The Lister List

The Jackstone

David Chow's enquiry about the Jackstone takes me back in time.When I attended PCOC last November, I noticed that it was being taught, but I had my mind on other things and didn't get involved. Perhaps now is the time to look back.

The Jackstone is one of those brilliant models that stands out as a landmark in the history of Western paperfolding it burst upon the origami world in the issue of the Origamian for spring, 1965, just at the time when the Origami Portfolio Society was being formed in England. (That was the issue that profiled Florence Temko.) The Origamian had previously printed a Profile of Jack Skillman in the autumn of 1962, but it had contained only hint of the Jackstone, or "Hexatetrahedron" as it was alternatively named. Jack is reported to have said that: "This many-pointed star-form, folded from a single sheet, is so complicated that I spent all day working out the instructrctions". The Origaman also said that Jack was the creator of origami models that were sometimes highly complex, sometimes simple, sometimes gracefully beautiful. In a sense, the Jacksone combined all of these qualities.

For those who do not know it, the Jackstone is a cube with a pyramid on each of the six faces, and it is folded from a single uncut square of paper. (I wonder, in fact whether "hexatetrahedron" is strictly the correct name for it, because the six pyramids each has four triangular faces and a square base.) The model resembles the jackstones whch children used to use in the game of "Jacks", I have not seen the game played in recent years and wonder if it is still popular. Jack Skillman sent several of his paper-folded jackstones to Lillian Oppenheirmer at the Origami Center, with a set of instructions he had devised. But the model was much too tricky for Lillian or anyone else at the Origami Center to fold: this was right outside their own kind of comparatively simply models. Nor did they find Jack's instructions much use.

Copies were sent to Fred Rohm and he managed to "crack" the Jackstone. More than that, he managed to devise a way of folding it that was more straightforward than Jack Skillman's own method. He demonstrated his method at the Origami Convention held in New York in the autumn of 1964. After this, instructions for the Jackstone came to be printed in the Origamian for spring 1965. Even so, the challenge of drawing diagrams was dodged and the instuctions were accompanied by photographs. Shortly after Fred Rohm's method was set down, Raymond McLain visited the Origami Center and was asked to try them out. He succeeeded in folding the Jacksone and, moreover pointed out what nobody had hitherto realised, that the model was based on a doubly blintzed frog or lily base.

The Jackstone made an immediated impact upon the then small world of paperfolders. To fold the Jackstone was regarded as the summit of paperfolding achievement. It became a subject for discussion in the young Origami Portfolio Society and later, the British Origami Society. At that time, although there were a few modular models, (though not yet known by the name ,"modular"), the later enthusism for modular folding of complex polyhedra had not yet started, so paperfolded polyhedra of any kind were a novelty. Nor had folding of any kind become very complex, so the Jackstone emerged as a very unusual, very complex and very challenging model and folders wrestled to complete it. I'm proud to recall that I myself managed to complete it from the instructions in the Origamian!

Complex as it was, for the time of its creation, the Jackstone was, in a sense, very simple in that it was classical in its appearance. Once they had mastered it, folders began to look for other challenges. One suggestion was for a cube with another cube on each face - a sort of three-dimensional Greek cross. I do not recall seeing a completed model of this mind, but it it was achieved, I shall be glad if anyone willl tell me about it. Bennett Arnstein in particular, took up the challenge of folding Origami Polyhedra and published a book with that title, but none of his models achieved anything like the distincltion of the Jackstone.

