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Iron & Glass

Q and A With Pop-up Artist Sam Ita

by Johanna Bauman on 2023-09-25T14:52:00-04:00 in Communications Design, Graphic Design, Special Collections | 0 Comments

Francesca Strathern, Graduate Assistant at the PMC Library, interviews Pratt Alumnus Sam Ita (School of Art and Design, 2000) about his time at Pratt, his career as an artist, and his creative inspirations.

What drew you to paper engineering/pop up arts specifically?

Dumb luck mostly. I went through an origami phase at around six or seven years old. At Pratt, I remember an assignment for my Design Procedures class. We had to make Pop-Up cards. I enjoyed it, but I can't say that mine was any good. After school, I answered a classified ad in the Village Voice, back when that was a thing. Got the job and worked as a production assistant at a studio that made pop-up stuff for a couple of years. After I quit, I figured I should at least do one book, since I thought I knew how. The rest is history.

Sam Ita Yearbook Photo

Yearbook photo of Sam Ita from the 2000 Prattonia

You graduated from Pratt in 2000 in Graphic Design-- how did your time at Pratt influence your creative practice?

I grew up in a very small town. We didn't have a bookstore, and these were pre-internet days. I never even had cable. This concept of creative practice was completely foreign to me until I encountered it at Pratt. One professor in particular, the late Charles Goslin, made a huge impression. He would require us to think really deeply through a design or illustration problem. Then, analyze every aspect of our solutions in detail. "What if this was smaller? "What if this was here instead?" "Is it better with this or without?" Much like when a chess player analyzes previous games and evaluates each move. There's always a better way to do something. I still try to apply this ethic. His criticism was always delivered in this warm, grandfatherly, yet firm tone. I remember, sometimes, students couldn't take it and would break down crying in class.   

Sam Ita Poster Library Exhibition    Images displayed at the 2012 exhibit of Sam Ita's work

Poster and photograph of books covers from the 2012 Pop-Up Art of Sam Ita exhibition. Pratt Institute Libraries Exhibition Collection


What kind of work did you create while at Pratt? Did you work with paper?

To this day, there is actually a class on Pop-Up Paper Engineering at Pratt. I know the guy who teaches it now. He's really good. When I was a student, a couple of my friends suggested I take it, but I never did. At that time, I was only concerned with taking classes that I thought would help me get a job once I graduated. I aspired to make movie posters, but figured it would be more practical to learn software like Macromedia Director. After school, I figured I could get a job designing interfaces for interactive CDs. Surely, the wave of the future. I'd even gotten special permission to take a class in web design and learned HTML coding. This was normally reserved for Computer Graphics majors.

When I wasn't busy drawing with a mouse, I did use paper for collage, which was my go-to medium. A couple of times, I used pull tabs for assignments, but nothing at all mechanically impressive. The very idea that you could make something move on the page was very high concept to me.

Spread from the Odyssey by Sam Ita

Scene of Odysseus' boat and the siren's from Sam Ita's 2011 interpretation of The Odyssey.

As a student at Pratt, how did you perceive the library? How did you interact with the library collection?

I was really amazed by the Pratt Library. It was way beyond anything available to me previously. I remember looking through every book and magazine on Graphic Design. Having checked out and read anything I found particularly interesting, I also used the library's picture files quite a bit. There was no such thing as an image search, so for reference, I would look things up and sketch pictures from the library's files. Nobody had a scanner back then.

Spread from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Sam Ita

Scene showing the Nemo from Sam Ita's 2008 publication of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Pop-up books are difficult to classify, they blur the lines between literature and art. How would you classify/describe your work to someone unfamiliar with the art of pop-up books?

Yeah, Pop-Ups are weird. They try to be both, but end up not quite being either, like a lungfish or an El Camino. These sorts of things hold an odd affection for. They also blur the line between fine art and a Happy Meal toy.  At one point, I was tortured by this "why" question. Having spent so many years of my life making these things, I couldn't really identify what purpose they served. I don't really think about it much in those terms, anymore though.

