Thu, 10 Aug, 2017
Meet my brother, the incredible origami artist
Margaret Cunningham is a hobby writer who particularly enjoys writing articles with a reflective viewpoint. A lifelong passion of health and fitness means she is known in her community as ‘that lady who runs’.
Fold and unfold – simple words intimately connected to infinite creativity? When you visit visual artist, Jonathan Baxter, at his home in Rotorua, New Zealand, or at his studio in Brisbane, Australia you will do one of two things. Be mesmerised by the artists hands as they repeatedly fold, unfold, crease, crumple, pucker and pleat or, you will be unable to sit down for long, due to the smorgasbord of paper creations on display around the room. The temptation to leap out of your chair to prod and poke is overwhelming. Framed lizards, crabs, fish and lobsters line the walls, ornamental dragons, dinosaurs and rhinoceros fill shelves. Unique and beautiful tessellated bowls and lampshades defy logic and complex modular creations with names like icosahedron and dodecahedron decorate the room. Thousands of incredibly intricate folds, multi-folds and swirling patterns. I never tire of visiting and always leave with a sense of wonder at the potential of the creative spirit.
Jonathan has worked in the visual arts field for more than 40 years and currently works in the paper medium, specializing in an area of paper folding also known as ‘Origami’. He was once called the ‘Bruce Lee’ of origami. It’s not a term Jonathan is particularly comfortable with but there are similarities. Like Lee and his martial arts, Jonathan is unswervingly committed to his craft and, like his namesake and, unless it’s for a major art installation, Jonathan prefers adhering to the pure rules of origami - no cutting and no gluing. When it comes to origami Jonathan sits alongside the best origami artists in the world and I’m proud to say Jonathan Baxter is my brother.
Origami is the Japanese word for paper folding. ORI means to fold and KAMI means paper. Though not the case for our family, origami is an art form that has been handed down from parent to child through many generations. Today it is widely practiced throughout the world. In 1999 Jonathan was one of 5 people from around the world invited by Japan’s greatest living origami master Akira Yoshizawa to exhibit with him in a Tokyo gallery. Jonathan is an accomplished artist in his own right and has sold work at fine art shows and galleries in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
All through history there have been families for whom artistic talent seems to run in the blood. Unfortunately, most of my siblings, including myself, still struggle to draw a straight line with a ruler so Jonathan has always been a bit of a conundrum to us with his artistic talent and his ability to pursue and be successful at any of his creative passions. Whether it is acting, drawing, creating, designing or building; Jonathan’s artistic talent and his love for the arts shines through.
As a child, he was always building something, making something, painting something or performing something. There was the doll’s house complete with furniture, his match stick builds, the Mecano creations, plasticine sculptures and, into his teenage years, the fabulous underground hut. He loved nothing more than to usher us into the lounge to watch his latest magic show or have us listen to his latest sequel of limericks and theatre pieces. But why origami? Jonathan says he finds intense enjoyment and mental stimulation from making things.
“To bring something from an idea, to a simple sketch, then into actual reality where you can actually touch is a challenge I’ve always been motivated to apply myself. Whether it’s wood, metal, glass, plastics, fabrics, clay, large-scale, handheld or miniature, I’ve explored a wide range of art forms in my lifetime. Along this journey I discovered paper folding where over the decades it has continued to fascinate, challenge and reward me for my efforts.”
When I tell people my brother is an origami artist conversation seems to always shift away from the artist to the art. To whether origami is an art, as opposed to not an art, or is it just a craft? Visions of paper cranes, boats and planes float to mind for most of us when thinking about origami. Remember the origami fortune teller? I'm sure we've all made these at some point in time. It was a school favourite of mine. A piece of paper folded with flaps that when lifted, foretold a future career, a favourite colour or number. This is the origami experience for most people and Jonathan admits it has taken centuries for origami to be accepted as a true art form.
