Prolific Paper Wizard of Prague's magical pop-up books come to Cedar Rapids

Czech artist's pop-up books on display at museum

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Ellen G.K. Rubin wants to be clear — the proper title for people who create pop-up books is “paper engineer.”

As a new exhibit at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library illustrates, that title is well-deserved. Rubin’s favorite paper engineer, Czech artist Vojtech Kubasta, is the focus of the exhibit, which displays the wonderfully intricate books he created during his lifetime.

Rubin, who lives in Scarsdale, N.Y., wanted to share the joy she finds in the books.

“I call the paper engineers puppeteers, and they hand the strings to you the reader,” Rubin said. “It’s the interaction between the reader and the book, and it takes you a step beyond just a flat book.”

Rubin has been collecting Kubasta’s works for more than 30 years. She’s struck by just how much he created in his life.

“I call him the prolific paper wizard of Prague,” she said. “Weekly, without exaggeration, I find something new.”

Born in 1914, Kubasta died in 1992. The exhibit includes work from the entire span of his life, starting with his childhood sketchbook. Along with pop-up books, it features other art he created under the auspices of the Communist regime, which ruled the country for much of his adult life.

Artists at the time often were subject to harsh restrictions, as seen in the museum’s other current exhibit, Samizdat. Kubasta, however, received less scrutiny because he created children’s art, which was viewed as less threatening, said National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library curator Stefanie Kohn. In some of his pieces, he was able to slip in subtle jabs at the ruling ideology.

The exhibit is a nice contrast to Samizdat, she said, and is very family-friendly.

Along with the books tucked behind glass, there are several copies children can handle and read, along with child-sized bean bag chairs.

“I think it’s just really fun for the holidays,” Kohn said. “I like all the colors and the movement. It’s not static at all.”

Rubin previously displayed a version of this exhibit at the Grolier Club in New York City. It will remain in Cedar Rapids through March 27.

She said in addition to displaying Kubasta’s work, she wants to expand awareness of pop-up books in general. A charter member of the Moveable Book Society, which has hundreds of members worldwide, she’s been collecting pop-up books for decades.

“A successful pop-up is one that enhances the story or enables you to understand the illustration better,” she said. “If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a pop-up is worth a million.”

Pop-ups were popularized in the United States in the 1970s after American entrepreneur Waldo Hunt was inspired by Kubasta’s work. Hunt’s company created a series of children’s books for Random House, followed by work for the Hallmark company.

But the art form actually is much older. Rubin recently found a pop-up book from the 12th century. Those older pop-up books were aimed at adults, rather than children. They helped illustrate astronomy, mathematics and architecture texts. There was even pop-up erotica.

Every pop-up book or greeting card, even today, is at least partly handmade, Rubin said.

“There’s not a machine that can make a pop-up book. Every single book has passed through human hands.”

For her, that’s part of the appeal.

“It embellishes the ‘wow’ effect. You open the book, and it stands 13 inches high, and people say, ‘Wow,’ they just can’t help themselves,” she said. “We also call it the smile effect.”

Related event

Make It Pop! workshop

• What: A hands-on exploration of simple pop-up paper engineering with Emily Martin of The Naughty Dog Press and the University of Iowa Center for the Book. Attendees will learn an assortment of tricks and techniques for creating pop-up cards and will leave with a selection of pop-up creations. For ages 14 and up. Materials included in price of workshop.

• When: 1 to 3 p.m. Jan. 30

• Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids

• Cost: $12 for members, $15 general public

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