Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Smiles of a Summer Night

I have Ilan Garibi's "Paper Creatures" exhibit, upcoming September 9 at the Jaffa Museum in Israel (more on that soon), to thank for getting me back into the swing of things.  These pieces are not actually in the exhibit but are some of the later products of the swing, which is ongoing.  Smiles, S

Saturday, November 15, 2014

and here are some more birds from the same series, a little later.  These next ones were shown in the "Folding Squared" exhibit of OASIS, the Origami Artists of Israel, at "Siman She'elah" Gallery in Kibbutz Amir, Israel, December 2016. A few other images from that exhibit are here.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Bas Reliefs ("Emerging" Series)

These are all from uncut A4 sheets of cover-stock.  And of the A4-- I'm only using the bottom edge, so that three of the paper's edges remain untouched (except of course for the consumed parts).

The aim is to have the face peer out mysteriously from the interior of the sheet.

You get the idea.

Of course there's no law that says these have to be kept in their flattish state:


Saturday, November 02, 2013

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Closed Head---Open Mind

 A Reception of an Idea of Yoshizawa's

Origami can be done as a doodle—you pick up a scrap of paper, say the receipt from your recent shopping expedition, and play with it absent-mindedly at the outdoor cafe, bending it this way and that till it starts looking like an animal, all while waiting for the espresso to arrive.

But you can also design origami deliberately, so that it will seem like a doodle. Here is a an extremely simple set-up that you can actually do with a grocery receipt:

I venture to say that you can make—maybe not ALL the heads of all animals from this start (with mild variations), but certainly a good many of them. A head that’s mounted on a long neck or a pole. With a bit of finessing you can squeeze out a good lower-jaw too.

Since the set-up is so simple and the number of folds is small, you can do this with thick “artistic” paper too, like Canson Mi-Teintes, and preserve the unblemished, unbroken expanse of the sheet, with all its glorious texture—letting the paperiness of the model shine. As I always like to do.

And then it will still be origami. But no longer just a doodle.

                                          *   *   *

Now, this is a simple idea. But it didn’t form itself simply, waiting for the coffee to arrive. There’s actually a long back-story to it, really, a whole origami biography. Which I’ll try to sketch out, for those who might like some chattiness along with their pictures and espresso.

I got my start in folding as a boy in 1972: from Harbin’s “Secrets of Origami” and Randlett’s “Best of Origami”—books brought to me while convalescing in a hospital in Jerusalem for a serious illness. Those were pages filled with magic, from many authors, but the hovering spirit throughout seemed to
me to be that of the mysterious Japanese giant Akira Yoshizawa; and when I started designing for myself 15 years later in Chicago (with CHAOS—the CHicago Area Origami Society in its first days) it was very much with him in mind as role-model. There was no question that in his hands origami could be a fine art, endlessly suggestive, expressive, technically masterful but never letting itself get swallowed by technique. For all that, Yoshizawa’s prickly prima-donna Japanese-master persona irritated me, and when he came near—as near as Detroit—I didn’t betake myself to meet him. That was youthful arrogance: it has its place, even if I kick myself for it now.

Life gallops on. I was studying aesthetics in grad school at the University of Chicago , then fled with my PhD to Israel. Things—eventually—advanced, both professionally/curatorially and origamiwise/artistically; in 2007 these combined and I was asked to put together Israel's first large-scale international exhibition of origami art. This was at a prestigious venue—the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, in Haifa, which houses the largest collection of Japanese art in the Middle East.

It was obvious that I needed to have Yoshizawa works for this show, to give it gravitas and to anchor origami firmly in the public mind as an emerging Japanese art, even as it is also an international one. But it became even more obvious because of a rather fantastical coincidence. Felix Tikotin, from Holland, the late founder of this museum, and perhaps the greatest dealer in classical Japanese art in the 20th century—prints, enamel vases, swords, netsuke, and the like—also turned out to be (from a little research on my part, chasing a tip by Dave Brill)  the key 'mystery man' who in 1955, had arranged Akira Yoshizawa’s first-ever museum exhibition: at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. This was also the first museum exhibition for origami as a fine art, anywhere. (Much new and exciting information on this episode, which centers on the figure of Gershon Legman, has been discovered recently by Laura Rozenberg.)

