Origami Lesson

I’ve been paper-folding most of the morning; first working through an origami bird kit with Morgan watching and playing with the birds and then folding one particular form over and over and over. I’ve had lots of thoughts in my head as I fold and refold, and most of them have had to do with learning and creativity and – surprisingly – with limits.

Origami kits and instructions can be a nightmare until you get the hang of the principles of paper folding. The instructions are baffling and senseless until you understand the quite literal ins and outs of the technique. I remember thinking origami unreasonably difficult until my mid-twenties (and I’m good with my hands, good at puzzling out directions from a diagram, too) until someone sat down with me and showed me a few basic folds. I’m still not any kind of paper folding expert but I’ve become a fairly confident dabbler, intrigued with the idea of limiting a creation to something made from a single square of paper.

On a radio program the other night, some artist or other (Stewart of the Daily show, I think, in an interview with Terry Gross) commented that creativity comes from limits. I don’t disagree with that in the least, but I do think it’s important to point out that those limits do not necessarily come from outside the artist.

Take origami, itself. Sculptor Eric Joisel discovered it years ago and changed his whole body of work as a result. He chose to limit himself to the magic of one sheet of paper, no tape, glue, or cutting, and then expanded very slightly from those constraints. Other artists make similar choices: only found objects, only haikus, only fully functional musical instruments, only hats. Artists can rise to the challenge of a limited environment, but that limited environment is unnecessary to the process. In an environment of abundance, artists naturally self-limit for the sake of art.

Today, after years of dabbling I finally have the gumption to modify the designs – first “correcting” a bird I mis-folded at an earlier stage so that it still “works” and then subtly altering the wings of another to make “chicks” instead of elegant flying adults. I am thoroughly impressed with myself and begin folding another bird, thinking of more modifications. Mo stops me mid-fold.

“That looks like a rocket,” she says. I agree, impatient to continue folding. “Can you make me a red one?”

I set aside my bird and make a red rocket. Morgan begins folding, too, but is quickly frustrated; the quirky ins and outs of origami folds are too much for her, yet, and she has folded something backwards. She hands the page to me. “Make another,” she says. “This one is for a mutant mouth.” I fold a mutant mouth and she hands me two more pages. “Now make two more; these are hands.”

“Do I need to make them different?” I ask hopefully.

“No, I’m making a giant mutant plant monster with hands and feet that are mouths.” She returns to her portion of the work, rolling paper into arms, legs, the main stem of the plant. In her lack of attachment to the idea of a bird, it seems, she has found another use for a form that arises half-way though the parrot’s construction. Not just one use, either; limiting her creation to one form, she sees multiple uses for that form.

I have a moment’s resentment (who does she think I am?) but I keep on folding. Yesterday we went to see an exhibit of the glass work of Dale Chihuly, including a film about the making of some of the pieces. They are massive glass works and as the artist has gotten older he relies on others to do the bulk of the fabrication while he directs and adds details. I remind myself of that: today Morgan is The Artist and I the assistant, fabricating parts that her hands can’t produce although her mind knows what they shall be and how she shall use them.

A nose-cone has been added to one form for a rocket and she begins to explain a story that draws from a variety of influences: the Eds, Ratchet and Clank, and something else… where did that giant mutant plant come from? I search my memory, thinking of the Day of the Triffids. Morgan has yet to see the Day of the Triffids, or Little Shop of Horrors for that matter… aha! I have it! Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Pottsylvania Creeper. Morgan’s plant, a native of Planterra, she tells me, has no need to creep, it can stride across the paper boulders to devour the paper rocket whole. Good thing the Eds never made it on board! I rest my hands awhile and return to folding birds.

It doesn’t matter if Morgan never “gets” origami or learns to create her own origami designs. It doesn’t matter if she accepts or eschews the limits of origami, itself. She already instinctively knows the most important artistic principles: to let the materials “speak” to her, to let her knowledge of other artwork (including nature) inform her, to follow her muse, to collaborate when appropriate, enlist help when needed, and most of all, to tell her stories. And curiously enough, in the midst of freedom to use whatever materials in whatever way she wants, she understands the value of self-imposed limits. I’m not trying to say my kid is some kind of genius, but that this kind of self-selection is so natural, so obvious to the human mind, that we adults don’t need to set limits on children in order to encourage creativity. What we do need is to be a little less attached to our own ideas so that we have a better chance of re-envisioning the world through the eyes of our children.

Eyes of our children. I’m not a fantastic typist and wrote “yes of our children”. A serendipitous mistake in this context. Sometimes unschooling isn’t so much about saying yes as stepping beyond our attachment to “the right way” in order to experience the yes of our children.

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