Origami Now, Origami Wow

Alison Morris - June 25, 2007

About two years ago I was summoned away from my desk at work by a woman named Kyoko Kondo. She’d stopped in to let me know that the Fiske Elementary School in Wellesley would soon be hosting world-renowned origami master Michael LaFosse whose studio, Origamido, is located in Haverhill, north of Boston.  During our delightful conversation Kyoko suggested that we might want to be sure we had some origami books in stock (in particular books by Michael), as kids might come in asking for them. A few days later she returned with Michael himself, who was every bit as charming as Kyoko and wins extra points for being a former bookseller! I couldn’t help thinking that if the entire origami community was as nice as these two people, I might be in the wrong paper-related industry.

Fast-forward to last Sunday, when Gareth and I took a drive up to Salem, Massachusetts, to see the Joseph Cornell exhibit currently on display at the fabulous Peabody-Essex Museum. I’d been looking forward to seeing this impressive, thoughtfully curated exhibit for months but can’t deny the fact that it was ultimately overshadowed for me by a much smaller one we happened to stumble upon during its opening weekend — "Origami Now!" If you’ve got an art lover or math whiz in your family, I suggest that you pack up the car and make your may to the Peabody-Essex sometime between now and June 8, 2008. (Fortunately you’ve got almost a year!)

As Gareth and I entered the museum and noticed the beautiful origami butterflies suspended from the ceiling in the entry hall, I glanced to a table at my left. Who should be giving kids origami lessons but Michael LaFosse, who turns out to have been the "Origami Now!" exhibition advisor. I filled Gareth in on how I happened to meet him, made a mental note to say hello later and the two of us went immediately to the "Origami Now!" exhibit, which floored me.

Let me just say that I’ve folded my share of sailor hats and paper cranes, but what origami masters can produce today with a single sheet of paper is stuff your average folder can’t begin to approximate. The pieces on display in this exhibit are ART in the truest sense of the word. A formerly dull dollar bill practically breathes in its new pelican form. A paper schooner disappears under the tentacles of a paper giant squid. An entire alligator appears, each scale on its foot-long back a perfect triangular fold. As Gareth and I moved slowly from case to case on the exhibit floor, I would periodically turn around to take in the gaping mouths and pointing fingers of kids and adults alike. All of us were caught under the spell of magical paper creations like Michael LaFosse’s "Wilbur the Piglet," pictured below:

My favorite thing about this exhibit is the fact that it’s accessible for all ages and has an inherently "encouraging" way about it. Unlike elaborate oil paintings or chiseled stone sculptures, these pieces almost beg you to try your hand at imitation. They elicit that "Wow. Maybe I could do that…!" response from admirers young and old. The ages of some of the exhibitors or the number of years they’ve been folding validate these particular longings in younger patrons. The "American Giant Millipede" was folded by Kenneth Baclawski Jr., age 18. Corey Comenitz, the designer and folder of "Pulp Fiction" (a bearded man, seated, reading a book) is a year younger. The tags on many exhibits explain that their creators began doing origami as children. Michael LaFosse is among these — he discovered origami at age five and was designing original models by age eleven.

I also loved the fact that the marriage between math and art is so perfectly evident here. I’d never seen the crease patterns for a finished origami model before and therefore never fully appreciated the complex geometry involved in pieces that often seem too organic to have an origin of predrawn angles, tesselations on a plane. Did you know that origami can be linked directly to contemporary airbag designs, or that architects are looking at origami as they attempt to design buildings that could "bounce back" after collapse? I certainly didn’t.

Gareth and I were getting lunch when I realized that Kyoko Kondo and her husband were right in front of us in line! Over lunch she told us more about the origami community, the activities of Origami USA, and the prevalence of origami in math circles. As it turns out, MIT has its own origami club. Their website even includes photos of their visit to Origamido, which will (unfortunately for us New Englanders) soon be relocating to Hawaii.

Fortunately, you don’t need a local origami studio or this museum exhibit to get you started on the road to mastery. All you really need is an origami book, some paper, a lot of patience, and a little play time. Your local bookstore ought to be able to provide at least one of the above!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *