On About Paper by Paul Jackson

The following article was written for a catalogue of an exhibition of paper artwork. Whilst the printed version was edited, this is the original text.

‘Just write about your paper experiences’, they asked. So, with a license to be anecdotal, I set about recording a personal account of one paper manipulator’s occasionally lopsided view of his world.

Why am I and so many others so engaged with the manipulation of paper? It is easy for me to gush about the subject, as the re-forming of a sheet of paper from the flat to a three-dimensional form simply by cutting, folding and glueing is a transformation so dramatic as to sometimes appear closer to magic than to art. With volumetric sculptural materials such as clay or wood, the transformation is less dramatic, and with other sheet materials that do not hold a crease, such as fabric, the options for manipulation are limited. Paper then, is a sometimes magical material.

Or perhaps ‘alchemy’ is a better word than ‘magic’. The work-a-day ordinariness of paper makes its transformation into forms of ingenuity and beauty all the more extraordinary. Something wonderful is unexpectedly conjured from something very ordinary. The effect is heightened by the inherent passivity of a sheet of paper. It is given life and character only when manipulated.

This alchemy places the manipulative paper arts in a unique position. On the one hand, the objects made are art or craft objects, open to the same critical review as any other medium. On the other hand, they can sometimes appear to be outside the contexts of art and craft, closer to creative geometry, puzzle solving or model making. Indeed, many paper manipulators reject a description of their work as ‘art’. This has proven a problem of context that has previously caused curators some hesitation in accepting paper manipulation as a technique worthy of a major themed exhibition. Further, the exploration of the possibilities of paper manipulation beyond a folk art is relatively new and the practitioners widely scattered. The diversity of art, craft, design and educational contexts in which their work is shown does not provide an easy route to an overall picture of the current state of the practice. It is for this reason that On Paper, the first major exhibition to bring together some of the best current work is so welcome.

Enough gushing!

For twenty years, I have been privileged to meet paper manipulators in many countries, traveling to teach, exhibit or simply to visit as a friend. The word ‘origami’ is not always given much respect (in Japanese, ‘ori’ means ‘to fold’ and ‘gami’ means ‘paper’). However, around the world since the 1950’s, there has been an extraordinary explosion of interest in this most basic of making activities. ‘Basic’? Yes. In its purest form the paper is only folded, not cut, glued or decorated. No other making activity requires just a pair of hands and no tools. It is a craft that can be practiced by anybody, anywhere, at any time, for an absolutely minimum cost.

The simplicity of the activity has attracted many practitioners and the establishment of origami Societies in approximately thirty five countries, some with several thousand members. Many of these Societies hold regular national and international conventions and conferences. The largest is in New York, where the annual Origami USA convention attracts some 650 people for a series of weekend classes, workshops and discussions. Additionally, many Societies publish regular magazines, and collections of newly created models and booklets on specialised topics. These topics range from esoteric discussions on so-called ‘scenic routes’ (the most beautiful folding sequence to achieve a model, rarely the most direct route – an approach which defines origami as a ‘folding’ art, not a ‘folded’ art), to monographs on the work of different creators, to origami games.

The number of documented designs is unknown, but must number several tens of thousands, ranging in style from the audaciously simple to the fearsomely complex. There is no such concept as ‘the’ origami dog or cat or steam train, or whatever. For example, an exhibition was held in Paris in the early 1990’s, of 88 different origami elephants collected worldwide from different creators by French paper folder Alain Georgeot. Similarly, in ‘The Elephantine Challenge’, a column that ran from 1992-95 in British Origami, the magazine of the British Origami Society, origami creators were challenged to design an elephant in seven folds or less. The challenge elicited many responses with gradually fewer and fewer folds …and was eventually abandoned when a recognisable one fold elephant was created! Equally it is impossible to estimate the number of books published both by commercial publishers and privately, but is enough to fill at least one friend’s moderately sized room lined floor to ceiling with book shelves.

