In Conversation with Sally Blakemore
Kyle Olmon:  We first met five years ago in Santa Fe. Can you tell me how you started creating pop-up and novelty
books and how you ended up in the Land of Enchantment?

Sally Blakemore: I bought my first pop-up book in 1979, at the age of 33, on my first date with my soon to be 3rd
husband Rusty Storbeck. Tor Lokvig’s paper engineering in
Haunted House by Jan Pienkowski totally intrigued
me and made me laugh with glee. I studied each mechanic, took it apart and put it back together again. It was my
education in the making. I bought twenty copies and gave them to everyone I knew. Growing up on Golden Books
and the Bible (a Southern Baptist upbringing turned me into a HINDU in 1988), I never really had pop-up books at
home in Ft. Worth, Texas.

I had just left Austin, Texas where I spent twelve years going to college, receiving a BFA in painting and sculpture
and attending two years of graduate school without being able to pass the Graduate Records Exam to get my
Masters! I always had trouble reading and taking tests. I was handicapped with a learning disability that had to do
with reading and words. Dyslexia and synesthesia had hindered my learning processes from my early childhood!

A total right brainer, after graduation I began, working for The University of Texas Zoology Department taking care
of 4,000 rats and later hired as a scientific illustrator for the department of crazy scientists. My younger brother,
Paul, took a job at National Public Radio in D.C. and I followed his departure from Texas, a place I didn’t realize I
could leave until I was 33 years old.

From Washington D.C., Rusty and I moved to New York City, my real dream city. I was hired as Art Production
Manager at
New York Magazine in 1983 after working at various theater magazines, type houses and working at
ad agencies illustrating and designing. I became acquainted with offset printing and intense deadlines, which I
have always loved. My father died while I was in New York and my grief made me want to leave the over
stimulation of the big city. Rusty and I left for New Orleans after a dream I had that seemed to contain a deep
message for me. The dream: I was digging a grave with a shovel and my dead father was sitting on the displaced
dirt smoking a cigarette. In the dream I said, “YOU have got to get in here! [pointing to the fresh grave]” He said,
“Can I please finish smoking this cigarette?” The dream was set in New Orleans.

I took it as a sign I needed to move there! Once in New Orleans, I was hired as a Creative Director for a graphics
studio named Design Partners, Inc. Two extremely creative women, Paulette Hurdlik (a Norwegian from
Minnesota) and Kathy Cain (a Cajun from Louisiana), owned the studio and their ideas were outside of normal ad
agency thinking and risk taking. They wanted to have fun with graphics and printing. We produced a 3-D annual
report for the Chamber of Commerce that was a huge hit. I developed a continued interest in novelty printing and
novelty ideas.

My first pop-up card design was for a friend who was just about to become a mom in New Orleans. I produced a
hilarious card showing (in a light-humored cartoon) a woman’s legs opening as the card opened, and a baby
popping out. I sent it to Hallmark Cards and they said something like, “How dare you send this to us! Totally
against our editorial policies!” After four years in New Orleans, a designer friend hired me to illustrate a series of
books in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My first trip to John Muir Publications solidified the move to Santa Fe. Rusty and I
fell in love with the landscape and the lifestyle. It was a dry climate and New Orleans was so hot and humid and
the fleas and mosquitoes drove us to madness, although we loved the rich culture there and African music
influence. We always had a lot of pets, i.e. dogs, cats and rats.

I found out through a designer friend from New York, that my other mentor Jim Diaz (who worked with Tor Lokvig
on
Haunted House) had moved his packaging company, White Heat Ltd. to Santa Fe and I saw it as a magical
sign that this was my chance to see how the pop-up world really worked. I was ecstatic. I literally knocked down
Jim’s door and was hired as the Art Director after some discussions. In just one and a half years I absorbed a
skeletal outline of how the novelty packaging companies were run. I picked up enough of the business,
accounting, marketing, printing, offshore press checks (involving thirteen international trips), paper engineering
and finding the vendors I needed in Colombia, Ecuador, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, China, and Hong Kong to
put together my own company with various partners. I now do it all on my own.
Somehow my passion for paper engineering and creative brainstorming was so strong that I overcame enormous
business and personal set backs. Obstacles included: business debt, a lawsuit, partnerships that didn’t work,
care of an aging mother, partnership breakups, upsizing and downsizing to match projects coming in, and the
expense of changing locations. My year and a half with Jim Diaz taught me that paper engineering was a lot more
fluid and intuitive than one might imagine. His advice to “just build a paper sculpture and then crush it to see what
the paper ‘wants to do’” freed me from protractors and measuring.
KO: How has your synesthesia impacted the way you look at and create children's novelty books?

