“We Are the Dragon People: Kaifuna” by Colette Fu. Photo courtesy of Bainbridge Island Museum of Art

In the current exhibit, Boundless, at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, books break out of their bindings to become more than mere text on pages. Nearly a dozen book artists present their aesthetic conceptualizations of the book, and photographer and pop-up book artist Colette Fu will display three projects as part of the exhibit.

Fu’s participation in Boundless has been two years in the making. “Catherine Alice Michaelis, curator for the Cynthia Sears collection, reached out to me in 2020,” Fu recounted, “shortly after I presented virtually at the Bibliographical Society of America with members of my collective Book/Print Artist/Scholar of Color Collective, a collective founded by book artist and printmaker Tia Blassingame in 2019.”

The three pieces that Fu will share are entitled Kaifuna, Yi Costume Festival, and Wa Hair Swinging Dance. “All three of these works were chosen by Cynthia and Catherine and focus on the women of different ethnic minority groups in Yunnan Province, China, the Dulong, Yi, and Wa,” Fu said. “My mother is from a branch of Yi, Nuosu Yi.”

Fu’s path to a career in visual art was circuitous, with her initial college education focused on French and Chinese. “I wasn’t interested in my studies in college,” she reported, “I didn’t want to be there, but didn’t know where else to be or go.”

She had studied French in high school. “My aunt and uncle spoke French to each other, and I always loved the way it sounded,” she said, “so in a way, it was the easier thing to study and graduate with.”

But after teaching English in China, she was drawn to understand her heritage, as well as the other ethnic minorities of China, and that led to photography and, ultimately, pop-up books. “The first pop-up book I remember seeing was when I was 33 years old,” she recalled. “I had just received my MFA and was in the bookstore looking for inspiration from the toy book section.”

This happenstance opened a new chapter for Fu. “There was a whole section dedicated to pop-up books,” she said. “I opened Robert Sabuda’s Wizard of Oz and instantly was enamored and was anxious to try and use my own photographs in a similar format.”

Fu sees linkages between her earlier language studies and her current endeavors. “Pop-up paper engineering is another more visual, spatial language,” she said. “You learn the elements and complete a pop-up sentence, a paragraph, and then a book.”

Life as a photographer has brought Fu the challenges of frequent travel. “Learning French has made it easier to learn or understand other languages, like Spanish and Portuguese, and comfort with these languages has brought me to artist residencies in Brazil, Mexico, Montreal, Belgium, Morocco,” she said. “Traveling for many years attending artist residencies with all of my belongings has helped me prepare a bit for the unexpected.”

These journeys have included two visits to Washington state. “Once in my mid-20’s, I accompanied a delegation from Lijiang City, China, to explore Seattle, and another time to teach a pop-up structures course to the Puget Sound Book Arts community,” she remembered. “As travel becomes safer, I would love to come back, visit Bainbridge Island, and also explore Vancouver.”

Fu enjoys serving as an educator, striving to reach marginalized populations. “I have taught pop-up structure courses around the world, from displaced person camps and nursing homes to universities,” she said. “I find it necessary to work with the community in between working on more personal projects.”

Her presentations are tailored to her audiences. “With college students, I focus on the technicalities and share the different ways I have supported my work over the years, through artist residencies, grants, community projects,” she said. “With other groups, I focus on teaching them to make something to feel a sense of awe, or feel proud, to have fun, and how to share a story.”

A large part of Fu’s own story is gratitude. “I have so many people to thank for supporting me to this point,” she said. “I am grateful that I get to do something I can get excited about for a living, that I look forward to going to work.”

Boundless runs from March 4 to June 22 at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, 550 Winslow Way East, Bainbridge Island.

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