It's all in the fold

Paul Jackson and Miri Golan are introducing the ancient Japanese art of origami to schools and to the local art scene

By
December 5, 2007 09:17
origami metro 88 224

origami metro 88 224. (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)

 
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In a world where so many people seem to drift through life, meandering without direction from one passing interest to the next, it is refreshing to meet the rare person whose life is driven by just one thing. For Paul Jackson and Miri Golan, that "one thing" is none other than origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. Walk into the cluttered studio attached to their tidy home in the Herzliya neighborhood of Nof Yam, and you enter a virtual world of birds, elephants and dinosaurs; bowls, tea sets and abstract shapes - all cleverly made with colorful pieces of folded paper. Jackson, 50, came to Israel from London, shortly after his marriage to Golan. Despite an MA in fine arts from the University of London and professional experience in video and performance art, "My living back in the UK was origami," he recalls. What led him to a life of folding paper? "I used to do it to relax, away from all the art, just making little animals. Nothing very important. One day I took some of the things I had done to the art school to show to my professor. He absolutely hated what I was doing and really got angry about it, because he saw it as a Japanese craft. So I decided that I wanted to do it," he says, laughing. Galvanized by his professor's resistance to origami, Jackson got hooked. "It was something to push against. You can do anything you want in modern art. You can paint. You can sculpt. You can make videos. You can take all your clothes off and run naked into the wall. You can do anything you want - but you can't fold paper. It was that kind of bad reaction that brought me into it more deeply." Jackson was brought into it so deeply that he has since become an internationally known origami artist, famous for breaking through the traditional boundaries of the art form and creating highly intricate, complex geometric designs. Born in Jerusalem 42 years ago, Miri Golan became interested in origami at the age of six, when she saw a Japanese woman folding paper on TV. "It was black and white TV at that time," she adds with a smile. "I started playing with paper. I didn't know it was origami. I just called it 'playing with paper.' At school I used to take paper and fold it. It relaxed me. So when I grew up, I checked what this was and learned it was origami." Golan was, in fact, destined to blaze new trails in education, developing highly acclaimed programs that use origami to teach geometry and abstract mathematical concepts to preschool and elementary school children. Not surprisingly, origami served as the "Cupid" that brought the two together. Jackson and Golan met seven years ago at an origami convention in Germany. Despite their different backgrounds and different perspectives of origami - one focused on fine art and the other on education - their irrepressible enthusiasm about the art form and almost missionary zeal about origami's mind-expanding potential enabled them to connect. Miri laughs as she recalls, "Five months after we met, we got married!" The couple's interest in origami did not come from any sort of broader interest in Japanese culture. While the shelves of their studio seem to groan under the weight of numerous Japanese-language books on origami, neither Jackson nor Golan reads Japanese. One does not need it, Jackson says, to understand the drawings and follow the sequence of instructions. "Origami is a universal language. And though we understand Japanese culture quite well, that understanding came through origami, not the opposite way around." Jackson credits Japan as being the "spiritual home" of origami - the word is, in fact, Japanese - but adds, "If the Japanese were the first people to fold paper or if it's the most important place for paper folding, this is open to debate at the moment. We don't really know the history. It may have begun in China, because the Chinese were the first to make paper. In fact, the first really solid evidence of origami in Japan is only about 350 years old." In Japan, however, origami was both a popular art form among courtesans and a form of Buddhist meditation. Says Jackson, "If you think about it, a square is a balanced, symmetrical shape. It has an energy. You can fold a dog, and you can fold a cat - in fact all of the world is in the square. So, it was seen as symbolic of everything, that everything is part of everything else, which is a Buddhist point of view." Jackson also explains that following the period of rapid Westernization that began in Japan during the 1860s, much of the symbolism of origami was lost. The erstwhile art form became just a form of recreation, with mothers teaching their children only a small number of designs. Origami became so stilted and diminished during this period that it nearly died. However, as an authentic, traditional Japanese form of art, origami surged back into popularity during the period of militant ultra-nationalism that began in the 1920s and ended with Japanese defeat in World War II. Origami gained a foothold in the West after the war and quickly spread to virtually all points of the compass. Today, millions of people practice it all over the world, transcending cultural boundaries. A lot of origami's growing popularity in Israel is due to the relentless work of Miri Golan. She explains, "I went to Japan, and when I came back I developed a special program in origami for children. It relaxed me as a child, so I know what happens to kids when they fold." In 1992 she established the Israel Origami