Most schoolchildren know how to fold a page like this one into a hat or a boat. But while many consider it mere child's play, more and more artists are creating startlingly original origami that transcend the humble craft.
While adhering to the basic rule of leaving the starting sheet of paper intact (no cutting!), origami artists are more than merely talented folders, asserts Paul Jackson, who lives outside Tel Aviv. His so-called one crease series of works, a sort of a minimalist origami, has an animated quality, as if the paper were contorted by and floating in the wind. Recently he has produced more complex folded abstractions of seashells, seed heads and bacteria.
Some distinctive examples are on view in Origami Masterworks, a show that has been extended four times since opening in September 2003 at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. "It's been extremely popular," said Rob Sidner, the assistant director of Mingei. "Most people did origami when they were kids, but they are blown away by this."
Across the country, origami artists are also attracting the attention of small gallery dealers and private collectors, who commission pieces that may sell for thousands of dollars.
Origami artists say their work may be more accessible than most art forms because most people have mastered at least one basic design. "Who hasn't made a paper airplane?" Michael LaFosse, who is known for his highly representational origami animals, said. While others may be content to use ordinary construction, tissue or butcher paper in their work, LaFosse achieves much of his effect by making his own paper in his studio in Haverhill, Mass.
He boils banana leaves, flax, cotton and linen to a pulp and presses it into strong sheets, adjusting the proportions to create different textures and dyeing the paper with mixtures of permanent pigments that will not fade over time. As a result, the skin of his origami frogs seems realistically slick and green and the hide of his piglet is pink and leathery.
Vincent Floderer, who lives in St. Aulaire in the Bordeaux region of France, is known for combining traditional folding techniques with what he calls crumpling, or crushing the paper to create intricate patterns of lines. Many of his pieces recall natural forms like sea urchins, mushrooms and stalactites. His work has been widely exhibited in France, the United States and Japan, where he is in demand as a kind of performance artist.
David Brill, chairman of the British Origami Society, a group of more than 700 enthusiasts, said that watching Floderer fold at gallery openings and origami conventions was a little like watching a ballet dancer. "His movements are exceedingly elegant," he said.
But for Brill and others, no one surpasses the grace of the master, Akira Yoshizawa. Yoshizawa, 93, is considered a national treasure in his native Japan, where origami is thought to have originated in the sixth century. He has been exhibiting his work since the 1950s and is probably the first paper folder widely acclaimed as an artist.
Regardless of style, most modern origami art seems to be in dialogue with Yoshizawa's largely representational repertory, which includes strikingly accurate folded self-portraits. LaFosse's animals, the complex folded masks of Eric Joisel in France, the simple spiraling forms of Tomoko Fuse in Japan -- all are clearly rooted in Yoshizawa's aesthetic. "If I were to compare him to a painter, I would say Yoshizawa is our Rembrandt," LaFosse said.
Though Yoshizawa no longer creates much, he has spoken out in recent years against origami artists who rely on technology to fashion their works.
Robert J. Lang of Alamo, Calif., for example, who quit his job as a physicist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab three years ago to become a full-time origami artist, has written a computer program that generates folding patterns to help him create such complicated pieces as a footlong koi fish covered with myriad overlapping scales. "The computer brings me to a starting place where artistic expression then takes over," Lang said. Take his whimsical folded German cuckoo clock, complete with stag head and pendulum, on display at the Mingei.
Still, most contemporary origami artists say that their work evolves through intuition rather than computation. "I never know what I'm going to make until I get there," said Jackson, the artist near Tel Aviv. The shadows that develop as he begins to fold are a guiding inspiration. The result, unlike traditional origami, is hard if not impossible to reproduce.
In another twist, Ruthanne Bessman of Madison, Wis., folds and interlocks hundreds of classical geometric shapes to create modular pieces with a kaleidoscopic quality. "I see myself as a musician interpreting a piece of music written by someone else," said Bessman, who is also the host of a classical music call-in request show on Wisconsin Public Radio. In Houston, Joan Son also relies on traditional designs to create tableaus with a sense of motion, like swirling butterflies or a flock of cranes taking flight.
Ultimately, of course, origami art is inherently ephemeral, since paper is fragile and folded paper even more so. Many artists said they were experimenting with chemical preservatives and stiffening agents to make their pieces last longer.
But Jackson said he liked the idea that his work would last decades rather than a millennium. "After all, it is the most fleeting things in life, like a kiss or a sunset, that are the most beautiful," he said.