Soon I was holding actual Yoshizawa works in my hands. At first works from a “clandestine” collection that exists in Haifa; later “official” works lent to me from Japan for the exhibit through the kind graces of his widow, Mrs. Kiyo Yoshizawa in Tokyo, based on the lifelong gratitude which the Yoshizawas felt toward Felix Tikotin for the help in 1955.

This was tremendously moving for me. Some of those models were the very ones I’d caught glimpses of in the books by Harbin and Randlett as a boy. Now I could feel their weight and texture, study the dimpling touches. (And without the ‘white gloves’!) I have to say, primitive or not, these works were haunting to hold. The toughness of the paper I was not used to; one could not help but think of the resilience of the man who made them, and the toughness of the time: 1950s Japan, pulling itself out of the war years; and this man going door to door selling fish treats, while pioneering his craft and our field.

Akira Yoshizawa, "Dogs".  Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, 2007

These were the first of several opportunities I’ve been given to study Yoshizawa’s works at close hand. Origami may well have advanced but I find there is still much to learn from him. For instance, notice the attention he gives to the heads in his animals. They are often wide—flat on top—3D like the rest of the body—and get slightly more detail (usually eyes, ears, mouth, nose, horns etc) than the rest of the animal does, almost as if the head were a model to itself. In the best works the head is smooth on top; in the less than best, where the paper joins there is a seam line that seems to be trying to stay hidden. This is the “head” equivalent of the now-known origami ideal of the “closed back” (of which, more below).

The curatorial side of things—my discovery of the historical “Tikotin connection” —kept on having ramifications in the present as well. Tikotin’s grandson who resides in Amsterdam was informed of this chapter in his grandfather’s career, and used his contacts in Holland to arrange a new exhibition there: Yoshizawa’s first one-man show in Europe since that 1955 one. It was held in May, 2011 at Leiden’s SieboldHuis JapanMuseum. Some images of this rare and magnificent exhibition of Yoshizawa animals can be glimpsed on Paula Versnick’s Flickr site.

Akira Yoshizawa, "Camels".  SieboldHuis JapanMuseum, 2011

This show was curated and set up by Mrs. Yoshizawa herself, who came specially. The museum’s director was Kris Schiermeier, another high-powered individual (her previous job was Curator of Exhibitions at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.) I was brought in to lend a hand with various aspects, including the wetfolding workshops. For these, I somewhat impetuously decided on teaching Yoshizawa’s signature Swan.

Trouble was—I couldn’t figure out how to make it! The version from a square, diagrammed in one of his books, did not give similar results. Eventually I learned that the “main” version of this model starts not from a square but from an equilateral triangle. But by then I had “reverse engineered” a Swan that starts from a square and ends up much like his triangular version, and it is that which I taught the poor unsuspecting students at the museum’s wet-folding workshop. (The first session was full of real folding pros—from them I heard no complaints.)

Saadya Sternberg, wetfolding workshop.  SieboldHuis JapanMuseum 2011

Before and especially after the workshops I studied this Swan, and continued to think about it.

It is one of three iconic models Yoshizawa had, and which he did not refuse to teach in public; the other two being his Butterfly and his Gorilla. The Butterfly is a masterpiece of transformative economy—a few baby-steps and you are there. Michael LaFosse has designed exquisite lepidoptera that are unquestionable improvements on his master’s, and are now his own signature models; but just as unquestionably—he will be the first to admit—they are not improvements in economy, in the ratio of ends to means. Indeed one would be hard-pressed to find anything that is, that gets so quickly from square to living thing with all parts in the right place. Yoshizawa’s Gorilla is a consummate hybrid: a body that is very simple to make—a 6-year-old can do it—but then a head, which allows infinite weathering, experience, subtlety, a touch that only a master can give. A true sculptor, a Giang Dinh, can go to town with it, but no one else can. (Of course a true sculptor does not bother tweaking the head on top of a Yoshizawa Gorilla, but makes his own.)