At the 4th Southeast Origami Festival in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA, held during September 2000, some10,000 children were taught origami in schools by visiting origami experts as part of an educational programme. During the focal weekend of the Festival, an estimated 10,000 local people attended free folding classes held in marquees ranged along a block of the closed-off main street in the city centre. The largest model on display at the Festival was a skeleton of a life size Brachiasaurus, 75ft x 23ft, folded from 23 9ft squares of paper. And, a Spring 2000 major exhibition in the exclusive Ginza district of Tokyo of 2000 pieces by the great Japanese origami sensei Akira Yoshizawa to mark his 88th birthday, drew an unprecedented number of visitors before transferring to other cities to similar popular acclaim.

I could go on with illustrations of origami’s popularity!

The positive use of origami as an educational and therapeutic tool is now well understood, with several conferences having been held since 1991 in the UK and USA. In education, it is widely acknowledged to be a valuable tool, teaching children motor skills, an understanding of space and orientation, logical thinking, how to follow sequential instructions, concentration, geometry and an appreciation of precision. In Russia, The St Petersburg Origami Center is in regular contact with many hundreds of teachers throughout Russia, who regularly teach origami, now recognised by the Ministry of Education as an official curriculum subject. In Israel, the Israeli Origami Center employs 25 teachers trained by the Center to regularly teach origami in 50 schools to approximately 12,500 children. Well taught, origami is not only educational, but also huge fun for children, most of whom absolutely adore it. The renowned stage illusionist Robert Harbin, credited with introducing origami to the UK in the 1950’s, said that children were guaranteed to like only two things: chocolate and origami!

Therapeutically, origami enables children, and adults to dramatically improve their self image, because the sense of achievement when a model has been completed is intense, and because with application, anyone can fold well. Origami is also an excellent therapy for people with damaged hands.

In recent decades the traditional Japanese origami ‘Crane’ model has become associated with the Peace Movement, because the folding of one thousand cranes is said to bring about peace. With this legend in mind, the Israeli Origami Center has officially presented garlands of one thousand cranes to the late King Hussein of Jordan (an important figure in Middle Eastern peace), Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama, events which were all reported by CNN. Each year, millions of cranes are sent to the Peace Park in Hiroshima, Japan and displayed to spectacular effect.

Indeed, such is the popularity of origami, that a good case could be made for it being one of the world’s most widely-practiced crafts. The reasons for this wide appeal are not difficult to find. It is essentially simple but also endlessly complex. The designs can be beautiful, but there is a strong element of problem-solving ‘cleverness’ that appeals to those people for whom notions of ‘beauty’ and ‘art’ are problematic, notably children. It is inexpensive, clean, small-scale, portable, repeatable. It is creatively playful, yet necessarily logical, and a good result can be achieved even by a beginner.

With the growth of interest in creative origami, the creative possibilities of the traditional ‘Bases’ from which many models are created, have been almost exhausted. In recent years, little work made from these Bases has offered anything very new. Because of this, the creative emphasis has shifted to those creators who use more idiosyncratic techniques. For example, in the last decade or so, a number of so-called ‘origami artists’ have emerged whose work is not only technically sophisticated but also visually beautiful. They are inspired more by the occurrence of ‘the fold’ in the natural world, than by the traditional challenge of making an illustrative likeness of an animal, object or mathematical form. A number of creators whose work is extraordinarily complex and detailed are developing their designs aided by computer programmes that plot the distribution of free points. For example, the distribution of points for a set of reindeer antlers can be efficiently mapped (technically, creative origami is simply about the creation of correctly distributed free points) on a sheet of paper. The artistic skills of the creator are then used to make the design visually beautiful, much as a pianist interpretes a score to create music from the notes. Other creators use an advanced knowledge of mathematics and geometry to design elaborate 3-D mathematical forms. Shallow reliefs made from repeat crease patterns have been derived from the interlocking tile patterns created by the Moors at the Alhambra Palace in Spain. Another group of creators use manipulative techniques that are difficult for others to copy with finesse, such as using curved creases, crumpling, or folding the paper when wet, so that the paper is moulded into shape with a series of softly made creases that stay in position when the paper is dry.

