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Know When to Fold ‘Em

The art of origami might mean more than you think

Photo: Ned Averill-Snell

Mother Nature loves to fold. Flowers, wings, you name it.

Just look at us, human beings: our brains and guts are wrinkles doubling back on themselves; proteins, the building blocks of life are intricately folded amino acids. And if those amino acids don’t fold themselves into the exact right pattern, they’ll malfunction and cause disease. So, it’s important, folding and folding correct creates perfection.

Since, as human beings, we’re folds tucked into patterns wrapped in creases pleated over creases, it makes sense that someone among us would make art out of folding. But first, somebody else had to invent a material that stayed put when bent, which takes us to the Han Dynasty of China about 105 A.D. and the invention of paper.

Instructional page from the first known book on origami, Hiden Senbazuru Orikata by Akisato Ritō, published in Japan in 1797.

Chinese monks traveled this exciting and rare luxury to Japan, where paper folding became a part of ceremonial rites. Fifteen hundred years later, people were mass producing paper in Japan so that the sacred skill of paper folding could transform into a new art — origami.

Formed from oru (to fold) and kami (paper), origami emerged as an exquisite challenge to form three-dimensional shape from one square of paper without tearing or cutting. The tradition of origami was passed down person-to-person until 1797, when the first book of written instructions appeared. As Asian people traveled to the West, they brought origami with them, introducing the fine art of paper folding to America.

Over the years, origami has evolved, becoming more complicated, more complex and more readily enjoyed as a utilitarian art form the world over. To make perfect origami, all you need is one sheet of paper. That’s all. No fancy tech. No elaborate tools. No specialized equipment. Today, scientists employ origami patterns to make advancements in space exploration, robotics, disease prevention and more. At NASA, the jet propulsion lab invented a solar shield on a classic origami pattern. Able to fold down on itself to fit into a carry-on suitcase for a rocket, the shield can unfold to the size of half a football field in space. At that size, the solar shield blocks enough light to help telescopes see farther and more clearly into space. Using a practice literally called “protein origami,” molecular biologists can fold amino acids into uniquely shaped proteins that can bind to say, the flu virus, and disarm it. This field of study is currently considered the future of drug development and other medical research.

Origami also happens to be a wonderful metaphor, which you’ll see unfold in Jobsite Theater’s production of Rajiv Joseph’s extraordinary play Animals Out of Paper, July 13 – Aug. 7. The story follows origami artist Llana and an unexpected protégé in a very modern adventure about the awkward twists and turns of life.

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