Origami, More Than Paper Critters

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The New York Sun

Origami, a more than 2,000-year-old traditional Japanese art form, is now considered by many as only a pastime for young children. But the new play “Animals Out of Paper” by Rajiv Joseph, which opened August 4 at the Second Stage Theatre Uptown, presents its modern form: an art field whose principles are used in the complex designs of automobile air bags, collapsible telescopes, or, as in the play, shunts for open-heart surgery.

The play’s set portrays the cluttered studio of an origami folder, Ilana, whose life is as disheveled as the space she lives in. For props, Mr. Joseph turned to the organization OrigamiUSA, a 1,700-member group of folders (a name for anyone who makes origami) based in the American Museum of Natural History. The members of OrigamiUSA collaborate via a Web-based Listserv and an annual convention held at the Fashion Institute of Technology. After discovering the group, Mr. Joseph sent a request to the Listserv asking folders to donate or lend some of their works for the play. More than 20 people responded, and, in true origami fashion, a set was assembled as a collaboration among a diverse group of skilled folders.

In set designer Beowulf Boritt’s creation, paper is strewn across the floor and Ilana’s desk, and a shelf in the corner is overflowing with colorful works. In the play, relationships develop between Ilana, a high school math teacher, and the teacher’s brilliant student, who becomes Ilana’s origami apprentice.

Speaking with a selection of these folders uncovers a field somewhat difficult to define, suspended between art and math. In order to succeed, one must possess agile hands, an aesthetic sense, and a knack for solving puzzles. A former software engineer living outside Boston, Jeanine Mosely, lent Second Stage several pieces, including an “Orb” and a “Bud,” both modular works (meaning they were made from multiple pieces of paper) in elegant geometric shapes, about 1 foot by 1 foot. Ms. Mosely specializes in making abstract, curved shapes out of paper. Using computational geometry, she calculates the arc of a curve she needs her paper to bend in on a computer, prints it, and scores the paper using an embossing tool before she begins folding. She said her technical background has enabled her to create more complex models than traditional origami folders.

“In most forms of art, the artist creates a work, and people view it,” Ms. Mosely said. “In origami you create a work for other people to reproduce it. In that way, it is a little more like creating music. An original designer can create a design and then somebody else can take it and make something better.”

Saadya Sternberg is a folder who lives in Israel and is known for his representational works, mainly of human heads. For the play, Mr. Sternberg submitted a horse, a source of pride because it was created by relatively few origami steps, yet has detail. Mr. Sternberg said that origami is about “getting the most out of the least, or starting with a simple piece of flat paper and getting mind-blowing results.” Nearly all of his pieces are made from only one sheet of paper.

Mr. Sternberg also spoke of origami as an intimate process of relating to other folders. “It’s not just that we speak the same language,” he said. “When you follow someone else’s folds, it is like going over their brain with your finger.”

A professor of computer science at Western Connecticut State University, Rona Gurkewitz, lent what she calls a dimpled dodecahedron for the play (a non-folder might call it a star). Ms. Gurkewitz spent three hours constructing its 90 modules, which are folded in two different ways, and joined to create a polyhedron shape. She designed the piece about 20 years ago.

Ms. Gurkewitz is the author of four origami books: “3-D Geometric Origami: Modular Polyhedra,” “Modular Origami Polyhedra,” “Multimodular Origami Polyhedra: Archimedeans, Buckyballs and Duality,” and “Beginner’s Book of Multimodular Origami Polyhedra: The Platonic Solids” (all Dover Publications), all of which articulate how to make complex origami models through a step-by-step process and the use of diagrams. She said that learning and teaching origami has made her a better professor because of the teaching principles that are intrinsic to it.

Delrosa Marshall contributed two works — a 12-piece indented sphere, and a 14-piece wheel — but was somewhat apprehensive about participating in the project. “Because a play is commercial in nature, one has to be careful in terms of folding someone else’s work and submitting it,” she said. In the play’s program, all the contributors are credited, and if they were not the designers of the work, the creator is cited.

Ms. Marshall’s concern is a conflict that arises frequently in origami, given the fact that most folders start with simple designs that are considered common knowledge among folders and have no known creator. Folders will build on the model, combining it with other forms, to create a work that is their own. The question remains, however, whether any work is truly original. For most folders, this is in fact the welcome essence of origami, and only becomes problematic when someone tries to sell a piece. “People have remarked that until the field is recognized by the art world and there is actual money to be made, the debate will continue,” Ms. Mosely said.

Mr. Sternberg echoed her thoughts. “Origami has benefited from the fact that there hasn’t been much of a market for it,” he said. “The commercial aspects have not yet poisoned the field.”

The New York Sun

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