There is a surprising amount of interest in origami among scientists. In biology, the analysis and classification of the structure of leaves and how they unfurl is made easier when schematised by an origami crease pattern. In engineering, the stress patterns and consequent buckling in cylindrical pipes when pressure is applied from the ends can be expressed as an origami crease pattern, then wire rods embedded into the pipe along the lines of the creases to create extra strength in the pipe. An origami map fold (the ‘Miura-Ori’ map fold) opens a large map from a small area in just one fluid movement. The design is so simple and reliable that it was used as the solar panelling on a Japanese satellite. The clearest link is between origami and mathematics or geometry. A crease pattern is an inherently mathematical/geometric structure that can be analysed in 2-D or 3-D to an extraordinary depth of complexity. At a simple level, the analysis can be used in schools to teach a ‘hands on’ approach to the principles of mathematics/geometry, including elegant methods to construct fractions, divisions, areas, angles, polygon constructions and to prove numerous geometric theorums. At an advanced level, origami has contributed much to an understanding of topology, the study of surfaces. An advanced knowledge of mathematics can also enable origami forms of great beauty and sophistication to be created.

There is also much interest among designers. Very few designers would regard themselves as origami experts, but many apply folding techniques to their work, not necessarily in paper. Perhaps the most celebrated example is that of the Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake, who has often described his folded/crumpled fabric garments as ‘origami’. A general survey of quality contemporary design in other design areas such as textile design, jewellery, ceramics, product design, furniture design, packaging, architecture and interior design will reveal a surprising amount of sophisticated surface manipulation in any number of different sheet materials. Indeed, since the early 1980’s it has been my privilege to teach ‘sheet manipulation’ to many students of Design, as one of the basic vocabularies needed by any designer, whatever the sheet material may be (paper, fabric, sheet metal, polypropylene, clay, hinged plywood, etc).

It seems clear now that the future of origami will divide: traditional notions of model making using Bases and conventional techniques will reside with the educators, therapists and commercial book/CD-rom publishers, but the creative emphasis will move to those creators who have a highly personal style that involves much manipulative finesse, extreme technical complexity or imaginative audacity. This creative work will remain difficult to contextualise as art, craft, design, model making, or puzzle solving.

So what of the other manipulative paper arts? When folding a piece of paper, the action of folding must inevitably decrease the size and surface area of the paper. However, when cutting a piece of paper, the cut has the potential to be opened so that the paper occupies a greater area of plane, or volume of space, than before. Thus, folding and cutting can be said to be opposites; one contracts the sheet, the other expands it. In this way, origami is fundamentally different to all the other paper arts, all of which employ cutting in some way.

Because they use a combination of folding and cutting, these other paper manipulation techniques are less distinctive than origami, less easy to define, more open-ended and often less geometric. Terms such as ‘pop-ups’, ‘paper sculpture’ and ‘paper engineering’ may be understood by some, but ultimately, it is the quality of the work that speaks, not the technique.

In recent years, all the manipulative paper arts techniques have enjoyed a revival of interest, both as an amateur hobbycraft and as a creative profession. Inevitably, a professional such as myself will begin to speculate about he reasons for this new interest. My own belief is that in today’s increasingly computer controlled, battery operated, push button society, in which an understanding of the technology that oversees all our lives is beyond the understanding of all but a very few highly trained individuals, the absolute technical ordinariness of cutting and folding paper can be immediately understood by anybody of any age or culture, no matter how simple or complex a piece may be. In this way, objects made by manipulating paper can be directly appreciated by everyone – not just by an elite, educated in the visual rhetoric of art, craft and design… because we all fold and cut paper in our everyday lives.

It is my view that the magic and universal appeal of paper manipulation will help consolidate it worldwide as a subject considered worthy of creative study in art, craft, design, education, therapy and science, and that this study will continue to grow and diversify.

Paul Jackson

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