In a six-minute-long Martha Stewart video clip, Robert Sabuda demonstrates the rudiments of making a pop-up book. You fold your paper like this, slice it like that, then bend the fold back on itself – and as they say in the UK, “Bob’s your uncle!” Sabuda does make it look easy. But an encounter with his new children’s book, The Dragon and the Knight, should remind you that his talent lies in building intricate, complex, three-dimensional scenes that jump out from between the pages and pull your imagination into the story.
Sabuda has transformed a number of traditional tales into pop-up versions, such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Night before Christmas. His Dinosaurs (with Matthew Reinhart) informs and enchants. America the Beautiful illustrates the song and the country in Minimalist foldouts. All his work, including the colorful pop-up greeting and holiday cards that he designs and sells at the Museum of Modern Art, engenders comments of awe and wonder.
This new offering is a conglomeration of favorite fairy tales, with a dragon being chased through each one by a knight. Every closed page hides a puzzle that slides open and springs to life by simply opening the book. It’s low-tech magic – the kind that continues to delight readers of all ages. Kids accustomed to the high-tech razzamatazz of screens and e-games gaze at Sabuda’s pop-up and think, “How did that happen?”
This is the kind of questioning that the younger Sabuda pursued, especially after he saw his first pop-up book in a dentist’s office. (It was fascinating enough to take his mind off the task at hand.) As a child, he drew and painted and crafted with the encouragement of his parents and teachers. “My bedroom was a constant whirlwind of pencil shavings, drippy paintbrushes and mounds of paper scraps,” he writes. Soon he was figuring out how to construct three-dimensional pieces, and the career of a paper engineer took off.
First he finished school, left rural Michigan to attend Pratt Institute in New York and went to work as a package designer “creating the boxes for ladies’ underpants and bras.” He recalls a professor at Pratt who told him that children’s book illustration was not a worthy career path to follow. Fortunately, others supported his dream, and this many years later, Sabuda’s contribution to children’s literature is world-renowned. Last year, he was the keynote at the Michigan Art Educators’ Association conference at Mackinaw Island. “There were 500 art teachers! I love going to events like this!”
Sabuda talks about the basic mechanics of paper engineering. “It takes eight months to a year to design a good pop-up book,” he says. After a prototype is built, all the paper is die-cut and assembled by hand – real hands. “They used to be produced in South America, but ten years ago all the assembly went to China and Thailand. But there’s a movement to bring manufacturing back to the US. With my stationery stuff, I’d like to bring this back to Detroit, where there are empty plants and a huge out-of-work force of assemblers.”
Sabuda’s father was a mason and a carpenter, and his grandfather and great-grandfather were in the building trades. He credits this lineage in hands-on work for his ability to visualize in three dimensions and to put together all the moving parts of a pop-up.
Sabuda’s current project is slightly larger: the renovation of a barn adjacent to his home in Ulster County, which will become the 10 Horse Art Center, a multi-purpose space with rental studios and an exhibition gallery. “When the property came up for sale, I couldn’t resist buying it even before I knew what I’d do with it. My father said, ‘Make it for more artists than just you.’ We’ve saved all the original siding to put back on; we have material all over the place that we’ve been keeping for reuse,” he says, indicating piles of wood now surrounding the deconstructed building.
As he speaks, wet concrete gushes out of the downtube of a cement truck, and a team of men in rubber boots rake it across the entire ground floor. Sabuda’s project manager, Justin Barros, told him, “This is surreal. There’s no turning back now. When you’re pouring concrete, there’s only forward.”
Sabuda was glad to find a local architectural group, Garba/Seid Architecture Design Studio, who were enthusiastic about repurposing the structure, turning an old horse barn into an art studio. They suggested that, since there had been ten stalls, they’d make ten separate workrooms, and he could call it “10 Horse Studio.” Sabuda went for it. He remarks on how he values other people’s creative input. In his own studio in Manhattan, where his books and other papercraft items are designed, he has two full-time associates working with him.
“I’m not a creative tyrant. When you’re a young artist, it’s a solitary endeavor because you don’t know any better, and you’re finding your way. Now that I’m older and working in a very specific field – children’s book illustration – I like the collaborative effort. Others have insights that I might not necessarily have. It makes it easier for me, because a lot of what I do is problem-solving. I don’t necessarily have the right answer every time. I would be foolish to do it all by myself.”
Recognizing his limited ability to wear only so many hats at once, he has already advertised for teachers to conduct classes and workshops and artists who want to rent studio space. The plan is to be open by next spring. Meanwhile, everyone involved is scrambling to get the building closed in before the snow flies. “Even the neighbors are all very excited; strangers walk in and want to know what’s going on here. The Town of Highland/Lloyd was completely on board with our plans. I’m reusing space. I believe an old structure is as good as a new one. I feel a kinship with anyone who uses their hands to build something. It’s fascinating for me to watch others doing their craft – like these cement-pourers. I grew up watching this and doing what he’s doing. If I wasn’t writing and illustrating children’s books, I’d be a carpenter – or a puppeteer!”
10 Horse is located on a quiet road in Plutarch. “Our hamlet has had a very vibrant history, including the little white church just 100 feet from my house that was built in 1865 by the residents with their own hands, using the surrounding trees, during the height of the Civil War. Amazingly, this little Methodist church still has a congregation and services every Sunday.”
Teeming with enthusiasm about his upstate community, Sabuda has been a supporter of the Elting Memorial Library in New Paltz for many years, conducting free workshops for adults and children. He gave a lecture and PowerPoint history on paper engineering and showed how his books are assembled. And he donated funds to have several of the library’s Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection’s 19th-century wall maps restored.
In building-it-so-they-will-come, he hopes to attract artists of all ilks to his spacious new barn, to work and teach and share in the communal making of a good place. For anyone wanting and needing such a place, 10 Horse promises to be just that. “If you have the vision to make it happen, you’ve gotta try. I can see how it would be daunting for other people; but coming from a building background, nothing I’m seeing is new to me, but seeing it all come together is amazing.”
Check it out at https://10horse.com. And look for The Dragon and the Knight in bookstores now.