Thursday, September 09, 2010

Paper Chase

The meeting was underway before I finally made it to the Dos Pinos Community Room, buried deep in the middle of the Dos Pinos housing co-op on Sycamore Lane.

I was just in time to see a man make a heart-shaped box out of a dollar bill, into which he placed a quarter; he explained that he likes to give gifts to children in this fashion.

I had been invited to a meeting of the Davis Origami Group, in order to write this article. In truth, this was my first hint that Davis even has an origami group, and, my manual dexterity being limited to hitting the keys on a computer keyboard, it's unlikely that I ever would have found out, absent the invitation.

By the end of my time with this small group of dedicated folders, I had a tremendous appreciation for both the simplicity and the complexity of origami.

The small group attending this meeting, smaller than usual, I was told, covered the whole spectrum of origami. I met three experts, along with beginners ranging in age from 83-year-old grandmother Gene Manzo, attending her first folding meeting, to young Aaron Ecky, whose mother brought him and his sister. Aaron was thrilled, at the end of the session, to show everybody how to fold and fly a paper airplane.
After the meeting, I met with Andrew Hudson, who had just returned from an origami conference in Singapore. He told me more about origami than I knew there was to know.

Origami's origins are shrouded in mystery and conflicting ideas. Some say it began in China 2,000 years ago, but that theory is probably wrong. Others say it originated in Japan during the Heian period (794 to 1185), but experts feel that this, too, is wrong.

The oldest printed document referencing origami dates from a poem written in 17th century Japan. Other references to paper folding date from the same period in Europe.

But as an expressive, creative art form, origami is relatively new.

"People didn't start creating their own designs until the 1950s," Hudson told me, "and a lot of the really complex stuff didn't start happening until the 1980."

The artform's popularity is growing, thanks to folding groups around the world.

Hudson lived in Japan for a year, when he was 4, and learned to fold a few simple models (although he can't remember if he folded them while in Japan, or after his family's return to the United States).

"I had a background in the traditional Japanese repertoire. Then, in fifth grade, I got a Borders gift card; I couldn't think of anything else to spend it on, because all the books I wanted to read were at the library. So I wandered over to the origami section, and thought some of the books looked really cool.

"I bought one, started folding through it and got stuck. That's when I really got hooked, because I wanted to finish that."

Hudson, now 20, has gotten in on the ground floor of origami as art. It has become the ideal hobby for him.
"Origami has a hyper-focusing element. A lot of people with ADD, like me, have a hard time focusing on things. But certain kinds of tasks allow us to hyper-focus, and really concentrate on one thing for hours at a time; for me, it's things like reading, playing piano and doing origami."

Judy Ng, who co-founded the Davis Origami Group with Hudson and Glenn Sapaden, is the youngest of three daughters. She learned origami from a baby-sitter.

"I would fold off and on, collect books over the years," she said. "I received several origami books as gifts."

She also attended many origami conferences over the years.

"The last one held in San Francisco was in 2009, and I met Andrew in one of the classes. I gave him a ride back to Davis."

Ng had belonged to a short-lived folding group in Davis several years earlier.

"We called our group Valley Folds … but it folded. It never really got off the ground."

Which meant it was time to try again.

"Andrew spearheaded our group, and got it off the ground," she said.

Their first meeting was in December 2009, and the members have met monthly ever since.

"We've had as many as 17 people at our meetings," Ng added. "Some only come once; some have stayed. A man and his wife brought their three children and his mother to our first meeting, so we had three generations."

Ava Hess came to a recent meeting by chance. At the funeral of a friend, she met Andrew's father, Davis Enterprise reporter Jeff Hudson, who happened to mention the group.

"I've been doing origami since I was a child," Hess said. "We didn't have TV until I was 13. We saw a few programs on public television, and there was a Japanese brush-painting lesson and origami lesson for half an hour. I found them inspiring, and so I learned some very easy things: butterflies and cranes.

"My interest was sparked again in Holland, where one of my cousins was friend of a woman who does origami for graphics arts. That was 20 years ago."  Hess has been using origami in art projects ever since.

"I make greeting cards and earrings. I've been selling them in a gallery on the coast, but decided it's too far away and too cumbersome, and their demands are too much. Now I just make them for fun."

Hess demonstrated how to make a crane at the meeting I attended. My own attempt at said crane was pretty pathetic, but I received encouragement from Manzo, also attending her first meeting.

"I have 10 thumbs, not 10 fingers," she laughed with me.

"It was shocking how much they knew," she added, a bit later. "I was so far behind everybody; I felt lost."

But thanks to the patience with which the demonstrators worked with her, she intends to continue attending meetings.

"I've been looking for something like this for a long time. I used to take care of my grandchildren every once in awhile. We would make little animals from the origami books. But recently I've been trying to learn how to fold up a dollar bill so it makes a ring."

Mazzo will get great ideas on things to do with dollar bills from Glenn Sapaden. His favorite routine: He jokes that his mother wanted him to get into law, because that's where "the big money" is. Then he holds up a pad of oversize dollar bill-patterned paper, lifts one eyebrow and everyone gets the joke.

"A little origami humor," he laughed.

"Glenn is an avid collector of dollar origami designs," Hudson said. "He carries around a binder that has all his dollar bill designs. He teaches them a lot. Glenn does one design where you take the dollar bill, and the O and E on the back get folded over, and become the face of a jack-o-lantern. The bottom part of the O becomes the smile, and the E has the eyes and the nose.

"You can do all sorts of cool things with dollar bills."

Hudson's love for origami got him invited to an international conference in Singapore.

"I was talking in San Francisco with this lady named Patsy Wang-Iverson, who organized the Singapore convention. She encouraged me to submit a couple of abstracts, for publication in their book of the proceedings. I'd never done anything like that before. I'd never published that kind of paper, so I was kind of hesitant about doing it. But I figured it would be good experience, if nothing else, just to go through the process.

"And then both the abstracts were accepted to the conference."

Hudson liquidated most of his assets to pay for his plane fare, and arranged living accommodations with a friend from MIT who was in Singapore for the summer.

"I presented two lectures and taught a couple of classes. I did one lecture on the connections between origami design and music composition. I'm a music composition major; there are a lot of parallels between origami and music composition, because you're working within a limited system. You have to follow somewhat rigid rules when you're designing or creating, and the dynamics of how the creative process works, in both, are really similar."

Warming to his subject, Hudson continued.

"The other thing I presented was an origami design using polygons, and different polygons other than squares, and using properties of polygons to optimize, for example, a fish. It has a fin on top and a fin on the bottom, and two side fins and a back fin, and it's actually much easier to make certain arrangement of fins with 60-degree symmetry, than with square symmetry.

"Another thing I was doing was figuring out a way to construct an algorithm that you could apply to a different polygon."

By this point, my eyes had glazed over; he had lost me in the technicality of it all. But I had learned that origami is an art form that can appeal to small children and grandparents. It can be as simple or as complicated as one desires.

I asked Hudson if anybody actually makes a living doing origami. He cited five people in North America who do just that, with things like working with NASA on a folding telescope, and with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on folding air bags. Hudson hopes to find his niche in that field.

Based on his dedication and enthusiasm for the craft, it won't surprise me when he joins the ranks of the important figures in origami.

As for me, having neither the manual dexterity nor the patience, I'll probably never get past the level of folding young Aaron Ecky's paper airplane!

The Davis Origami Group's next meeting will take place from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18, at the Dos Pinos Community Center, 2550 Sycamore Lane. For additional information, call (530) 753-6093 or e-mail

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