SB: As a child I could not read at all. I liked to look at the comics and the weather map in the newspaper. It was
very humiliating. I could not make the leap from a printed word to the meaning of the word, or a written word on a
blackboard in comparison with a typeset word didn’t even resemble each other even if they were the same word. I
could not spell at all and phonetics didn’t really make sense. In the 1950’s the level of help offered for those who
couldn’t read was nil. There were drills and reading in front of a group which was nauseating to me. To get out of
class, I spent much of my time in the nurse’s office making hand made Q-Tips with little sticks and soft cotton
balls.

Example of the way I see type:
 [Then add moving rivers of color from top to bottom behind the type.]

If I tried to read at home as a child, I could only do it in a darkened room to cut down on the “colors” I saw on the
page. I was put in a “handicapped” reading program at seven and was literally afraid of books because of it.
Libraries gave me the willies and I never went in! I found that reading in a darkened room was better for me to see
the words and determine their meaning but then I had to endure the wrath of my mother saying, “YOU are going to
ruin your eyes! Quit reading in the dark! Now turn on that light!” I also found it easier to read the book turned so I
could read down the sentence almost like you read Cantonese. We had a St. James Bible in the house and
Jesus’ words were broken out into Red type set inside black type. By breaking up the page with paragraphs or
color changes, like in this Bible, it made it easier for me to grasp meaning even though the type was very small.

The way the disability shows up now, in my adult life is that a page of type organizes itself through two colors,
sometimes a red and a green, sometimes a blue and red or dark orange and brown, it depends what colors
appear in my peripheral vision for my brain to select. If the type is justified it is worse. If the type is around 12 point
on the page great bands of color running from the top of the page to the bottom start to interfere with the dual
colored words. Sometimes yellow flows behind the words and changes to orange on the outside of the text area.
The arbitrary colors of the words move into each other like two little trains, on the same track. As I read the red
words they move and infiltrate the next part of the line, pushing the word colors ahead. Music also triggers the
affects. As I play the marimba sometimes I see, as if it were the aurora borealis coming off the keys, color bands
that rise up like a steam from the keys, or run horizontally across the keyboard. It is a bizarre condition. Dyslexia
also hinders my writing and reading and words switch letters and numbers switch order.

While in college, my astute teachers recognized some kind of learning disability and they took me aside to
discuss the matter. They said, “We don’t know what you are going to do, but we feel you are going to do
something. It is obvious that college classes are just not making any sense to you, so why don’t you just attend
classes and we will just pass you. How does that sound?” I was very relieved, but still could not pass tests and
particularly the Graduate Records Exam. It is so strange that I somehow got into publishing!

One of the reasons I like to design pop-up books and illustrated books is to engage the child into a book’s covers
to allow them discover not only words set in small sections for easy grasp of information, but to get lost in images
and small conceptual ideas on the page. Their curiosity begins to pull them to look for meaning in words and
discovery of images for meaning. Many children cannot follow a long story and start to daydream in the middle of a
sentence. In illustrated books and pop up books the brain is engaged in the left and right lobes by the stimulus of
words and images and sculpture. It is OK to have a short attention span because you can still gain some
information or visual art in short spurts of discovery. I have met others with synesthesia who have “permanent”
colors for words and numbers. They always see the number or word in the same color no matter where it appears
or how it is typeset or written.
KO:  You always surround yourself with creative interesting people.  Didn’t you have an accountant that you trained
to be one of the lead paper engineers a few years back?  I  also remember a story about Herbie Mann, the
legendary jazz musician, hanging out at the studio.

SB:  In the early days of the studio, my first partner’s husband offered us a warehouse in his roofing company as
our studio. We had been working in a tiny bedroom in my house. Through my musical brother, we met Janeal
Arison, a local NY actress who was married to Herbie Mann, my favorite jazz flutist. We started developing a series
of books with Janeal and before Herbie died, we worked with him on a fabulous music game he wanted to
manufacture. An investment in our studio enabled us to move to a much larger building and hire a staff of 8 to
produce 8 books in one year.

