Allison's Book Bag

Pop-Up Artist, Paul Johnson

Posted on: July 21, 2015

This past spring, as part of preparing to teach summer writing clubs to elementary-aged students, I started looking for more innovative ways to combine writing with art. My husband both helped me brainstorm lesson plans and to locate additional books. He came across a series of books by Paul Johnson, two of which I brought and will review this week.

My custom is to promote an upcoming review with a teaser. Unfortunately, the bulk of what I found about Johnson comes from his website and from an interview with Pyramid Atlantic Arts Book Fair. He does have a contact address, but summer clubs kept me so busy that I never did get around to trying to set up an interview. Another time!

Who you might ask is Paul Johnson? In short, he’s an English book artist who has been making books and teaching how to make books since the 1980s. Most recently, he’s also become known for his architectural pop-ups.

What a tragedy that most young people today, like my fourteen-year-old son, are locked into an exclusively electronic, passive, world.

PaulJohnsonJohnson’s love of home-made books started as a child. His father produced twenty-five sketchbooks full of drawings of their family life between 1939 and 1963. As for pop-ups, Johnson loved making models of castles and pirate ships that were printed on the back of cereal packets. He credits his work today to his childhood creative life at the kitchen table.

For a time, as an adult, Johnson experimented with art forms such as visual poems and performance arts. In his early forties, he started to make his own books. Johnson took a published pop-up book to pieces to see how it was made and then did his own work from that starting point.

Today Johnson lives two professional lives–related yet separate. One life revolves around making one-of-a-kind pop-up books. The other life is spent in schools making books with children and working alongside teachers.

As for creative passions, Johnson notes he has two: architecture and natural forms. “I grew up in the medieval city of Norwich in the east of England. There is a medieval church on every small street. It holds my soul, although I left there over fifty years ago … I adore the architecture of Japan and Thailand too – maybe you can see the influence in my work? If my life could be stretched to infinity I would spend weeks solely drawing the trees and flowers in our garden. … Like my father, I make sketchbooks and draw in one nearly every day. Not surprisingly it is ancient churches, landscape and plants that I draw most. England is so rich in these things.”

To date, Johnson has written over fifteen books about making books with children in which the book as form and the book as content is a continuum. “Book artists tend to come from a visual background and not a linguistic one and consequently are not always as at ease with the content of their books as with the physical structure.”

In his interview with Pyramid Atlantic Arts Book Fair, Johnson stated that he was working on what might be his final published book, The New Pop-up Paper Engineering. His original Pop-up Paper Engineering book was published in 1993 and was one of the first books to attempt to describe and define the genre. His new book was due to be published in 2013, twenty years after the first one and coincide with his seventieth birthday. I couldn’t find a book by this exact title, but did discover Johnson published one titled New Pop-Up Paper Projects in the aforementioned year.

Paul Johnson has an international reputation for his pioneering work in developing literacy through the book arts. Besides being an author and a teacher, he’s also a successful book artist with work in several galleries and universities. His work was selected for a recent Stand and Deliver USA touring exhibition of pop-up books and for the 2008-2009  Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild’s The Art of the Book touring exhibition for which he also received the guild’s Book Art Colophon Award. Johnson is on the UK Craft Council’s select list of British designer-makers.

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