Interview with Carol Barton

Interview with Carol Barton, a book artist, paper engineer and author of the Pocket Paper Engineer.

Photography / Carol Barton

Portrait of Carol Barton pop-up engineer
Carol Barton

You’re a book artist and paper engineer specializing in sculptural books. Could you tell us what those roles entail?

Some people define an artist’s book simply as a book designed by an artist, but that doesn’t tell you much about how an artist’s book is different from one you’d buy in a book store.

“When I design a book as an art piece, I’m approaching it as I would a painting, sculpture, or fine photograph.”

Of course, it’s hard to pinpoint the essence of what makes something art, but I think one of the major elements is that a successful work of art evokes an emotional response from a viewer.

Some artists’ books look like regular books until you open them and see type and images combined in exciting and very unique ways on the page. Some are made out of plastics, metals, or even concrete and wood, and many people respond to these emotionally because they challenge a person’s definition of “a book,” which is, in fact, the point. Some artists’ books don’t even have pages but refer back to very early book forms such as clay tablets and silk scrolls.

My artist’s books are very sculptural because I incorporate pop-ups – paper sculptures that spring up and then collapse as a book’s pages are turned.

“That’s where the paper engineering comes in – it’s a fancy name for designing pop-ups.”

pop up cardIt really does describe the process of figuring out how to cut and construct a piece of paper in order to build a three-dimensional scene that is able to fold flat when the book is closed. The process involves mechanics, spacial visualization, and functional problem-solving. Those are definitely engineering processes-it’s just that the material being used isn’t steel or wood, it’s paper.

Many of them are very complex and take months to design. I make them all myself. An example is my most recent book Five Luminous Towers. It was inspired by the historic towers of Italy. Every other page has a paper tower that pops off the page and also lights up in the dark. In fact, the poems about the towers light up, too, so the book can be read entirely in the dark. And the last tower has a ring of fiber optic filaments coming out of the top that create a halo of little stars circling around it.

I understand you teach kids how to make pop-ups. How do you get them to design a pop-up in a 40-minute classroom session?

pop up cardWell, even the very complex commercial pop-ups such as those of Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart, are based on some rather basic forms. I can actually teach someone how to make a simple box or triangle pop-up in about three or four minutes, and I haven’t had a failure yet. Adults are a little slower with the visuals, so in an adult class I usually concentrate just on the mechanics. Because many adults are intimidated by long-forgotten geometry formulas, I teach adult classes without any math. And in a two-day workshop, we cover about 85% of the basic pop-up structures used in commercial books. It’s easier than it looks, and a lot of fun.

How do you combine your alternative processes photographic work with pop-ups?

pop up cyanotypeI don’t teach alternative photography myself, but I sometimes work with my colleague Sarah Van Keuren who teaches the subject at the University of the Arts.

Our students occasionally incorporate pop-ups into their photos. The results are always surprising, and often quite surreal. If you isolate the basic shape of a photographic image – a rectangular or triangular shape, for example – you can get that section of the photo popping up with a cut or two and some simple folds. You can then collage other photographic elements into the piece, adding more layers to the pop-up. It’s fun to experiment with various effects, and a great way to push photography toward becoming a more sculptural media.

You also teach at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. How does paper engineering fit into your students’ work there? Are they all graphic arts majors?

I love teaching at the university level, especially at an art university, because I get students from all the different media, not just the graphic arts. I have students in my classes majoring in metalworking, textile design, photography, sculpture, illustration, industrial design, and of course, the book arts. My course is called “book structures,” and it includes paper engineering, some package design, and some unusual types of sculptural books.

Students from different departments bring their unique insights to the class, and we end up with some very exciting artists’ books using a mix of materials and printing techniques.

Again, the emphasis is on learning how to see and solve design problems – on process rather than finished product – and we do a lot of model-making. By breaking the complexity of books down into simple models, say, one for the story, one for the structure, one for the visuals, it makes the whole design process less overwhelming.

Does paper engineering require a lot of special tools?

No, one of the best things about it is that it can be done with just a few simple tools: a pair of scissors, a glue stick, almost any type of paper (even 8 1/2 x 11 office paper!) and a bone folder. For those unfamiliar with this tool, a bone folder is a flat piece of real animal bone, usually rounded on one end, used for pressing down folds. If you don’t have one, you can use your finger nail, a wooden tongue depressor, or a pop sickle stick. Some of the more complex forms require the use of a single-edged cutting tool such as an X-acto knife, but the most basic pop-ups can all be cut with a pair of scissors.

Of course, you can also learn a lot of the techniques through my Pocket Paper Engineer workbooks. I’ve tried very hard to make the books both fun and easy-to-follow, and most of my readers have reported that they’ve been able to complete each book’s 16 do-it-yourself pop-up projects without a problem.


Get the book:
The Pocket Paper Engineer

The Pocket Paper Engineer

by Carol Barton

How to make cyanotype pop-ups, step-by-step.


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