It's hard to describe my own work or my place within the pop-up book universe. My approach has changed so much through the years. Probably, I'm still best known for using comic panels to tell the story around the pop-up elements. I experimented and took a lot of chances with my earlier books. Now, I like to think that I learned from some of my mistakes and have a better idea of what works and what doesn't.

I’ve noticed that you have collaborated with other pop-up artists and authors, such as Joshua David Stein. Can you tell us about some of these co-authorships and the process of collaboration?

InWords, the collaboration with Joshua David Stein is really unique. A mutual, in my case, tangential friend introduced us. The book is based on a poem that he wrote, we developed a lot of the ideas in the book together. He adjusted the poem to work with the pop-ups and vice versa. It provided, at least a partial answer to that "why" question I've been holding on to all these years, in that the poem only makes sense as a pop-up book. The mechanisms are integral to the poem, rather than a novelty. It's also unique in that only one copy of the book exists. It's sitting on my shelf right now.

For the most part, I've collaborated with illustrators. Illustrating a pop-up book is a challenge because many times they need to draw surfaces of things that would normally be hidden. Some illustrators understand this right away. Others really struggle. Many of the principles of perspective, composition, and such just don't work. They have to relinquish a lot of control. There needs to be a lot of back and forth. It requires clear communication and patience on both ends. Sometimes there are bumps in the road, but in the end, I've found Illustrators really enjoy seeing their work come alive.

Scene of Giant Squid from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Sam Ita

Scene showing the Giant Squid from Sam Ita's 2008 publication of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Who/what are your biggest artistic inspirations?

Now, I'd say it's my kids. It's gratifying to see them involved with anything creative; picture books, movies, music, etc. Seeing them discover something for the first time, even if it's stuff I don't care for myself is always an inspiration. Sometimes, they'll pull books I've done off the shelf, flip through them, and be like, "This is okay." Of course, I love everything they do. But I'm biased.

Scene of the Pequod from Ita’s 2007 publication of Moby Dick.

What do you consider your creative philosophy?

The Pop-up book industry is really boom and bust. I got in at the end of a boom. It's been mostly bust ever since. I've done dozens of books, between long stretches of no work coming in. So I've had to sell my work at book fairs and find various side jobs to earn money. Not exactly what I was hoping for, but I've learned a lot from these experiences. Art doesn't exist in a vacuum. There's only so much you can pull from inside your own head. I've learned a lot more from seeing how others interact with and interpret my work. On the other end, all pop-up books are hand-made. I've visited factories where they're assembled, usually by Chinese villagers. When I'm designing something now, I consider what it will feel like for human hands to glue these pieces together thousands of times. For better or for worse, my role is to make stuff. I suppose it's my lot in life, so I feel an obligation to do it as well as I can. Some of my most rewarding experiences have been when I have designed something really simple and easy, for an audience with low expectations. These days, I find that injecting art into a situation where it's absent and needed is a far more worthy pursuit than obsessing over petty details that most people won't notice anyway. Art gives us a way of connecting. This world was not built for creative people. We can't just expect others to appreciate what we do. We need to find a way to earn our place. 

Frankenstein's Monster Sam Ita's Frankenstein

Scene of Frankenstein’s monster from Ita’s 2010 publication of Frankenstein.

What are you doing now? What are your current projects? What can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?

I work as a signmaker during the day. It's part-time and my boss lets me use the equipment for side jobs when things aren't too busy. I teach a class on paper engineering for graduate students at NYU. My latest origami book; "Fun with Origami Animals Kit: 40 Different Animals!" just came out. It's very simple origami with clear, detailed instructions. Good for little kids or absolute beginners. I've been playing capoeira for the past 14 years, gradually learning to speak Portuguese and play instruments. Over the last few years, I've gotten really into cooking, which has been another major creative influence. I'm keeping busy. 

Visit these links to learn more about the Libraries' Pop-Up Collection and other Special Collections in the Libraries.

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