The Swan continues with this thought of “simple models that allow infinite artistry”, but it is more complete. The origami aspects are meant to begin to disappear into a full sculpture. Yoshizawa kept finessing this model his whole life, striving for some sort of perfection in curvaceousness and grace.

Akira Yoshizawa with Swan.  SieboldHuis JapanMuseum, 2011

This is the model that the Master taught Felipe Moreno in Zaragoza, Spain, for whom it has become a favorite.

Formally, it is still very much origami—quite a simple model actually. But at the same time Yoshizawa seems to be seeking an opposite to origami: a kind of maximum distance from it in a few short moves. Curves of surface and line, for instance, rather than all-flat planes and angularity. Likewise, the cut-edge of the paper is nowhere allowed to be prominent; where it does appear (at the bottom of the wings) it faces down to the table, away from the viewer: that's a way of concealing the model's origins in a delimited paper sheet. The back of the neck is smooth and the front curls inward in multiple layers--no cut edge seen, again--and in any case the forward bend of the head above largely obscures the view of the join; so another, "ugly" artifact of origami animal models, the seam, is kept out of sight. Most notable is the back, which is done without any sharp folds. The wings start out from the sides—sufficiently far apart to give the model a noticeably wide, smooth back. The reverse-folds making the tail and neck are kept soft. It is clear Yoshizawa was already thinking fully about the concept of the closed back; even if many of his other models don't show this trait; and as usual thinking about it several decades before it reached wider consciousness among origami designers.

Consider the easiest way to make a swan. There is nothing simpler than to take a fish base, use its flaps as wings, its long points as head and tail. But that would put a severe split down the back, and leave the cut edge of the paper in the flaps face up. These would have been unacceptable for Yoshizawa.

Look for comparison also at how Ligia Montoya designed her Swan: a simple but careful construction which starts from a dart. Flat planes, gracefully spreading in back for the wings and tail. Not quite a closed back, yet not a fully open one. She sets the tone for flat origami, or more accurately, plane-based origami, which can also be 3D.

I used to think of this as a fundamental difference between the origami that was emerging in Spanish-speaking parts of the world and this other origami that Yoshizawa had pioneered. Today, I doubt whether this sort of distinction based on locality ever had much validity, and clearly with the global mixing effected by the Internet it is even harder to argue for. But even if this style of flatness’  did indeed influence the Spanish-speaking side of origami more than the rest of the world (along with maybe a certain increased “sociality”, that is, relatively clean folds and communicable steps), it doesn’t form a clean contrast with Yoshizawa’s heritage in any large geographic sense.

That is because the class of followers of his teachings seems to have shrunk. Who after all has absorbed them now? Joisel was certainly a great admirer of Yoshizawa's, but one can’t point to any direct teaching from him—unless it was some idea of the whimsical, which Joisel went after in completely his own way. There is certainly Giang Dinh, who notably picks up the wet-fold (I would say more masterfully than his master) while doing away with the preliminary ‘base-forming’ steps which connect origami with its historical and its child-minded beginnings. There is Michael LaFosse and there is Dave Brill, each of whom clearly inherited some of Yoshizawa’s ethos. (Hard to define exactly how: a relative simplicity, or at least an admiration for it as ideal; and an appreciation of, a willingness to work sometimes with thicker, wet-foldable paper. Of course the fine-art leanings too.) And there is Stefan Weber, in some of his brashness and deftness, in the ad-hoc, discovered solutions which then get reworked through endless repetition into an instinct: a masterful flourish. —Are there others I am forgetting?

[Added:  My mind indeed slipped.  Dave Brill mentions (see his comment below) Alfredo Giunta and Max Hulmne; for gesture and economy of line I could add Lionel Albertino, and for curvaceousness and 'simplicity' perhaps Jozsef Zsebe. No doubt there are others too, it depends how widely one defines "influence".]

