Saturday, September 15, 2012

Things In My Cabinet: Science, Art, and Giant Books

Gratuitous picture of the Palace of Fine Arts,
because I'm going to miss it so much.
It's been hard to keep up with this blog recently because, well, there's so much going on in the tangible world. I've been interviewing for jobs at the Exploratorium, which is the most awesome thing ever and totally means that I was right about how excellent volunteering there would be for my life in general. (Hint: volunteering does not, in fact, have to be an utterly altruistic act. Turns out nobody yells at you if you secretly have some totally selfish motives for showing up and being as helpful as possible to people who need it.) Needless to say, they have a really great freakin' website (it's won awards and everything, and is flashy without being obnoxious, and is full of SCIENCE) and I was bopping around on it, ostensibly doing job research but actually just clicking around all the shiny science experiment links, and I got totally stuck on the Tinkering Studio blog. Now, The Tinkering Studio is the coolest thing ever. Like, everything in the Exploratorium is cool, but the Tinkering Studio is EXTRA cool. They run this workshop in the back where they basically teach you how to do things like make magical masking tape art, paint with light, build circuit boards and Rube Goldberg machines, and other assorted low-tech experimental grooviness. (Check out all their activities here.)

I love them for two major reasons: one, because of their devotion to collaborative, hands-on project-building and art-making, exploration, and play; and two, because they, like me, freakin' love cardboard. They have all these amazing artists coming in to teach museum visitors easy ways to make awesome things out of junk, and many of those artists are obsessed with cardboard. One of them was MIT masters student Jie Qi, who has become this month's absolute inspiration for me - and once you see what she's making, you'll understand why.
Jie Qi describes herself on her website as "interested in all things art, design, technology, DIY… and I love to make things that combine all four." What kinds of things? Well, like Pu Gong Ying Tu (Dandelion Painting), a interactive, light-up painting of dandelion flowers. Blow on the glowing "seeds," and they disperse and reform as new flowers. Or her blooming paper flowers, chrysanthemum-like blossoms that unfold their petals. Or her electronic popables, a pop-up book that sparkles with lights, sings, and moves. It features, among other things, a glittering solar system, a luminous coral reef, and a hungry Venus Flytrap. It's delightfully handmade, with drawn-on arrows that show you what tabs to pull to work the popups, and yet the technology is elegant and astonishing. But what really inspired me was her piece "Novel Architecture," a giant pop-up book you can literally step into. Inside, following the threads of her other works with flowers, lights, and moving parts, delicate paper blossoms light up and open and close like jellyfish or sea anemones.

The piece is beautiful and innovative, and it inspired me more than anything I've seen in months. I see plenty of art that's inspiring in a nonspecific way, and oftentimes I'll look at really beautiful or moving or unusual art and feel, "Wait, that makes me think of something I want to make!" But it's pretty rare on those occasions that I think of something specific, and even when I do, it's even more rare that what comes to mind is even remotely doable. Every time I see a cob house, for example, I'm inspired to make a specific building of my own, but at this point in my life I have neither the time nor the space to do so - I could get those things, of course, but it would require a pretty intense alteration of my life to do so. Looking at Jie Qi's piece, though, I thought - wait a second. That's a giant book, and it's amazing, but is there any reason you have to stop at one "page"? Or that you couldn't have a full text on the inside? And just like that, bam, I had a Project.

An altered bookshelf I made as part of my thesis
installation. It's made of, yup, cardboard. The
"branches" were cut from old boxes, padded
with newspaper, and papier-mached.
With a deep and respectful nod to Jie Qi, right now I'm working on a giant book of my own. She proudly proclaims the fact that she used nothing but "cardboard, an X-acto knife, tape and glue" to make the book, and after all, isn't giant inhabitable cardboard art my speciality? (The answer to that is yes, if for some reason it wasn't abundantly obvious.) It's a star book, which is a special kind of artist book I learned how to make at Hampshire; when you open the covers all the way so that they're back to back, the pages form a beautiful star shape when seen from above. The books we made in this class were almost like pentagonal paper theaters, each double-page spread forming a triangle that we filled with cut-outs and pop-ups. Why not, I thought, make one full-sized? So I wrote a little story about a Northern Spotted Owl named Maurice who wants to see what daytime is like, and designed a star book that would accommodate five "rooms," or two-page spreads, in which to tell his story. I used trigonometry for the first time since I was seventeen! It was awesome! My math teachers were totally right!

I'm working on a 1"=1' scale model right now, and a wonderful friend of mine volunteered to write music for the space! Encouraged by the wonderful ladies of Insatiable Booksluts, who saw an idle tweet about the idea and pounced on me about actually doing it, I'm now hoping to be able to build and install it somewhere book-friendly in the next 3-6 months. The eventual dream: charge a nominal admittance fee and donate the funds to nonprofits like Sheltering Books, which collects books to give to kids in homeless shelters across the US. (I also want the book to feature a gentle education on Norcal wildlife and the Northern Spotted Owl in particular; it's a threatened species and I'd be thrilled to be able to donate funds towards research, reforestation, and other pro-wildlife organizations.)

I started out just dawdling around on a great website, and look where I ended up. Hooray for the intersections of art and science! You never know what's going to inspire you.


  1. Again, I have not much more to say than AWESOME! That and I want to see it when it's finished.
    Glad to hear things are going well, and I hope you get a job there.

    1. Aw, thanks, Andrew! I'm sorry I haven't been on your blog as much as I'd like. You'll get a very special invitation to the opening, I promise :)

  2. Oh, I'm really excited that this book is about owls! (And I just now saw this link because my WordPress linky thing is not working properly, grr!) It sounds so cool.

    1. I'm so excited! I mean, what's more awesome than owls?


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