When Robert Harbin wrote his book, "Secrets of Origami", which was published in 1963, he included a section about Jack Skillman. But although the Jackstone had been in existence for ten years by then and was Jack's most famous model, Robert Harbin made no attempt to diagram it. Jack Skillman is represented in "Secrets opf Origami" by some furniture, which is interestingly, an early example of what became known as box folding (also called "box-pleating"). Robert Harbin's next book of origami was published in1968 and was called "Teach Yourself Origami, The Art of paper-Folding".It still did not contain the Jackstone. It was not until 1971 that the Jackstone appeared in "More Origami - The Art of Paper-Folding No.2". The drawings in Robert Harbin's first book, "Paper magic" had been drawn by the Australian, Rolf Harris, who was a genius of an artist, but Rolf was not available for "Secrewts of Origami", so Robert Harbin, who had never drawn a thing before, decided to do the job himself. He completed the drawings for the whole book, but found that he had improved so much in the course of the book that the early designs were poor compared to the later ones. So he started to draw the whole of the illustrations for "Secrets of Origami" again. By the time he came to "More Origami", he presumably felt competent to tackle the Jackstone. His diagrams follow the general method of Fred Rohm's as shown in the photographic sequence in the Origamian. but Robert Harbin adds several extra steps and his diagrams are much clearer."Patience here", he writes on page128; "Struggle on" on page 129; "Very difficult now" on page 130; then "Easier now" until victory is eventually achieved on Page 133. "You deserve a medal", he commends!

Robert Harbin's series of paperbacks went under several names. "Teach Yourself Origami" was published in the United States as "Origami - the Art of Paperfolding". In Britain it later became "Origami 1". "More Origami"appeared in the United States as "New Adventures in Origami". Eventually it became "Origami 2". It was followed by "Origami 3" and by the now rare "Origami 4". The numbered sequence seems natural enough but Mick Guy, who is now successor to Robert Harbin as President of the British Origami Society had previously written a book which he had called "Origami One". Mick has been known to express the view (in the nicest possible way, of course) that Robert Harbin took the idea from him. Anyway, Mick never wrote his own "Origami Two".

Jack Skillman was not a prolific folder and achieved nowhere near the vast repertoire of models of contemporary folders such as Neal Elias or Fred Rohm. Yet, he was one of the most important of American folders.


Jack Skillman was black and was born in 1915 or 1916 at Terre Haute in Indiana. When he was aged 13, he and his brothers saw an advertisement in Harper's magazine for Murray and Rigney's "Fun with Paper Folding" and they saved up to buy it. He was not the only person to be introduced to paperfolding by this book. Unlike many purchasers of it, however, he continued to practise paperfolding until is becane something if an obsession for him.. What is most remarkable is that he developed an ability to create his own models, something that was virtually unknown at that time outside Japan, Spain or Argentina

Jack was called up into the United States Army from 1942 to 1948 and continued to fold paper. He picked up new models wherever he could find them and when he was in Bavaria, learnt various versions of what he called the Sandinavian Star, but which has many other names, including the Swedish Star and the Moravian Star. While in England he and his colleagues gave parties for orphaned children where Jack's paper folds featured. After the war he continued for a time as a regular soldier, before settling in Chicago, where he became a clerk in the Department of Education. He was one of those folders with whom Gershon Legman made contact, though we do not know when this happened. Jack continued folding paper until that remarkable period in the 1950s, when other people took up an interest in paperfolding, quite independently of one another. Suddenly, the whole thing coalesced, and the Origami Center became a clearing house which linked paperfolding enthusiasts together. Jack was onw of them. He first wrote to Lillian Oppenheimer at the Origami Center in January, 1959, just three months after the Center had been formed as a series of origami classes. A few months later, in May,1959, he contributed a rooster, a two-piece hobby horse and some geometric folds to the Cooper Union Museum exhibition, "Plane Figures and Fancy Folding". Jack became a friend of Sam Randlett, who had also written to Lillian Oppenheirmer when the Origami Center was first formed and who also lived in the Chicago area.

Jack Sillman became one of the members of that distinguished small group of folders who transformed Western paperfolding in the 1960s. But, as I have said, he was not prolific and it is a matter for regret that he did not publish his own book of models. It is not often realised that he was the first creative folder of them all. He died on 11th December, 1977, aged 62. He will always be ranked among the great paperfolders and the Jackstone will always be his memorial.

David Lister.

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