to Sabuda, he has been an artist since he first picked up a crayon and has been making pop-up books since he discovered them in a dentist’s office as a child. Now he is considered one of the world’s most brilliant pop-up paper engineers and artists.

Sabuda’s books range in subject from the evolution of marine life to adaptations of well-known children’s books such as Alice in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Sabuda is also a talented writer — many of his works are original narratives — but it’s difficult to look away from the intricacy and remarkable construction of his illustrations.

On the first page of Sabuda’s Alice in Wonderland, giant trees spring up behind the figures of Alice and her mother sitting on the lawn. An accordion-like tunnel with a peephole invites the reader to look in and see Alice falling down the rabbit hole, while the story is narrated via mini pop-up books at the corners of each page.

In Sabuda’s Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Sharks and Sea Monsters, the head of a great white shark lunges from the page as though breaking through the surface of a tossing ocean, while the ancestors of crocodiles snap menacingly, overshadowing the blocks of text.

Sabuda tells each story in a style characteristic of the culture and time period in which it occurs, often learning to work with completely new techniques and media for every work. For instance, Sabuda’s book about St. Valentine is illustrated using his most complex method to date: sheets of paper dyed and cut into tiny tiles to construct elaborate mosaics.

“(Sabuda) is really multi-dimensional,” said UMFA curator Bernadette Brown. “He illustrates his books, he writes them and he does the paper engineering.”

The steps in the creation of many of the books are chronicled through a display of originals that hang on the walls of the gallery. One of the most memorable images depicts a crowd of faces with a painted lattice meticulously cut out with a razor blade and glued to a blank sheet of textured paper.

Sabuda says his most challenging book has been Uh-oh, Leonardo!: The Adventures of Providence Traveler, a tale about a mouse that travels through time to meet his — and Sabadu’s — favorite artist, Leonardo da Vinci. The illustrations for Uh-oh, Leonardo! are all in watercolor, which, Sabuda says, was the most difficult medium to learn.

The copies of Sabuda’s books available for browsing connect the observer to the exhibit in a unique and powerful way. All of the exhibits show considerable signs of wear and tear from handling by the public over the past five months — an unusual sight in an art gallery. The exhibit also features a station where visitors can create their own pop-up using a template that they cut out, color and construct.

The Robert Sabuda “Travels Through Time and Space” exhibit is on loan to the UMFA through Sept. 9 from the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature in Texas. For museum hours and location, or for more information about the artist, visit umfa.utah.edu.

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