Indian paper artist Keerthana Ramesh had always wanted to try her hand at making a pop-up book, but by the time she turned 25, she thought she was already too old to learn something new. Thankfully, she was able to shirk this misconception this past year, and she used her newfound free time brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown in India to dedicate herself to learning pop-ups, assembling a pop-up book entitled My Friends Are Missing—all at the ripe old age of 29.
When Keerthana first cut her teeth as a paper artist about ten years ago, she says that the resources to learn pop-ups weren’t as readily available. “I just tried to figure it out on my own, and I couldn’t,” she admits, “but I kept wanting to come back to it.” Over time, more and more pop-up artists began sharing process videos and tutorials online, which provided critical educational avenues for folks like Keerthana.
“A lot of these absolutely incredible masters of paper engineering and master pop-up book experts started making videos on YouTube, particularly Matthew Reinhart,” she says. “He made these incredible books on Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and Star Wars. He’s one of my heroes.”
With the resources now available for Keerthana to fulfill her desire of learning pop-ups, all she needed was to find the time and determination to dive into the craft. Cue COVID-19.
“In April or May, India was going through a second wave, and it was really horrible. We got phone calls nearly daily or twice a day about a family friend passing away,” Keerthana shares. “And this was also a time when projects were lagging. I was feeling very down, and I just needed something to help to keep me sane. So I thought, you know what, this is the perfect time for me to learn how to make pop-ups.”
To maintain her motivation and to hold herself accountable, Keerthana looked to the structure of a 30-day challenge. “I know that if I don’t turn learning a skill into a project, I would never actually learn it,” she admits. She had previously known about a non-profit art project to raise awareness about endangered species called One Million One Month, which was to launch on May 21 on International Endangered Species Day, and decided it was the perfect fit. “I love animals, I love wildlife, I love spending time outdoors in nature,” she says, “but because I couldn’t do that either, I thought this is the perfect project to learn how to make pop-ups, and this is the perfect challenge because it’s a subject matter I also care about.”
Keerthana has done challenges like this before with 36 Days of Type, and the regimented nature and cadence of similar projects benefited her. “Doing one pop-up every single day gave me the constraint to make sure I’m not too much of a perfectionist,” she says. “It gave me a constraint to learn something and move on. I still spent a good five to seven hours each day per pop-up. So it was still a full-time commitment.”
Of course, there were moments throughout the month when Keerthana wanted nothing more than to throw in the Exacto knife. “After the third or the fourth day, it started weighing on me, and I kept thinking maybe I should quit now,” she says, “but I kept going because I want to publish a pop-up book at some point in my life, and I knew that the first thing that I need for that is the skill. So that’s what kept me going.”
Keerthana was also motivated by the warm reception she received from her friends and artistic community on Instagram. “It was just absolutely incredible to hear from people telling me every day how much they love the project. I reconnected with so many of my older friends and teachers from back when I was in design school. It was like running a marathon, with people giving me cookies and water and Gatorade.”
Mainly though, the ultimate force propelling Keerthana forward was the promise of crossing the finish line and putting all of the pop-ups together in a single finished product. “That was the main thing that kept me going,” she adds. “Wanting to bind it together.”
The response My Friends Are Missing has elicited was a complete shock to Keerthana, who simply viewed the exercise as a means of teaching herself the basics of pop-ups. Pop-up books aren’t as popular in India either, so she thought being there would also keep the project under the radar.
“This was never supposed to turn into anything,” she says. “I didn’t expect any of it because this was me sitting alone in my bedroom, learning how to make pop-ups. I didn’t think anyone else would be interested in this. After I bound the book together, that was one of the most insane weeks of my entire life. So many people reached out to me asking where they could purchase the book or if they could commission one of them.” Now, Keerthana is searching for a publisher in hopes of making it into a commercial pop-up book.
What started as a humble pandemic project for Keerthana to learn the skills needed to publish a pop-up book one day has now unfolded beyond her wildest expectations. The pop-up book she’s always dreamt of publishing now might even be a reality.