During the Pandemic, a Paper Artist Learned to Make Endangered Species Pop

Amid India’s second COVID-19 wave, a paper-cut artist from Chennai sought solace in the medium of paper pop-ups. The result was My Friends Are Missing, a stunning handmade paper-cut pop-up book by artist and design researcher Keerthana Ramesh that features 30 critically endangered species from around the world.

Ramesh’s relationship with paper has unfolded over the years. As a child, she loved making cards and paper crafts for friends and family. By 15, she was making intricate cut-paper patterns. But in college, she found herself studying graphic design and moving to digital art. “It always made me feel uneasy. I’ve always felt most comfortable with analog, handmade and handcrafted tools.” She pursued UI/UX, illustration, and graphic design for the next few years, but her love of the handmade never went away. 

It was during her Masters in Social Justice and Design at Maryland Institute College of Art that she found her way back to paper. She took an elective course on paper-cut art and fell right back in love. “I finally felt I’d found something I’d been itching for since I was a teenager. People always consider paper art to be a hobby. But for me, paper is part of my artistic expression.”

Keerthana Ramesh, My Friends Are Missing (2021)

For one of her assignments, Ramesh documented the timeline and history of pop-ups through pop-ups. “It was an unnecessary amount of work and my first time with the medium but I was floored. Pop-ups are essentially flat pieces of paper … but when you open it out, it turns into a 3D sculpture with movement and animation. I wanted to become an animator when I was a child. But in college, I realized I can’t spend 20 hours making 30,000 drawings for a 2-second clip. It’s too much hard work. With pop-ups, it was nice to incorporate motion into something that can be folded into a book and put away!” 

During the second lockdown in India, Ramesh felt the need to start a personal project to keep herself sane. “I decided to finally learn how to make pop-ups. It’s hard to learn it from books because they don’t really show you how the page is supposed to move. Some successful pop-up artists had started making videos explaining their process. So I watched a lot of those videos, diligently and religiously studying them like I was going to take an exam on them.” 

Two artists she kept returning to were Matthew Reinhart and Duncan Birmingham. Reinhart is a celebrated pop-up designer and paper engineer, who has made books for Game of Thrones, as well as the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises, among others. Birmingham has written books on pop-ups and makes YouTube videos breaking down their mechanisms. 

Keerthana Ramesh, My Friends Are Missing (2021)

The learning process ignited a fire in Ramesh. Around the same time, an art nonprofit art called One Million One Month (1M1M) had started its annual art challenge, in which artists were invited to visualize 30 critically endangered species of flora and fauna to raise awareness about the endangered species. 

Being a nature lover, Ramesh plunged into the 30-day challenge between April and May 2021. “It seemed like the perfect time frame to explore pop-ups every single day and learn at a rapid pace. It was a really difficult commitment because pop-ups are quite hard and there’s a lot of trial and error and prototyping involved,” she says. She initially took up to seven hours a day to make one pop-up but was down to four by the end.

The first step involved researching each species, about half of which are not well documented. “I’d go to YouTube and see how they move and behave to inform the movement I wanted to incorporate. I had a turtle that swims, a woodpecker that pecks, a rat that burrows inside land. For the other 50 percent, nobody knows much about them in terms of behaviors and characteristics. So for those, I tried to focus on just learning a different mechanism that I hadn’t tried before and making a structural or illustrative piece.”

Keerthana Ramesh, My Friends Are Missing (2021)

Ramesh then made sketches to see which movement would work best. The prototyping took the longest, as she figured out how each movement would work. Next came the daunting part of actually taking apart the prototype. “I had to trace over and cut out each of those pieces for the final version to make sure I got the size and proportion right. If I was even a centimeter off, either the pop-up wouldn’t work or the pieces could fall out.” The final step was reassembling it all over again. “Sometimes, it worked in the prototype but when it came to the final piece, the paper would have different friction, weight, and thickness and it wouldn’t work,” she shares. 

Within a month, an incredible array of flora and fauna found a place in the book: bats flying, wild horses running, a parrot peeking out of paper trees, mushrooms growing, a crocodile opening and closing its jaw, magnolia blooming, fish swimming in and out of coral, a hopping frog sticking out its tongue. Slowly and steadily, she learned the art of pop-ups and by the end of the month, she had compiled all 30 creations into one cohesive book. 

Keerthana Ramesh, My Friends Are Missing (2021)

Ramesh says, “I think my biggest takeaway is that 95- to 97-percent precision is enough. I’ve always tried to make everything 100-percent precise and that is incredibly hard to do. Especially with a medium like pop-ups because paper moves however it wants. Another takeaway is that suggestions and abstractions are enough. Like my crab looks more like a box than a crab. But because of the snapping arm movement, everyone understands it’s a crab.”

While Ramesh hunts for a full-fledged pop-up publisher to make a smaller version of the book, she’s been delighted to see the response to My Friends Are Missing. “Every time I show someone the book, regardless of their age or level of art enthusiasm, they get excited to see the pop-ups come alive. There’s a spark of joy I see on people’s faces, which is worth all the effort. It’s also an educational opportunity because while these are cute and beautiful, the context that these are endangered species makes one sit up and take notice.”

How does it feel to finish such a mammoth quarantine project? “I still can’t believe I did it in 30 days. My room was a river of confetti during the project and the entire undertaking was a big learning curve. It’s given me the push to experiment more with the medium! I can’t wait to see what comes next.”

Keerthana Ramesh, My Friends Are Missing (2021) Keerthana Ramesh, My Friends Are Missing (2021) Keerthana Ramesh, My Friends Are Missing (2021) Keerthana Ramesh, My Friends Are Missing (2021) Keerthana Ramesh, My Friends Are Missing (2021) Keerthana Ramesh, My Friends Are Missing (2021)

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