After downsizing following the partnership breakup, I rented the old John Muir Building located in the former rail
yard where I had first worked in Santa Fe and began collaborating with freelance paper engineers on various
projects to keep costs down. At the same time I joined an African marimba ensemble and started performing on
the weekends with this big band of eight women. My husband and I both heard this style of music on a Friday night
when his best friend’s nine year old son was giving a recital. We immediately fell in love with the 1000 year old
Shona music from Zimbabwe and signed up for lessons. It was like a conversion from an ordinary world to a
world filled with polyrhythm and incredible chord changes. After three months, I was playing three times a week
and learning how my true process of learning really worked. It was something I had never discovered before. I
learn by hearing and observing patterns and rhythms and not by reading notes. Reading anything is too linear for
me.
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The event was so crowded that I had to stand outside in the
hallway, blocking a busy restroom door as I craned my neck
to get a better view of the podium.  I heard Sally’s distinctive
deadpan voice before I saw her, sporting fiery red pigtails
dyed to match the scarlet wallpaper of the communist
themed bar.  It would take more than a hairdo for Sally
Blakemore to blend in.  I had come to watch her share her
amazing story of an eventful first marriage during a literary
event promoting
Ask Me About My Divorce, a new collection
of essays that grew out of Sally’s work with
Mothering
magazine.
Kyle Olmon
New York, New York
After the readings, we lingered on a stoop, with a wonderful
young paper engineer named Colette Fu, as Sally
reminisced about some of the wild times she had living in
Manhattan.  As we spoke, I was reminded that she is one of
the most colorful characters in the pop-up book world.  
Recently, Sally was kind enough to consent to an interview
sometime between marimba lessons and showing kids
how to make art from trash.
I closed the studio after these three books were produced in Malaysia. Added financial difficulties were bogging
me down and started working for
Mothering magazine as an illustrator and book designer. My husband and I had
actually discussed moving back to New Orleans and we actually looked for property there just three months before
Katrina destroyed the city.
Mothering magazine made a nice little job for me, “just to keep me in Santa Fe” and then
Peggy O’Mara, the publisher along with the Pond Foundation, opened up my life by sending me to Kenya on an
assignment there with Candace Walsh, a writer and editor for
Ask Me About My Divorce the book we just read at
the KGB Bar in the East Village (five years after Africa). I came back from the trip so moved that I wanted to produce
The Vagina Monologues for Eve Ensler who financed the alternative rescue houses in Africa where the women
there are organized to stop Female Genital Mutilation, a 5,000 year old rite of passage. I created a pop-up book
called
Gurls investigating the sublimation of women worldwide, which was shown at the Victoria Price Gallery in
Santa Fe.

Another serious book I created in pop-up is titled
July 16, 1945: New Mexico’s History of the Atomic Bomb. The
Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe purchased this book for their rare book collection and another copy is in David
Moss’s collection in Jerusalem, Israel. Each hand made
Atomic Bomb book includes a detonator cable from the
actual atomic bomb that I purchased from the Black Hole, a laboratory scrap business run by Ed Grothus in Los
Alamos where the bomb was born. I dedicated the book to Mr. Grothus who died last year, as a tribute to his efforts
for peace.

My former landlord offered me a special price on a studio in the building I had left two years before and I took him
up on it and opened a school called WildMaker Art and Music School. I taught pop-up book design, painting,
sculpture and marimba to children five days a week. In the summers, I also taught two programs at the Santa Fe
Art Institute running classes in pop-up books and using trash as a raw material for children’s art.  Art begets art
and music begets music and we are surrounded by the most creative people I know doing all the things they love
to do. What more can you ask for as a creative right brainer?
The band needed a larger place to store instruments
and I needed to move out of the old John Muir building
so I rented a new studio. My beloved bookkeeper died
that year of cancer, and I hired a spunky, ex-nun who
was also studying marimba. I taught her paper
engineering on top of her bookkeeping skills and we
designed and produced
Aesop’s Fables with the
illustrator, Calef Brown for The Getty Museum and
another pop-up
Ancient Dwellings of the Southwest for
Western National Parks, which I illustrated. During the
same period of time a local service bureau called me
to see if I could produce a flat book in just three
months for an unnamed individual. I said, “Sure, send
him over!” An hour later, at my studio door appeared
my favorite childhood actor, Dean Stockwell. Dean’s
role in the movie, “The Boy with Green Hair” that I had
seen as a seven year old girl in Ft. Worth, literally
saved my childhood. I had bought the movie forty years
after the first viewing for my 47th birthday. Dean signed
it for me, while smoking a giant cigar. He had created
some incredible collages from old
LIFE magazines,
and as we worked on his book I convinced him that my band needed to play for his art opening in Taos, NM. The
band set up while the books were delivered just four hours before the opening! It was a magical end and I was
totally exhausted!