Something from nothing

Only one or two origami artists in the world create faces. Saadya Sternberg is the only one who creates female faces.

origami 88 (photo credit: )
origami 88
(photo credit: )
Laughing, screaming or serene, the row of life-size faces stares out into the gallery. Some evoke the placidity of ancient Oriental wisdom. Others - like a flirty woman with bright red pouty lips - are thoroughly modern. A man's face, howling, trumps anything the Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch might have thought of. It takes a moment to internalize what these lifelike faces really are, but once you see that they're made of paper - plain, rough brown paper, like a grocery bag - the wonder grows. Even if you know something about the ancient art of origami, Japanese paper folding, there's little in the world to prepare you for artist 'Saadya's' variation on the art. 'Brown Paper' is the newest exhibit from Saadya Sternberg, 44, a respected Beersheba painter and sculptor who is creating entirely new designs with his origami faces. From his home workshop and gallery in Beersheba's Shechuna Gimel, Sternberg creates, teaches and exhibits a portion of the work he's produced over the last two decades. The choice of humble brown paper for his origami faces was intentional. "Paper has warmth to it," Sternberg says, "especially this plain, cheap paper. There's nothing like it - it suggests human qualities that no other media could. It's not like stone, which immortalizes the subject but because it's a deadening material, kills it at the same time. Paper is vulnerable. It has a human quality of transience you can't see in stone." If you think you've never seen origami like this before, you're right. Sternberg's faces are entirely unique. While constructed in the traditional way - no paint, only folds, and beginning with a square or rectangular piece of paper - Sternberg's art is possible because of his own creative innovation, bonding plain paper to heavy aluminum foil, a process he devised himself. "I tried a lot of things that didn't work," he says, explaining the difficulty of making a soft curve when folding paper. "When you fold, you usually get a straight line. I pioneered curved folds. By gluing paper to foil, I draw on both sides - the paper side and the aluminum side - and can increase the curve. It took a fair amount of experimentation. These faces are made of cheap store brown paper glued to heavy foil I found at a Haredi market - it's commonly used to cover counters and tabletops during Pessah." The word 'origami' comes directly from the Japanese: 'Ori' (fold); 'gami' (paper). "Paper was invented in China, and folding started soon after. Valuable documents and certificates were folded, but there's no hard evidence of folding forms until about a thousand years ago, when the Japanese entered the field. For several hundred years, the art centered on traditional patterns - boxes, shapes, a few animals like the crane. Only in the last century has there been a movement away from the traditional shapes and into new art forms," Sternberg explains. His fascination with origami came about by happenstance. Born in Boston in 1951, Sternberg grew up in a bi-national family, living part-time in the Boston area and part-time in Jerusalem. "Right after the Six Day War, my parents bought a 'future' house in Jerusalem's Old City. It was taking years to finish, so my father, a mathematician, moved into it even though it had no windows or electricity. I went along - and caught a cold, got sick and ended up in hospital. Someone gave me a couple of origami books to entertain myself. Those books reflected the state of origami at the time - now considered primitive. But I went through them, folding traditional patterns. I didn't branch out into my own designs until I was in my twenties. I'd stopped folding for several years, but seeing an exhibit in Chicago reactivated my interest. Three years ago, I got really serious and began working on publishing diagrams for some of my forms, which is how origami is done. I also began making heads and faces, which didn't exist in the world of origami." That only one or two other people in the world are folding faces is one thing. That Sternberg folds female faces is quite another. "The question came up on an internet forum a couple of years ago," he says. "Even when people do faces, they're invariably male. Why? There's lots of subtle differences, but simply stated, a youthful face is very sensitive to lines - you need smooth skin. But creating features almost always makes a line going across the face. Or when you make a nose, it forces you to create lines there. I found a way to do it so that you really don't see the lines. My female faces - like 'Molly' - are the only convincing ones around." He didn't start making paper faces directly, rather edged in, moving over from foil faces. "I was tinkering, working with regular aluminum foil, but I wasn't completely satisfied. Foil faces looked like they were trying to be something they weren't - metallic. I tried copper foil and learned how to do the basics, but then I got the idea of binding the metal to the paper, which was my 'eureka' moment. When you work with foil, you can do anything at all with it - scrunch it, mold it. With paper, you can't do that. You can't scrunch too much because it causes trouble in other places, so you have to use the principles of pure origami. But by combining paper and foil, you get the power of the foil - the rigidity, the ability to do sculptural things - plus the geometric logic of paper folding. It's the best of both worlds." Origami requires enormous creativity in many ways, not the least of which lies in beginning with a square piece of paper and using only folds - no cuts - to create the form. "By the time I was 20, I was dissatisfied with the discrepancies in some of the traditional forms, like making three-legged animals. There's a problem in making animals, because an animal has six corners - four legs, a head and a tail - but a paper square has only four corners. So you have to figure out how to go from four to six in the shortest possible way, with everything coming out in the right places and the right proportion. I was bothered by the traditional three-legged animals, so I devised a way to make it right. Today, modern origami has moved well beyond those problems. Many designs are far more complex and complicated than what I was doing back then. "In that sense, I'm something of a throwback," Sternberg says. "I'm staunching the move into super complexity. I want forms that are not simple in the sense of childlike, rather minimalistic, elegantly simple. My goal is to make beautiful and realistic forms in just a fraction of the moves other people use." Origami doesn't get the respect it deserves, he maintains. "It's still relatively rare that pieces are sold. People respond by looking at it as just paper, reminding them of the things they did as children. So you have to work hard to break through that idea. My bust of David Ben-Gurion is an exception, because it sold to a serious art collector in Salzburg. But at my first show, in Holon in 2004, a woman came by, scrutinized it carefully, smiled and admired it, but then she frowned. She shook her head and said, 'This could have been a real sculpture!' She meant, if it hadn't been paper, it could have been a real sculpture. That's the attitude I'm working to change." That's why Sternberg is curating a worldwide exhibit to be held at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art in Haifa. Entitled 'Treasures of Origami Art,' the exhibit will bring together work from most of the top origami artists all over the world. It's scheduled to open August 17 this year, and will last three months. "Israel is becoming something of a power in the world of origami," Sternberg says. "Among artists, certainly. But also among people who either have written extensively on the art, or collect, or are otherwise tied in. There are organizations and folding groups all over the country." As soon as he can free up time from organizing the exhibit, Sternberg plans to begin teaching origami in Beersheba. He came as an adult to Israel in 1993, and ended up teaching philosophy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Of his Harvard Bachelor's degree and a PhD from the University of Chicago in philosophy, Sternberg says, "I'm drawn to impractical things. But for me, avoiding art school during those years and focusing instead on philosophy was actually an advantage. At the time, art schools were flippant and trivial. Philosophy gave me a far better background." Today, Sternberg earns a portion of his income from translating ancient Hebrew texts into English, and the other part from his art - origami, paintings and sculpture. "My 'Brown Paper' exhibit ( was the perfect metaphor for the thing that gives me the greatest satisfaction, creating something from nothing. There's nothing more 'nothing' than a brown paper bag," he says. Except when Saadya gets his hands on it.