Center. "I developed my program and went to the schools and offered it to the principals. In the beginning it was hard - they didn't want to listen. But I started working in just a few schools and the benefits of the program spread by word of mouth." Today, some 40 Israel Origami Center instructors teach origami in more than 50 schools throughout Israel, both Jewish and Arab. Why spend valuable school time teaching origami? Golan says that in addition to improving a child's hand-eye coordination, motor skills, concentration and focus, origami also teaches math and geometry. She developed a program around 10 years ago called Origametria. "This has been a big hit with the schools, since geometry is a problematic subject. Difficult to learn, and difficult to teach. But when the kids sit and do origami, they can suddenly measure angles without using a ruler, and understand different geometric shapes." Jackson adds, "Geometry is a very dry subject. The kids don't relate to it. They see it as being boring. But kids love origami. The whole attraction is the sequence of folds to make the model. If you're making a rectangle or parallelogram, you can truly see it in the sequence." Golan and Jackson stress that the Origametria teachers work in close coordination with the teachers in the schools, clarifying and reinforcing concepts that the teachers want their students to learn - always according to the programs and standards of the Education Ministry. "An Origametria teacher introduces each concept to the children in an entertaining way, then the school teacher continues from that point," Jackson says. Golan recently presented the Origametria program to an enthusiastic and highly impressed audience of mathematicians at Cal-Tech University. In addition, she has broadened the scope of the program to include preschoolers. Although Golan had discouraged the teaching of origami to children under the age of six, she changed her mind when her own son, Jonathan, then four, asked her to teach him. "I saw that it wasn't important to him that he create something that actually looked like a dog or a swan. His imagination took over and made his shapes look like whatever he wanted them to be." The result of this discovery is a new "Pre-Origametria" program that, Golan says, significantly increases a young child's ability to conceptualize the abstract and understand geometry. Also, says Jackson, "Whereas each model is made through a sequence of folds - one followed by another, then another, leading to something at the end - origami introduces the concept of sequential thinking. This is something very normal to an adult, but totally new and strange to a small child. It also illustrates spatial things - how a square becomes a triangle, how it turns and rotates three-dimensionally in space. It's very good educationally for children to learn about spatial relationships." Compared with Golan's essentially practical interest in origami, her husband's could more accurately be described as visionary. Asked whether origami is an art or a craft, Jackson's face comes alive as he replies, "For me, this is why origami is so fascinating. It's many things. It's an art. It's a craft. It's a science. It's mathematics. It's geometry. It's in biology. It's all through nature. Many things fold. Leaves fold. Birds' wings fold. Even when I speak to you, the air is folding - it's the compression of the air into your ear that makes the sounds you hear. Folding is part of our world. It's in design. It's in architecture. It's in education. It's in so many things. Origami, as such, is really then a symbol, a crystallization, of the deeper reality of folding found throughout our world. So yes, it's an art and a craft, but it's so much more, as well." Both Jackson and Golan are visionary about origami's potential for transcending cultural differences and bringing different groups of people closer together. Among their current projects is a program called Folding Together, which brings groups of Israeli and Palestinian children together to make origami. From the moment the two groups of children sit down together, the program instructors are careful to emphasize the specifically Japanese origins of origami, and the aesthetic values of Japanese art and culture. Jackson and Golan explain that because origami is from an exotic culture that is neither Israeli nor Palestinian, the children are able to see it as something culturally neutral, to which both sides can relate equally. Also, with its universal language of sequenced drawings and graphic folding instructions, origami can be done jointly by children of the two national groups, working together creatively and cooperatively, without the use of language. First piloted in 2002, Folding Together continues to draw praise from both its young participants and their parents. In addition to this program, the couple is busy planning other projects. Golan, for example, is working on a book, and Jackson will mount a major exhibition about paper at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv next year. Whatever Jackson and Golan have in store for us in the future, however, one thing is certain: its driving force will no doubt be origami. Says Jackson, "The image that I can use to best describe the importance of origami is a bicycle wheel. Origami is in the center, with a spoke to mathematics, a spoke to architecture, to design, to this and this and this. All these apparently different subjects connect at the hub, which is origami." To learn more about Paul Jackson and Miri Golan's life and work in origami, visit the following Web sites: www.origami.co.il, www.origami-artist.com, www.foldingtogether.org, www.papersonics.com, and www.greenfusefilms.com/origametria.html.

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