For a little more than an hour, hand-held video games, cellphones, and tablet computers were forgotten, text messages and e-mails ignored, and a group spanning the age spectrum from 8 to 85 was enraptured by the simplest of human-made materials: paper.
They folded, they tucked, they creased, folded and tucked, and folded again.
And by the end? They came away with an assembly of colorful wreaths, miniature boats and animals, and even tiny pieces of apparel.
“I think this is my favorite activity so far in my life,” Byfield 10-year-old Sam Orender said of origami, after taking part in a recent workshop on the ancient practice led by Michael LaFosse at the Newbury Public Library.
It’s an art of contradiction — plain, simple paper transformed into sophisticated, artistic, and complex designs — that has entranced people for millenniums. And still today, with the seemingly never-ending digital onslaught, people (including the youngest generation who have grown up with gadgets like appendages) continue to be drawn to origami, often because of its pure and uncomplicated nature.
“I like how it’s just folding,” 8-year-old Tori Orender said after the Newbury library event, as she fiddled with one of her creations. “You don’t have to use other materials — all you have to use is paper.”
Although there is no statistical evidence, nimble-fingered masters like LaFosse indicate that the centuries-old craft is enjoying a renaissance. Believed to have evolved in China in the first century A.D. following the invention of paper, origami involves making a series of folds, typically with just one single piece of paper, without using any type of cutting, adhesives, or tape.
“Origami is really coming into its own, it’s entering its golden age,” said LaFosse, a biologist by training who runs the Haverhill-based Origamido Studio with Richard Alexander.
He pointed to the boom in adult and children’s manuals and books (he and Alexander have written roughly 70 themselves); online forums where enthusiasts can share images, diagrams, and videos; dozens of user groups across the country; and regular conventions, including one put on annually by OrigamiUSA in New York City and another this August in Columbus, Ohio. Perhaps most of all, there has been been more of an acceptance of origami in the art world, with exhibits at the Louvre in Paris, more private collectors, and the constant creation of new forms, figures, and designs.
“It’s just exploding,” said LaFosse. “Never before have we had so many people inventing origami at such a high level.”
That includes his own intricate and artful creations. The 55-year-old estimated that he has come up with between 5,000 and 6,000 designs in his roughly 50 years working at the craft. But, as he noted humbly, “only a fraction of them are really worthy.”
Some of his pieces include life-sized praying mantises; hummingbirds taking sips from flowers; soaring bats; swimming koi; blooming orchids; and an F-14 fighter jet that actually flies. One of his particular favorites is a miniature pig named Wilbur that, as he put it, “looks like he’s happily trotting along.”
Careful shaping and handmade paper give his works a feeling of texture and movement — as if they are real creatures, merely frozen in pose.
LaFosse started inventing designs, he said, when he was a child because he simply couldn’t find anything more than very basic diagrams in books. Later, he took inspiration from Akira Yoshizawa, considered the grandmaster of modern origami (he died in 2005, at age 94), and by age 16 he was making his own paper so he could get the “perfect skin” for each model.
Then in 1996, he and Alexander founded Origamido (translating to “the way of folded paper”), where the pair create designs, teach origami, and make their own paper, which is used by people all over the world. Their works have been exhibited at the Louvre, as well as the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Florida, and locally at the Peabody Essex Museum.
Much like any art form, the pieces aren’t just dashed off with a few folds here and some tucks there. For example, it took LaFosse 50 hours with a 6-foot-square sheet of paper to create a miniature, textured, lifelike alligator. (Likewise, he treats his pieces like priceless works, handling them delicately and with latex gloves.)
Similarly, it is not just about sitting in the studio and contemplating — for Wilbur he studied, sketched, watched, and photographed real pigs, to ensure that he captured them just right. And for the Florida exhibit, he spent numerous hours in the Everglades studying endangered species.
Of course, the works created at the Newbury event in June were not quite so elaborate or time-intensive, but the art drew people in nonetheless. A group of about 50 children and adults arrived to find tables stacked with different colors and sizes of square paper. After LaFosse demonstrated, little nail-polished fingers and Band-Aid-covered elbows set to work, sparkly flip-flops tapping and shiny headband-covered heads bent in concentration.
Folding, unfolding, tucking, creating flaps, triangles, diamonds, and flipping sheets over and upside-down, they each created multicolored wreaths (highlighter pink, blue, reddish-orange) from eight pieces of Post-it sized paper; red, white, and blue sailboats that propped up on their own and floated across tables with heavy, puff-cheeked blows; penguins; and “Aloha” shirts.
A soft-spoken, patient teacher, LaFosse assuaged moments of frustration with comments like, “nobody makes these things well in the beginning,” and told the group that, to do origami at home, they do not have to buy fancy paper from the art store — they can use anything.
“You’re folding, and all of a sudden, you see this creation,” said Bonnie Durante of Byfield, who participated with her 13-year-old son, Michael, and 10-year old daughter, Bonnie Rose. “It’s nice to have them using their gross motor skills, creating something, as opposed to getting lost on the computer.”
LaFosse, for his part, noted that origami is a lifelong learning process that is “difficult, but rewarding,” and an “enjoyable challenge.”
Ultimately, it is so much more than folding paper, he said, it is engineering, technique, and skill. And it never ceases to captivate.
“As soon as you have them asking “How did they do that?,” he said, “you’ve got ‘em.”