Colette Fu

Colette Fu Colette Fu

Interview conducted by Fiona Baler (Pitzer '23).

Colette Fu is a photographer and pop-up artist who received her MFA in Fine Art Photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2003, and then went on to complete many artists residencies across the Globe. She has designed work for many clients including Louis Vuitton, Vogue China, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2014, Fu attended a 6-month artist residency at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel in Shanghai, where she continued her We are Tiger Dragon People project, an extensive visual exploration of China’s ethnic minorities. Fu has received many awards for her work, including a Fulbright Research Fellowship to China, the 2018 Meggendorfer Prize for best paper engineered artist book, and many grants from various art and design organizations. Fu also teaches artmaking as a way to give voice to marginalized communities through pop-up paper engineered projects.

How has the transition to working at home and all the other changes that have occurred in the last month been for you, and how has it impacted your work?

I teach a lot of workshop intensives in the summer. As a full-time working artist, I’m used to not having a stable income and dealing with last-minute cancellations.  And while everything has been canceled, the upside is that most of my events will be rescheduled for next summer.  All of my visiting artist gigs have also been put on hold, as well as a book fair at the Museum of the Americas.  Theoretically, I could be producing work while we are ordered to stay at home, but It’s been harder than I expected to focus. My parents moved to Philly in October. They are in their 80’s, so making sure they are OK and provided for has made me more anxious.

As things started shutting down, I ordered ink, paper, adhesives and other random art supplies to work on a couple of editions that I have been meaning to finish. 6 weeks later, I have only finished two copies- and one I had to for a sale that came at a time when I needed it most! At the beginning of this pandemic, with all the financial loss and insecurities coming clearer, I questioned what I am doing. I’m assuming a lot of people felt somewhat useless and nonessential and thought deeper about their self-worth.  But as we are more than a month in, I’m reminded that yes, making it as an artist (however so slim) is a luxury, as the UPS Store owner man told me a few weeks ago, that I should be more grateful for, and I am glad that I’m doing something where I feel I am positively contributing to society.

How did you become interested in photography and using it to create some of your first pop up books such as Balls and Rehab?

Growing up (in New Jersey), I was not proud of my Chinese identity. I barely graduated from college with a French Language and Literature degree from the University of Virginia. After graduation, I went to my mother's birthplace in Yunnan Province in Southwest China to teach English at Yunnan Nationalities University in the capital, Kunming.  While in Yunnan I discovered that my great-grandfather had not only helped establish the university where I was teaching but was a member of the powerful black Yi tribe, and governor and general of Yunnan during the transitional years of WWII. I stayed in Yunnan for three years and traveled all over taking photos with a camera my sister gave me to show photos to my family back home what life was like over there. It was these experiences that helped me find a new sense of pride and identity and encouraged me to return home and study photography formally.

Eventually, I got my MFA in fine art photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology. My thesis project was called “Photo Binge” which began as seven large-scale digital collages displayed in lightboxes that are typically used for advertisements (ironically, they were discarded and replaced with thinner ones). I chose sports related backgrounds as a reference to bone, sweat, desire, spectatorship, competition, achievement, and the repetition of continually judging, evaluating, and comparing. The work satirized an urban, commodity-driven culture that focuses on food, health, nutrition, beauty, and the surface of things. So different than the world I experienced with the indigenous peoples in China.

After RIT, I went on a series of artist residencies where I started making pop-up books by taking apart ones that I bought and analyzing them.  The images in Balls and Rehab were images I had used in my thesis project.  I created Balls while artist in residency at Visual Studies Workshop, and Rehab while artist in residence at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. I volunteered as a photographer for Sara City Workout Mania (Balls), and took photos of Rehab when I was an artist in residence at the Alden B Dow Center for Creativity.  I guess you could say these books are sort of a travelogue and pop-up diary of what I had learned about pop-up book structures at the time.

Is your art a way that you explore your cultural background and identity, or do you see its function more as a way to share your culture with others?

I started We are Tiger Dragon People with a Fulbright Scholarship in 2008.  It was actually an extension of my interests and travels that I had begun 15 years before.  The project was a way for me to explore my own cultural background and to share it with others. Learning about my cultural heritage helped me ground myself and my hope is that I can inspire others to explore their backgrounds, should they need to!   Having experienced much racial prejudice growing up, and as a teenager when we moved from New Jersey to Southwest Virginia, I thought it was important to share with the world that cultures are not monolithic.  There is great diversity within what we think of as China and most everywhere else!

I noticed that Wa Hair Swinging Dance pop-up book and other works create a very dynamic visual experience, is movement something you focus on heavily in your work?’

My first pop-up books did not explore movement as much as my later work. Coming from a background in collage, my earlier works focused more on dimension and how they would look on exhibit. When I created the World's Largest Pop-up Book for an exhibition, the movement was very important because I wanted to awe the audience as they watched the giant book open or close.

I saw that you have a lot of community-based work, why is it important to you to engage the community through art specifically?

I moved to Philly with the intent of studying art therapy at Drexel University.  Creating art is very therapeutic for me, I would go crazy, or get crazier if I could not make things. I wanted to facilitate and share this experience with others.  I strongly believe community art brings people together and often creates healthier, happier more vibrant neighborhoods. At the same time, it connects me to people that I would not normally interact with, and vice versa, and mutually informs and enlightens us. 

How would you describe your process? How do you begin to formulate an idea for a new piece?

I will specifically describe my process for the books in my We are Tiger Dragon People series.

Each book in this series focuses on different aspects of minzu (ethnic minority) culture in China.  At home, I’ll start researching online, and occasionally in books.  In 2008 I was able to start the project with funding from a Fulbright fellowship.  I’ve secured a few grants in between and have created many of my pop-ups at fully funded artist residencies like MacDowell, Yaddo, and the Vermont Studio Center.  In 2014 I continued the project while artist in residence at the Swatch Peace Art Hotel in Shanghai for 6 months.  I usually do not know what I’m going to create and just take photographs that interest me.  When I return back to the US, I then go through all of my photos and see how I can create a story. I find that investing so much time and money on just going to these places in China, motivates me to create something. Feedback on Instagram and Facebook has been very helpful in my process.  I create a 2D collage in Photoshop and then print all the parts out in black and white draft mode and then come up with a paper engineered mockup. Ink is expensive and I’ve also developed an allergy to the inks I use. Eventually, I make a color mockup that will lead to the final piece that will go on exhibit somewhere.  I think the hardest part is creating the story, the popping up part is not the most difficult part. 

Colette Fu