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Joshua Lewis-Sandy folds origami piece during the Origami Canada Convention in Vancouver on Sunday. (Ben Nelms for the Globe and Mail)
Joshua Lewis-Sandy folds origami piece during the Origami Canada Convention in Vancouver on Sunday. (Ben Nelms for the Globe and Mail)

Arts

The future of origami Add to ...

On a crisp, brilliant, autumn afternoon, when the thoughts of so many of their brethren turned to football, the three brawny men sat at a table, their brows furrowed in concentration, trying to turn a simple piece of paper into a fearsome bull.

It was midway through the first Origami Canada Convention, and yes, it seems, real men do fold paper.

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“I was folding by myself, and then I realized there were others around, so we started a club,” said architect Mark Morden, who travelled north from Seattle for the weekend gathering here. “I have a talent for it.”

Besides, women like it, Mr. Morden added with a wink, wistful that he had not taken up origami during his single days. “You could have gone into a bar and done all these tricks with a dollar bill.”

Next to him, Brian Webb, a thick-set IT guy from Indianapolis, said he’s been hooked since 2004.

“It’s just calming, meditative,” Mr. Webb said Sunday. “It teaches me patience, and there’s a lot more going on than just creating a lot of toys.”

Indeed, there is. The centuries-old Japanese folding craft is slowly but surely emerging as an art form in its own right. On display in the main convention space, amid the low hum of conversation and rustling of paper, were such brilliantly fashioned pieces as a surfer riding the waves, a three-masted ship, a quartet of exquisite cranes that seem to be moving in flight, and a pair of striking gold lions that event organizer Joseph Wu sold recently for $300.

Mr. Wu, one of perhaps 20 or so origami practitioners in the world managing to make a full-time living from the art of folding, says it’s been tough for origami to shed a long-time stigma of triviality, associated with the flapping birds many kids learned to make in school.

“It’s leaps and bounds beyond that. Yet it’s been hard to get the art-buying public to take it seriously. But it is getting better. Awareness is growing,” Mr. Wu insisted.

At the same time, the origami community must broaden its boundaries, too, said Mr. Wu, relying less on wowing those already involved in the craft and more on reaching out to the public.

“We need to really focus on art, rather than just showing off.”

The weekend convention featured a series of workshops led by some of the world’s top origami experts. One instructor began by holding up a small piece of purple paper. “Make a 3-D fold like this …and already it’s beautiful,” he said, the paper rippling between his fingers. On hand were close to 100 enthusiasts from all camps – hobbyists, beginners, those seeking contacts and inspiration to help them make Mr. Wu’s jump to full-time origami, and youngsters, such as 10-year-old Joshua Lewis-Sandy.

“When I read books, I wanted the figures to pop out of the paper. I like to make something realistic,” Joshua said, proudly showing off his freshly fashioned paper bull. “I’d never made one of these before. It took about 10 minutes. ”

Peter Meilke came from Calgary. “It’s a great opportunity to meet other folders … I just really like the transformation aspect of origami. A sheet of paper, and voila, you make something out of it. And it’s cheap!”

Joyce Yip, whose hands never stopped creasing and folding while she talked, said origami is a lot of work. “There’s no instant gratification, but then, all of a sudden, something happens, and you’ve done something beautiful. It’s very Zen-like.”

Now 42, Mr. Wu has been folding since he was three, and he’s still far from bored. The challenges of creating something new and different are endless, he said. “It’s one piece of paper, and the only real tools you need are your hands. Nothing else. It’s as close to creation out of nothing as you can get. And there is terrific pleasure in that.”

The Internet and YouTube have been a boon to the spread of origami. Learners can watch pieces being constructed by experts, instead of relying on complicated, one-dimensional drawings in books, with a myriad of hard-to-follow arrows dictating where to fold.

Yet that’s a problem, too, said Mr. Wu. In perhaps the clearest sign that origami may have arrived as an art form, designs are being stolen, he said. “The whole idea of origami book piracy is a huge issue right now. The arguments are heated on both sides.”

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