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 51 years.  During most of this time, I was content to fold models published in books. Somehow origami helped ease my dyslexic connection with spatial surroundings.  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 became a library of information to help me design origami animals, not just their appearance, but also their behavior, and later, their habitat.
Why work in paper?
Paper has properties that most closely matches what I want to say with my art; which is to encourage people to appreciate nature, and in so doing, use its products in a sustainable manner. Paper looks fragile and temporary, just like the status of the animal populations and their habitat that I studied. It is pliable enough to capture the essence of my subjects in a reasonable amount of time, and it is restrictive to inhibit over expression. It is found most everywhere in the world, and comes in an enormous range of colors, weights, and stiffness. What is not available can be made by painting 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 with dampened thicker 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 enabling 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 pose them in the moment before something happens, as they react to danger, or start taking a step. I spend up to a quarter of my time with a model, twisting and pulling as much natural behavior as I can out of my subject (cactus and owls). Sometimes I wet the model and tie it up to dry several times during the folding process to achieve what I want to.

Many origami designers are driven to create increasingly complex models with appendages that come out of the paper edges. What intrigues me most are the curved surfaces I can create out of the middle of the paper.  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 have a sculptural approach to folding as opposed to the standard way to make an animal (eg., fold a flat symmetrical model, and then shape its body and limbs to be more 3-dimensional). Often the model at this stage has limited dimension and range of motion.

 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.
My models are both 3 dimensional and asymmetrical earlier in the folding process to achieve a more lifelike result. This also requires that I put folds “right about here” without obvious references because it looks right, not because edges line up. To get curved surfaces, I create tension in the model. One way I do this is to purposely design the model with less paper than convenient for its features. This forces me to wrestle paper from other parts of the model to say get the right leg length. The result is a larger model for its paper size, and a more 3 dimensional model. The tension between its elements breathes some life into the finished piece.

I like color, so most 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.

Finally, I like to experiment with mixed media. By including supporting elements of sheet metal, wood, plastic resin coating, etc. my art can be large size or placed on a wall, and last for decades.

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?
It is one thing to come up with original designs and it is another to be able to teach it to someone.  The later often requires that I redesign folding sequences to allow a model’s steps to be followed.  Teaching then takes two courses of action. 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 try not to intervene at a step unless the result would be so unsatisfactory that no enjoyment would be had for the folder. 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 the model. My experience with learning from poorly drawn diagrams is frustration. 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.

Download some Bernie Peyton diagrams here:
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