Origami as Art

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Most origami folders today would not make origami art that uses glue, support materials, coatings or cuts made in the paper. Some extremists would only use one square sheet of paper.

In my view these definitions are focused on what is origami, but not on what is art. If origami designers are truly concerned with making art pieces, they will be criticized under the criteria that all artists share, regardless of media. Questions such as “why folding, why paper, why not sculpt it in wood, why that size and color?”…etc. become relevant when making art. If the artistic intent is improved by cuts, glue, round shaped paper, etc., then it is justified. Whether it is origami or not becomes less relevant to the success of an artistic expression. I like to push the limits of what origami can express by sometimes coating paper with paint, casting resin in paper or plastic molds, or mixing folded paper parts with wood and wire. These decisions are driven by the image I want to make and its permanence, not the pleasure of origami purists. So far I have not made cuts in paper, but if I did, there would be a reason for doing it. I reference all techniques and materials in the description for each piece.

How did you start folding?
I started folding when I was 9 years old.  My step-father Robert Olney brought home Isao Honda’s book “How to Make Origami” and said “this might interest you.”  Little did he know what pleasure he has given me these past 58 years.  But it did so much more for me.  I am dyslexic.  Spelling and reading were arduous for me.  The step by step process of origami that broke difficult tasks into achievable increments taught me how to succeed in school and beyond.  Sometime around 1995 I tried designing models.  I had been winding up almost 20-years of research as a field biologist, studying threatened creatures like spectacled bears in the Andes. Bears were the subject of my first 20-30 models. My observations and close contact with animals in their natural habitat encouraged me to design not just their appearance, but also their behavior, and later, their habitat.
Why work in paper?
Paper has a lot of properties that make it a very desirable medium.  Its perceived properties match what I want to say with my art; that nature and the resources we rely on are fragile; and temporary if we don’t treat them sustainably.  Operationally, paper is thin and pliable enough to capture small details of my subjects in a reasonable amount of folding time.  However, the mechanics of designing something from a single uncut square restricts over expression.  It forces the creator to choose just those features that support their story, and eliminate or suggest others.  Paper is found everywhere in the world, and comes in an enormous range of colors, weights, and stiffness.  What is not locally available can be made by coloring paper, and/or by sandwiching several sheets together in a process known as backcoating.  One of the challenges of working in paper is to create work that is permanent. Over the past 10+ years I have come up with several successful solutions to this problem. These include folding dampened thick paper that when dry becomes hard (wet folding), coating the finished surface with acrylic or plastic resin, embedding wire or wooden armatures in the model, filling cavities with material to prevent them from being crushed, and designing  my sculptures to be hung on a wall.
How is your art different from that of other folders?

My colleagues say it is the natural behavior I express in my subjects.  I am more interested in telling a story than creating recognizable subjects.  To me art is all about narrative, not an excuse for craft.   I spend up a quarter to half my time twisting and pulling as much natural behavior as I can out of my paper subjects (cactus and owls).  Often I wet the model and tie it up to dry several times during the folding process to achieve what I want to.

My process of folding is different than what most people practice.  During a time in 90s when many origami designers were driven to create increasingly complex models with appendages that come out of the paper edges, I was intrigued by the curved surfaces I could create out of the middle of the paper.  This required that I not use standard flat-folded bases, but used crimps to achieve three dimensions in the model early in the folding process.  Folding 3 D models is done in the air, not on a flat surface.  Folds are most often put “right about here”, because they look right, not because edges line up.  The model is under tension for most of the time it is folded.  Often I would purposely design the model with less paper than convenient for its features to create this tension and breathe more life in the finished piece.  The most important folding hand is often the one inside the model that creates the shape the other hand presses the paper against to sculpt the features.  I put the final placement of an animal’s limbs in the initial folds, not at the end of the process when their movement is most restricted by other folds.  Subsequently I have more asymmetry in my designs.  I don’t like raw edges to appear on the backs of my creations.  Lately I have managed to avoid even creasing the paper here.  Instead of becoming more complex, my creations have fewer and fewer folds. This is because the real strength of origami in my view is in its inherent simplicity. I said so to Vanessa Gould who mentioned that comment in the conclusion of her documentary ‘Between the Folds.”

I work in larger size with a wider range of color than most origami designers.  It has taken me decades to make and support objects a meter or more in one dimension.  I regularly wet-fold squares of 300 g water color paper over a meter wide.  Vines and snakes made from 2-5 meter long rectangles are supported by wire, cotton, sheet metal, or wood armatures inside them.  Both techniques enable my art to last for decades and also to be displayed on a wall.

When I can’t find the right colored paper for a subject, I will color it with charcoal, paint, or ink.  Many of my models express both sides of a bi-colored piece of paper. This places additional challenges for designing creations. To change color, either paper edges have to be turned over, or the interior has to be expressed somewhere. Sometimes the color change comes from a fortunate accident.  For example, my elephant design required two corners of the square to be hidden in the body.  “What could be made from these corners?” I pondered. “Two more tusks?” Then I remembered seeing baby elephants in East Africa nestled between the legs of their mothers. By folding half the baby from each corner and reversing the color, I achieved a more compelling creation.[/notice]

Why is origami art so expensive?
Purchasers of origami art are not just purchasing something valued by the hours it takes to make a piece. They are also purchasing the days to months it took to design it and the decades of learning how to fold it properly and preserve it. If one added up these later costs the return on the investment by the artist would be worth pennies per hour.
How do I teach origami?
At conventions and at the Children’s Hospital in Oakland, I teach classes in how to fold models by first demonstrating each step and then making sure each folder has achieved it. I use oversized pieces of paper that everyone can see, and draw the folds on them with a felt tip pen.  I try not to intervene with a folder’s attempt at a step unless the result would seriously compromise the finished product.  I show the step on my own demonstration paper multiple times in different areas of the classroom, and only show the step on a folder’s model if they want me to.  It is especially important for children who are ill to experience the joys of achieving something on their own.

The second way I teach is by diagramming each step of a model’s process. People get frustrated from  poorly drawn diagrams. Consequently I spend enormous amounts of time making the best drawings I can for a folder. I use a lot of shading to render the steps in three dimensions and often show intermediate images stages of a step .

Download some Bernie Peyton diagrams here:
Red Santa