The above are, so to speak, “organic” receivers of Yoshizawa’s teachings. But it is also possible to coldly isolate elements of his logic and apply them. Last year I did an experimental series of “Bird Volumetric Studies”, where I tried to make bird shapes using all and only volume-creating folds (mainly angled crimps that end in the interior of the sheet); these also serve as ‘ornamental’ folds, and leave no superfluous lines, while enclosing the shape in least-wastage volumes. The aims and approach are very different from Yoshizawa’s (there are no simple set-up moves, it is 3D work from the git-go), but the breadth of the smooth back is clearly important for the resulting models, and that in its way reflects a concept of AYs.  Perhaps the one he promoted with his Swan.

"White Pigeon", by Saadya Sternberg.  From an uncut square.

But now there are these heads, where I’m trying to borrow a bit more. The simple set-up; the thick, wet-foldable paper with very little layering; the scope that the design leaves to incorporate ad-hoc solutions; and especially--the broad smooth curving surface of the sheet, the "head" equivalent of the “closed back”.

More important still are the questions. How do you get origami to come alive? If there is, besides what is called "touch", some technical trick to this--like leaving a surface smooth, without sharp folds--what parts of the body is it really essential to do that with? The smoothness of the paper is a kind of visual invitation to stroking, suggests softness (even if the paper is up to 300 grams thick and fairly resilient). Is that a way to engage the viewer? To add to a model's "delicacy"? Or to its "simplicity"?  Or to its ‘depth’ as art?

The continuation from Yoshizawa is a continuation of his questions, not necessarily the answers he found, although these very often point the way.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Horse Heads


This turns out to be a very popular sculpture, with an appeal to horse lovers everywhere, both inside and outside the origami world.

I'm often asked often how I came up with it. The answer is basically what you would expect. I have several ‘full horse’ models that I'm still tinkering with (have been since 1989....). On one,  the ears were unsatisfactory; so, in 2004 while out at a fast-food shop I did a blow-up-study, focusing only on the head.  That left excess paper, which got folded out of the way in overlapping flaps.  The results—a little like barn or stable doors with the head peeking out—pleased me; and so, a New Model.  Recently (2011), prompted by a fan who was enthused by just this shape, I picked the  model up again and put much improved eyes & ears on it.
Now, the above is easy enough to say. But it also happens that during those seven years of gestation, the thinking in origami has progressed, and mine has along with it.

1. For instance: one of the obsessions now in origami design is the color change. Paper has two sides; if they each have a different solid color the folded model can have a single contrast of colors between them.  A lot of design effort is presently invested in putting the color changes exactly and only where it is right for an animal.  The pioneer of this sort of thinking is Neal Elias in the mid-20th century, whom I've written about before; its leading modern exponent is probably Quentin Trollip.

But I would like to ask an even more primitive question. Is the limit here really only one contrast, for a sheet that has two colors on each side?

Notice that when a paper surface is curved (conically or cylindrically), the light reflects off it as a graduated shadow, which alters the hue in an eye-catching way. Then there’s another kind of shadow, created by pockets that drink up the light: these increase the contrast right at the lip of the pocket. So it is possible to design a model that takes advantage also of these variations to a hue. For each initial color, instead of just its hue-as-flat, you have now also the hue-as-curved and the hue-as-pocket-shaded; so six hues in total, or 14 possible contrasts.

Look again at these Horse-Heads and count how many I have used.

2.  I’d been thinking about the role of the closed back in origami. What makes it preferable for an origami animal to have a smooth, unbroken layer of paper at its back—rather than a seam of folded layers which come together along the spine? Is that something about how we see an animal, or how we relate to an origami representation of one? I believe it was Yoshizawa who was first—as in so many other things—to notice this about origami animals; at any rate, many of his famous models take care to avoid the open backs used by many current designers (notably John Montroll), which are generally much easier to come up with.

Since the horse model I was studying had a closed back but still an ‘open head’, rather than a smooth surface across the ridge of its nose—this aesthetic fact was especially irksome for me, and I tried to deal with it in various ways.

Now, a join of layers along a central ridge, can usually be pulled apart to expose the smooth surface underneath. If this process is continued an ‘open back’ gives way eventually to a ‘closed back with folded ornaments alongside it’. How “eventually”? At what point does ‘open’ turn into ‘closed’? A series of experiments ensued.

