Joseph Wu: a Life of Paper
Joseph Wu has a passion for paper, or, more precisely, for folding paper. Big sheet or small, if it can be folded he will fold it, from the dramatic (dragons, swans, racehorses) to the prosaic (cell phones, computers, microscope) to the whimsical (newspaper piggybank, plaid armadillo).
He once even folded a piece of, well, it’s something you curse when you step on it on the sidewalk. The simplest piece he was ever commissioned to create was a crumpled ball of newspaper for a Dutch publishing house. He suggested that they could easily make that one themselves (unlike the donkey, piggybank and fish he made for them), but they demurred, preferring to leave it in the hands of an expert.
Expert is one word, master is another that comes to mind. One of the few origami creators in the world making a living at his craft, Wu is among the forefront of paper folders worldwide and his site, www.origami.as, is among the most popular origami sites on the internet. The growth of the internet has paralleled the popularity of the art form, as folders are now able to share their work, as well as diagrams of their work, online.
As The Bulletin goes to press, a show that Wu is heavily involved in, The Life of Paper, produced by Pangaea Arts, is wrapping up its world premiere run at the Roundhouse Performing Arts Centre (see review, page 12. The exhibit component of the show will be on display at the Japanese Canadian National Museum from June 14 to August 5.
Do you remember the very first object you folded? And what was your first original design?
I don’t remember too many details as I discovered origami when I was only three years old. We were still living in Hong Kong at the time. My father bought me a book and showed me how to read the pictures. I remember that event, but I don’t remember what object I made first.
My first design was made when I was eleven. Again, my parents bought me a book. This one included a chapter that talked about creating your own designs. Until that point, I hadn’t even considered the possibility. My first creative foray wasn’t particularly spectacular: I modified the author’s horse design into a unicorn. My first truly original design was made that same year. It was an X-wing fighter, a space ship from the original Star Wars movie.
I was trained as a bookbinder and a printer, and I am currently a graphic designer, so to me, paper is simply a two dimensional blank canvas to be printed on. I design a poster to be hung in a store window, or perhaps a brochure or booklet, both of which require very simple folds. You take another approach, using the paper as the art, not simply the medium. You take that same two dimensional blank canvas and, through what seems like magic, transform it into a three dimensional piece of art. When you pick up a piece of paper, do you find your hands immediately wanting to transform it into something else, or is it more of a mathematical thing for you – a problem you consciously set out to solve?
When I pick up a piece of paper, I usually want to fold it. But when I want to create a new design, I don’t do it by trial and error. Some artists do use trial and error, and others use a more mathematical approach, planning out angles and geometric patterns. My approach is somewhat more holistic: I seem to be able to design origami at a subconscious level. When I decide to design something, I do whatever research is necessary to get the image right in my mind. Then, the actual design process happens in the span of a minute. The design appears in my mind, fully formed. I can only presume that I’m subconsciously figuring out the patterns required. However, that initial design is not something that I could describe or explain. I simply know that there is a path from the paper to the finished piece. That’s when I pick up a piece of paper and start to fold, and the actual folds that lead from the square to the finished design become real to me. After that, I usually refold five to ten copies of the design to refine details.
Looking at it from the outside, origami seems to be such a simple art form—a piece of paper folded into an object. It would seem to me that there are limits to how far it can be taken, yet you seem to feel that there is so much more that can be done.
Origami is still a young art. Although it has been around for centuries, it has only become a medium for creative expression since the 1950’s. Even in that short period of time, the focus has been on expanding the repertoire of technique rather than on using it for expression. I feel that now is the true Renaissance of origami: we are seeing more artists pursuing the art for what they can say using paper. This is the future of origami: that of a mature art form where artists use the art for expressing what is inside of them rather than simply making copies of what they see around them.
The Life of Paper show just wrapped up at the Roundhouse. I believe you created everything in the show that was made of paper (which was just about everything) except for the costumes. What were the challenges for you in working on that kind of scale?
