Matthew Reinhart’s Paper Magic | Pop-up Marvels at the Cedar Rapids Museum

Matthew Reinhart’s Mowgli roars up from the pages of The Jungle Book, published in 2006 by Little Simon, a division of Simon & Schuster, New York. (Photo courtesy Matthew Reinhart)

Kid or not, you’ll find yourself gasping in awe or giggling out loud over Matthew Reinhart’s elaborate pop-up illustrations. From fantastical dinosaurs to Star Wars characters to DC superheroes, these whimsical creations simultaneously tickle your inner child and confound your intellect. Matthew and collaborator Robert Sabuda have filled dozens of books with these marvels of paper engineering, so cutting-edge that they’re the subject of a museum exhibit called “Wizards of Pop: Sabuda & Reinhart,” opening January 22 at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art through May 1, 2011.

Born in Cedar Rapids, Matthew Reinhart spent his childhood moving around the country as the family followed his dad’s Navy career. Matthew always loved drawing, especially when it came to animals. Attempting to be practical, he took biology classes in preparation for medical school, but he couldn’t resist slipping in some art courses along the way. While living in NYC, he met children’s book author Robert Sabuda, who encouraged him to follow his true passion. Thus began a fruitful collaboration and the first of an astounding array of pop-up books, some of which became best sellers.

Pop-ups start humbly enough: they’re simply paper that’s been cut, folded, glued, and taped. But to make a bird flap its wings, a tornado swirl up from a flat page, or Darth Vader rise ominously to life—that’s where the genius factors in. We recently spoke with Matthew Reinhart to find out how he makes the magic happen and learn what’s behind the paper wizardry.

EDITOR’S NOTE: You can meet Matthew in person on Saturday, January 22nd, 2:30 p.m. at the Cedar Rapids Museum. Admission is free all day for Family Fun Day, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.. Make your own pop-ups, play dress-up, and enjoy a special fairy tale ballet performance. Matthew will also be available to sign books.

matthew reinhart, mowgli

Matthew Reinhart makes paper come alive with his colorful pop-up illustrations.

Claudia Petrick: Your pop-ups make you gasp and blurt out, “Oh, wow!!” How do you infuse the wow factor into something that’s essentially just paper?

Matthew Reinhart: I guess I infuse the “wow” factor with just paper using a regular pair of scissors, lots of tape, and hours of trial and error! The challenge I constantly face is not only to make something cool and exciting, but to take the reader to another place beyond the borders of the page. I’ve had years to understand how different mechanisms work together and move, but I never really quite know if a pop-up will surprise or “wow” a reader until I actually build it by hand myself first. It’s very important for me to continue growing and changing as an artist and paper engineer. Recycling designs is boring! I also figure that since it takes a lot to impress me with when it comes to pop-ups, if I am impressed, I figure other people might be, too. 

You live in the most fabulous urban environment in America—New York City. Do you find inspiration in your surroundings, or do you access more of an internal world for your creations?

I totally find inspiration all around me here every single day! In the warmer months, I ride my bike through the city each day before work in new places so I can take pictures of what I see. Buildings, people, street art—anything really can spark an idea. I do love New York City—I’m very proud and happy that it’s my home. 

You’re smack-dab in the heart of high-art culture. Do you think people take art too seriously?

I think all art is “high art”! Whether it’s a oil painting, a marble statue, a magazine cover, a cereal box, a wall of graffiti, a handmade card from your nephew, a rhinestone-embroidered jacket, or a tricked-out Camaro, art is anything and everywhere everyday—and completely subjective!

That being said, I have a great deal of respect for many fine artists. Those who tackle very serious subjects intend for it to be taken seriously. Other artists laugh at the world around them—and I believe their artwork is equally significant, meaningful, and enjoyable. 

You and Robert Sabuda work as a team, and often share credit for your creations. What’s the secret to working together harmoniously? Do you each take charge of a certain area, or do you collaborate on everything?

Robert and I completed our final collaboration 2010, the finale to the Encyclopedia Mythologica series, Dragons & Monsters. For our prehistoric and mythological books, I took the helm writing, paper engineering, and making the final art, with Robert collaborating with pop-up designs and page layouts. There was always free exchange of ideas, whether it was how a pop-up worked or could be improved, the colors for artwork, or even the layout of text. 

Every day you work surrounded by color, patterns, shapes, characters, and fantasy worlds—that must be a dream come true! But there’s also the exacting and detailed conceptual work required for each pop-up. How do you muster the discipline for each project? What keeps you going?

Deadlines and my editor keep me going forward! Also, I’m a pretty driven individual and enjoy challenges. Even though it’s hard to start a new project, it forces me to think differently and learn new information. Also, I’m a workaholic and lucky enough to I love what I do for a living!

You’ve said it can take 20 or 30 prototypes before you get a single pop-up right, and it can take a whole year to produce a book. Have you ever gotten stumped by something you wanted to create?

I’ve never gotten completely stumped about something I wanted to create, but at times I modify what I want to coincide with what can physically be created.  There’s always a way to make what you want, in some way—it’s just a matter of changing your perspective a bit.

Your dad was in the Navy, so you spent your childhood living in various spots around the country. How long did you spend in Iowa, and do you still have family here? Any memories of living here?

Even though I was born in Cedar Rapids, we lived in Iowa City from about 3 to 6 years old, and then moved back to Cedar Rapids for my second grade year at Erskine Elementary School—in Mrs. Semeroth’s 1977-78 class, in fact.

Despite several moves, my family made visits to Iowa each year. I still do, because quite a bit my family still lives there. My mother’s family is Lebanese and was based primarily in Cedar Rapids, so I have many very fond memories as a child visiting with my very large, very loving extended family. When I was young, the center of our family and community was Saint George Orthodox Church (then located near downtown Cedar Rapids), which was across the street from my Gramma Helen’s store and great-Grandma Thelma’s house. Many happy times there!  Also, my father’s family consisted mainly of farmers, so I remember how exciting it was to trek out to the country to visit all my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. As a suburban kid, a trip to the farm with cows, pigs, chickens, and horses was incredible. 

Given the complexity and sophistication of your pop-ups, who do you think enjoys your work more, kids or adults?

Everybody, I hope—pop-up book fans exist from one to 100.  Children these days are pretty sophisticated, so I think the adults are even more astounded sometimes.  

“Wizards of Pop: Sabuda & Reinhart,” was organized by the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, Abilene, Texas. You can see it at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art through May 1, 2011.

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