“For much of the time origami is relegated to something that children do. The last 50 years has seen a dramatic turnaround, going from a hundred or so simple designs, to in excess of 80,000 published designs and probably as many again that are unpublished. These range in complexity from a few dozen folds to more than 1000 folds in a single sheet. Exhibits at the Cooper Hewitt in NYC, the Mingei in San Diego, the Louvre in Paris have helped to change the opinion of what origami is.”
Most people practice origami as a craft, only a few people do origami as art or as science or use it for mathematics. But Jonathan says in recent decades, numerous industries have focused on the mechanics of paper folding and its application to emerging technologies. Among these have been the space industry in learning how to unfold giant surfaces such as solar sails and telescopes in space. The auto industry with airbags, devices that must unfold effectively in less than a second. Crumple zones behind bumpers where strategic folds in metal can absorb high energy impact. Medicine, the stent familiar to many seniors, is a device that relies on a very simple origami fold to open inside the artery to relieve pressure. Nanotechnology, DNA proteins that fold and creating molecular hinges are just a few. It seems origami is limitless in its potential.
Of all the accolades Jonathan has received, the one he cherishes most is ‘teacher’. In New Zealand Jonathan formed Origami New Zealand (ONZ) to bring the art form to the public through exhibits, demonstrations, workshops, and installations using contemporary designs in paper folding. In 2006 his organization was awarded funding to create The Great Origami Maths and Science Show, which toured throughout New Zealand to college audiences. Who would have thought that paper could be such an awesome tool for learning and who would have thought there was so much knowledge buried in the folds of origami? Much more visible, do-able and touchable when you can see mathematical principals unfold before your eyes.
In June of 2007 ONZ officially opened the New Zealand Origami Collection, a permanent display of origami works at the Rotorua Arts Village. In 2009 Jonathan established Plico Design, an art studio in Brisbane, that handles origami assignments for media, interior design, and event companies. You can check it out at www.plico.com.au.
When I called in to see Jonathan at his New Zealand home in March, he was frantically busy finishing artworks for his up and coming Australian exhibition, ‘Beyond the folded edge’ held in May 2017. The exhibition exemplified the cutting edge of origami. Folds inspired by nature, dancing with the balance and symmetries of mathematics. While origami has its roots deep in history, Jonathan says origami is an evolving art and ‘Beyond the folded edge’ continued the tradition while taking conventions to the next level. Flabbergasting intricate multi-folds, modular creations and swirling patterns are the threshold of this new direction. I pick up a framed piece of work and read the label, ‘One piece of paper, No cutting or gluing, One thousand folds, One journey’. Mind-boggling!
Although there is and always will be only one origami artist in our family, we all have been marked in some way with the spirit of origami.
“Origami has always had a spirit of sharing, this lends itself well to social interactions with others either as student or teacher. It is inexpensive, a pleasurable past-time, with an end product that can often be given as a gift,” Jonathan says.
For as long as I can remember our family celebrations have always shared components of origami. The Christmas cards with folded elves and Christmas stockings, a folded bouquet of red roses for Mum, jumping frog games at the table and dogs, cats, penguins and dragons fill our cabinets. And how can I forget my foray onto the wearable arts scene when Jonathan came to my rescue? For some strange and inexplicable reason, I got this idea to enter a wearable arts competition as part of a workplace team exercise. We based our creation around the story of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. In theory, it may have been a great idea, but I had absolutely no inkling on how to artistically and technically execute the project. How many cranes? What size paper? What would the cranes be attached to? Thankfully Jonathan was back in New Zealand for a short spell and was able to add his expertise, come to the rescue many times, and create an elaborate head piece for the event. Our project earned us 3rd place in the competition. Without his help, we would never have got there.
No, He may not be comfortable with being called the Bruce Lee of origami but one thing I know for sure – Jonathan Baxter is most definitely the Bruce Lee of brothers, albeit, a brother with a very unusual occupation.