Thursday, July 08, 2021

Origami, From People Who Actually Understand It

DQ Origami Expert Garret Alley was gracious enough to write a guest post about how he discovered origami and enjoyed it over the years. 

He mentions NASA physicist Robert Lang, and he followed up by sending me a link to Lang's video: 11 Levels of Origami: Easy to Complex | WIRED.

From here on, it's Garret. 

I discovered origami back in elementary school. Our little library had a single book on origami, a yellowed, brittle book that must have been ancient even back then. This was back when you could look at the little card in the pouch on the inside cover of the book to see who last checked it out. It was... not a popular book. But to me it was fascinating! A gateway into a world where symmetry and math and logic and, yes, art, all came together.

To me, the way a flat sheet of paper, with just a few folds, became an object, grew appendages and flaps and pockets, was a source of endless curiosity.

I spent hours with that book, eschewing the traditional crane for the blow up "waterbomb". I could take a piece of any size paper, easily make it into a square (by folding the short edge down against the long edge and then tearing off the excess) and then fold it into the "preliminary base", tuck the sides into flaps, and then blow it up in under a minute. I thought it made me kind of cool, discovering this amazing thing that no one else in my school seemed to know. I liked knowing how to fold a few different models from memory.

I went through the book, from easy models like the crane and sampan to the slightly more difficult ones. I'm sad to admit that I never finished all of the models in the book. They got harder, the further you went into the book, and using thick binder paper and my 6th-grader's coordination and patience just wasn't enough to get me there.

Eventually I stopped renewing the book and origami went into the back of the mental closet, along with the rest of the things I tried, loved, and then set aside (I see you there, acoustic guitar).

Years later, in my late 20s, I found myself with some free time, a small amount of disposable income, and a need to... create? Somehow I ended up seeing Robert Lang's work with NASA, developing a way to fold up a solar panel or something. He explained how he came up with the folding process and it was just so... efficient and beautiful. It felt "right" when you watched it, ornate, but not showy.

Seeing that made me want to do origami again. I looked online and saw that the origami world was VAST compared to what the 6th grade, no such thing as the internet yet, version of me had known. People were making these amazing super complex animals, insects, creatures. Beetles and ants and spiders, with the correct number of appendages, in the proper proportion, from a single sheet of paper, with no cuts? Amazing. Dragons with wings and talons, every animal you could name, all there to be folded.

And the books! Hundreds of origami books, by authors from around the world. Silly models, useful objects like boxes or bookmarks or seed packages, useless things, amazing things. You could buy (or borrow!) a book written by a Japanese artist/creator or download a .pdf/image set of instructions created by a 14 year old folder in Europe. You could find anything, everything! And lots of the patterns were free.

I began collecting books and magazines filled with patterns and articles about origami and the various artists. British Origami Society? Check. Japanese language "Origami Tanteidan Magazine"? Yes please! If the folding instructions are done well enough, it transcends language. 90% of folding is either a "mountain" fold or a "valley" fold. Once you see that, you can get really far without being able to read the language. I fell in love with the sense the folds made, and the fact that I was almost always surprised or thrilled as I followed the instructions and the paper would suddenly transform in my hands. I discovered multi-unit origami, where you folded lots of smaller pieces and assembled them into larger structures.

I never really mastered folding the super complex models, with their advanced folding maneuvers like closed sinks and wraps. And eventually I got busy with other things and stopped folding.

A couple of years ago, in a cleaning spree, I decided to give away my library of books, magazines, printed out patterns, hand drawn diagrams from folders I met at conventions or local meetings, and thousands of sheets of paper. I'm still fascinated by what people are doing, the innovation that still happens, and the incredible models people design. There's software to help people create models and sure, that takes away some of the magic, but there are also still people who fold cranes or other simple models to relax. People who take their time and enjoy the transformation of paper to... something amazing.

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