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Art Review

MIT origami masters at Fuller Craft Museum

MIT origami masters show their paper creations at Fuller Craft Museum

“Green Waterfall,’’ by Erik and Martin Demaine.

BROCKTON - It’s no surprise that there are origami fanatics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Paper folding is, after all, an exercise in engineering, and origami has practical applications in airbags, surgical stents, and more. Working with folded paper is also a means of exploring theoretical problems; there’s a branch of math called origami mathematics and a branch of computer science called computational origami. MIT has always had a creative streak, so some of the folks at OrigaMIT, the paper-folding club, create for the pure aesthetic challenge, too.

“Mens et Manus: Folded Paper of MIT,’’ now up at the Fuller Craft Museum, takes a look at a selection of the remarkable origami pieces made by members of the MIT community. The title comes from the school’s motto, which is Latin for “mind and hand.’’ MIT’s seal features a picture of a scholar holding a book and an artisan holding a hammer. They lean on a podium between them.


The show kicks off with an origami version of that scene: Two men, a podium, a lamp on the podium, a book, a hammer. Fingers! Hats! All folded from a single sheet of paper. It’s a jaw-dropping proposition (even if the lamp looks more like a takeout container), as many of the works here are. Origami artists belong in that particular phylum of art makers whose art is characterized by obsessive finesse.

Brian Chan designed the model for “Mens et Manus’’ and worked with Ken Stone to make this version, which stands formally in a plastic and wood box that sports the seal’s circle and motto on the front. Etched on the rear face is Chan’s crease pattern, a map of all the folds he makes on his square sheet to create the piece.

If you’re curious, he has posted a video at www.techtv.mit.edu, cheekily titled “How to Fold the MIT Logo in Origami in 3 Easy Steps.’’ The steps, essentially, are: crease, fold, and set. He sets the small, flappy paper sculpture with a methyl cellulose solution and holds it together to dry with binder clips. The entire process takes 10 hours.


The show is organized in two categories, figuration and abstraction. A single square sheet of paper suffices to make each of the figure works. Chan is also the mastermind behind “Long Horned Beetle.’’ Once, paper folders believed it impossible to make a model of anything with more than four legs because those extremities are folded from the corners of the square. But innovation and competition launched the “Bug Wars’’ in the 1990s, when folders challenged one another to make increasingly complex insects. Chan’s beetle has, of course, six legs and two wildly long antennae.

“Long Horned Beetle,’’ by Brian Chan.Courtesy of the artist.

Other pieces are simply playful, such as Michelle Fung’s “Tim the Beaver,’’ which looks more like a team mascot than a real animal, standing on two legs with a goofy grin on his plump face.

Martin Demaine, artist in residence at MIT’s department of electrical engineering and computer science, and his son Erik, a professor of computer science there, collaborated on several of the abstract works. For these, they used more than one sheet of paper. Their curved-crease piece “Green Waterfall’’ is a marvel, with each sheet an accordion-folded loop, one loop dipping into and out of another. It looks loose, fluid, tropical, and alive. The earliest documentation of curved-crease paper folding is from a class that artist and color theorist Josef Albers taught at the Bauhaus in the late 1920s.


One field of origami features tessellations, or infinitely repeating patterns. The largest piece in “Mens et Manus’’ tessellates: Jeannine Mosely’s “The Business Card Mengers Sponge,’’ from a tessellation first described by Karl Menger.

Mosely built the roughly 5-foot-square cube out of folded business cards. Each unit is a cube with a central window; several of these assemble into a larger cube, and these larger cubes make a third-generation behemoth. Each has that central window. The whole thing looks rather like a modern office building with a large atrium - an appropriate vision for a structure made out of business cards.

Some of the crease patterns for these projects are computer-calculated, according to the show’s organizer, Perry Price, the Fuller’s assistant curator of exhibitions and collections, but many are just worked out on the page. At MIT, the artists do it for fun, and for experimentation.

One, Jie Qi, makes traditional folded cranes, but she animates them with robotics. Her “Still Life With Cranes’’ features four paper birds on a stalk. A small inverted bell sits below, and when a clapper strung to the stalk rings the bell, the cranes are supposed to lift their wings and light up. Unfortunately, this exhibition design doesn’t enable a demonstration.

“Mens et Manus’’ has more than 35 works in it, a small show that feels even smaller because of the scale of most of the objects. I left wanting more.


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com.