The ‘exposed’ light-colored ridge of the Horse Head here, is one result. And my more recent work in Animal Heads takes even fuller advantage of these ideas.

2. Simplicity.  There are so many meanings of this term in origami.  The champion of one kind of simplicity is—again—Yoshizawa, in his iconic Butterfly (of course not all his models are exemplars of this quality). And there the term just means, that in a very few steps, you get a change of form, a metamorphosis from a simple square into the distinctive shape of Lepidoptera, with the parts all in the right place.  Nowadays there are much fancier Butterflies flittering about—Michael LaFosse’s, and a nice antennaed variation by Robert Lang—but none come close to Yoshizawa in Value for Money: results for the number and ease of moves involved.

How to bring this idea up to date?

My model is not nearly so simple, coming in at just under 20 moves.  But it is still simple for the striking results. The relatively minimal manipulation of the paper, is apparent in the smoothness of the resultant sculpture.

But I achieved the economy by a different method than Yoshizawa’s.  The number of steps were minimized by trying to have each accomplish several things at once.   The following won’t mean much to those who haven’t made this model (and I’ve taught it so far only to a few groups and individuals), but:

  • The same 2 folds that form the dip of the nose, also directly create the nostrils
  • Just one rabbit-ear makes both the (incipient) eyes and (the incipient) ears
  • The move that bends the head off the neck, narrows the ears too
  • There’s a ‘triple-ripple’ on the mane, but it’s actually made by adding a single crimp to what’s already there
  • The move to form the “stable doors” also creates the curve at the nape of the neck

and so on.

4.  Representation vs. Signaling. Technical folding, while we’re at it, strives for increasing accuracy via an increasing amount of detail.  This gets you the ‘wow effect’, but at the expense of the viewer not being able to follow the folds with his mind’s eye: a pretty big loss. And there are other costs. Here I wanted, in a relatively followable piece, to obtain the striking appearance not from fancy footwork and not from micro-representation, but from labor of a different kind: the labor of looking.  Look at an animal and see what about it makes it most striking, most distinctively itself,  most winsome to us, and capture that. A horse sticking its head out of a stall, almost asking to be stroked on the head—that is an animal signal, evolved among other things also in the relation that’s developed between equine and human. It is what works for us; it is designed to appeal.  If you pay attention to these "g-spots", you can get your wow without having to go technical at all.

5.  How a Paperfold is Read. Finally—this is a subject that Herman van Goubergen has made pretty much his own—some folds in a paper animal look like a head, others like eyes (sometimes when you don’t want them to), some like legs, etc. In short each bit stands for something else.  You are always reading the model as...,  seeing-it as....  --Can this be played with?

Of course the above description holds true no less for a bit of charcoal rubbed on paper or on a cave wall; or a bit of stone chipped this way or that. Art that represents has been with us at least 30,000 years.  But somehow with origami the whole subject seems to be getting brought up for discussion again; maybe because of the ease with which you can flip a fold or move it slightly and have its significance change; but I suspect also because of the speed with which the mind is willing to hover over a model and read and then differently reread the tiniest indications.

Here it is perfectly clear that the light part of the paper is supposed to be the white patch which a horse sometimes has on its forehead; continuing in the same light color it becomes the mane, then wraps around and becomes the pillar, or the doors of the ‘stall’ out of which the horse is poking its neck. You see that the sheet is continuous, and you know that you are reading the two ends of it differently, and yet this doesn’t in the least obstruct your enjoyment of the work. On the contrary!

Not quite an optical illusion, but maybe an optical teaser.

Known Influences / Nice Images

A classic--the Selene Horse (here and here)
Great shot of ponies  swimming and struggling to keep heads above water
Sculpture by Nic Fiddian-Green, toiling out there in his studio in England
And in a more abstract and modernist vein--equally great--Deborah Butterfield.

Exhibition History
This model has been displayed at the 2012 Beta International Fair (a Horse-themed trade show), in Birmingham, England, and at the Italian and Spanish origami conventions in 2011 and 2012. Versions are currently on display at the Jerusalem gallery that represents me.  If you're in Israel, please stop in at:

Rakia Gallery
18 Shlomzion Ha-Malka Street