In Shawn Sheehy’s handcrafted Welcome to the Neighbor-wood: A Pop-Up Book of Animal Architecture, eight paper sculptures of critters that build their own homes come to life in three dimensions with the turn of a page. An artist’s proof of the book and nine white paper models–delicately engineered paper studies of, among others, a snail in its shell, a honeybee in its waxy comb, and a spider in its web–are currently on display at Vespine Gallery, the Pilsen space that Sheehy and three other artists started last year. It means “like a wasp”–an insect that makes its home from paper and clay, the two media showcased by the gallery.
“Insects can do things that humans just can’t,” says Sheehy of his subjects. “A Potter wasp reaches a certain level of maturity and is just hardwired to start building. She doesn’t know why she does it, she just does it. Termites build structures that would be miles high if they were human, and solar heated and ventilated. These are amazing feats of engineering that humans just can’t match.”
Sheehy’s always been fascinated by what he calls “the wild world.” Growing up in rural Indiana he marveled at the herons that flocked in huge numbers to a nearby marsh, and camped out in the backyard “a lot.” He graduated from Valparaiso University with a degree in elementary education in 1989, but didn’t much like his student teaching stint at a school in Chesterton. “I was spending so much energy getting kids to do things they didn’t want to do,” he says. He spent his first year out of school teaching English at the American School of Puebla in Mexico.
When he returned to Indiana the next year, Sheehy got a job at the YMCA’s Camp Tecumseh outside Lafayette. There, he taught outdoor education as part of the camp’s ecology program, as well as drawing and ceramics. Eventually, he says, “I got more interested in making children’s books than teaching with them.” In 1993 he moved to Madison to study graphic arts, supporting himself through figure modeling and freelance design gigs.
In 1997 he created his first pop-up book, Counting on the Marsh: A Nighttime Book of Numbers, in which prints depicting elements of a marsh’s ecosystem unfolded on fans of tissue-thin abaca paper. Each was captioned with an alliterative verse: “Four diaphanous dragonflies darting and dining at dusk.” “Eight stately cattails quietly colliding in contagion.” Shortly thereafter he moved to Chicago and enrolled at the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College, where he got his MFA last year. Currently he teaches papermaking at the center and serves as studio manager.
Books built with moving parts are as old as movable type. Ramon Llull’s 13th-century Ars Magna contained concentric discs designed to demonstrate logical equivalences between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim doctrines. Andreas Vesalius’ Renaissance encyclopedia of anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, used seven superimposed leaves to illustrate the human body. Sheehy’s personal collection of more recent work includes John J. Strejan’s 1991 attempt to render the dimensionally paradoxical lithographs of M.C. Escher through pop-ups, and Gary Greenberg’s tour de force, The Pop-Up Book of Phobias, whose entry for acrophobia–a pop-up skyscraper–is almost enough to inspire vertigo.
Sheehy’s currently working on a limited edition of ten copies of Welcome to the Neighborwood for collectors and museums, and though he hopes that a trade children’s publisher will consider a mass-produced edition, he insists that pop-ups aren’t just for kids. As fine art, he says, it’s a medium that rewards the viewer’s active participation. “Artists’ books are ideal for representing cycles,” he says. “Turning through a book and then repeating is itself a cycle.”
“Models for a Pop-Up” runs through January 10 at Vespine Gallery, 1907 S. Halsted. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday from 10 to 3, or by appointment. Call 773-316-0243 or e-mail email@example.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.