The biggest challenge with working with large paper is the fact that paper is not strong enough to support its own weight at that scale. A design that works well at a smaller size will often collapse at a larger size. Designs have to take this problem into account, and folding sequences have to be devised to provide as much internal support as possible. Even so, large scale origami often requires the use of some sort of scaffolding to stand up.
You clearly see origami as more than a craft or children’s game. How does one elevate it beyond a merely mechanical exercise to an art form? Is it in the approach, or is it in the technique?
It is in the approach. As with any art form, technique is the vocabulary. What you choose to say with that vocabulary comes from within.
Are there many high-level origami artists working today? Do you all know each other, or is it more of a solitary art? I see you have a Flikr site – is there a big online community of folders? Do you share designs, or is it more a matter of admiring someone else’s work, maybe trying to emulate it?
There are many high level origami practitioners today. Those with the ability to fold at a high level of technical expertise are ever increasing in number. The number of true artists is smaller. There’s definitely an origami community, and the Internet does play a big part in helping us keep in touch. We do all of the things you describe: share designs, admire each other’s work, try to learn from each other. Much of this happens at the practitioner level. The artists also keep in touch, also with the Internet, but it’s often more via private email than through community sites like Flickr.
Are you making a living as an origami artist? If so, what did you do before taking this up full time?
I do make my living as an origami artist. My “bread and butter” income is as a commercial illustrator, making origami for use in advertising. Before that, I was a computer programmer and web developer. I’m much happier as an artist: the hours are much better!
What are the qualities needed to be a good paper folder? I imagine that a good store of patience would come in handy!
I often get comments that I must be a very patient person. Those who know me better probably snicker at those comments because nothing could be further from the truth! I think the key to becoming a good paper folder is similar to what makes a good musician or a good writer: an obsessive need to do what you love to do. I’ve often heard writers say that they didn’t choose to be a writer: they simply can’t help writing. I’m much the same way with origami. I simply can’t help folding. It’s what I do, a part of who I am.
Is there anything that you have attempted to fold that just didn’t work, no matter what you tried?
I tried to design an orca whale once, inspired by the baby orca that was born at the Vancouver Aquarium. I made many false starts, and didn’t end up with a design I liked until over a year later. And my usual example of something that I don’t think I could ever fold is smoke. Making wispy curls of smoke wafting in the air still eludes me.
I see your group PALM at many different events at places like Nikkei Place and the Powell Street Festival. So much of what you do there, working with young children, is at such a basic level – does it get frustrating? I admire the patience you all have, teaching the same basic folds over and over.
Since becoming a father, I’ve learned new patience in teaching children. Actually, I don’t mind teaching children in general. There’s something satisfying in watching someone learn something new. The type of student that frustrates me, whether they are adults or children, is the ones who simply won’t try. I cringe whenever I hear “I can’t do it” before they’ve even made a single attempt.
What are your personal ambitions, in terms of where you take this paper folding obsession?
I want to continue to spread awareness of origami as art. I think that interest in origami is definitely growing amongst people who want to try it, but the art community is definitely behind in recognizing that origami has grown up.
You say you’re a father now. Do you see a successor to the Wu origami tradition?
Michael is three, and has shown a little interest in folding, but does not yet appear to have the manual dexterity to fold very well. Maybe in the future?
If someone wants to take folding to a higher level than simply making paper cranes, how would they go about it?
Like so many things in life, practice, practice, practice. There are many good books out now, and if more help is needed, one can always drop in on a PALM meeting. It’s free, and our members are (mostly) helpful.
Paperfolders Around the Lower Mainland (PALM)
PALM meets on the fourth Saturday of each month from 2 to 5pm at the Fraserview Branch of the Vancouver Public Library
1950 Argyle Drive, Vancouver, BC Phone: 604.665.3957).
Adults and children 14 and over are welcome.
Children 13 and under welcome if accompanied by a parent or guardian.
We do not provide babysitting!