The Art of Folding Paper

Alligator by Michael LaFosseAmerican Alligator, designed by Michael LaFosse; folded by LaFosse and Richard Alexander (50 hours total) from one, uncut, 6′ square of handmade paper by Alexander

It’s the time of year when we start thinking about selecting a theme for the folk craft area of the Lowell Folk Festival. The idea of paper traditions seems full of potential; possibilities include origami, Polish wyncinanki, Chinese paper cutting, kite making, Italian marbled paper, decorative paste papers, wallpaper, piñatas, Turkish Ebru, and a variety of children’s folklore (cootie catchers, fortune tellers, gum wrapper chains, spitballs, and paper airplanes. . . )

I decided to start my search with origami — the art of folding paper from a single, uncut sheet — and soon discovered there are a world of paper folders out there, doing everything from paper cranes to extreme origami. How thrilled I was to learn about Origamido, a commercial design studio, hand papermaking facility, and fine art gallery founded by Michael LaFosse and Richard Alexander in 1996, and located in Haverhill, Massachusetts, just a twenty mintue  drive away.

Michael LaFosse

Above: Michael LaFosse at Origamido

Below: Richard Alexander holding origami Afican Pangolin, designed and fronded by Eric Joisel from a single, uncut 2 m square of wrapping paper

Richard Alexander

Michael designs, diagrams, and folds. Richard Alexander designs,  specializes in making handmade paper, and shoots photography and video. They are probably the only origami artists in the world today who routinely make custom paper. In fact, other master origami artists prize their papers, which are made with permanent, finely ground pigments so pieces will last hundreds of years. They make a living by publishing books of their work and by teaching in-school residencies.

  Cormorant by Michael LaFosse Origami Cormorant Drying it’s Wings, designed and folded by LaFossse in handmade paper by Alexander

Both Michael and Richard have backgrounds in science, which explains the strong natural history focus to their work. Whereas a majority of origami is geometric, Michael is drawn to living subjects, rather than the intricate geometric forms. He was inspired by the work of  Master Akira Yoshizawa, a key figure in modern Japanese origami, who originated the wet folding technique. Wet folding allows shaping that will stay in place when the paper dries.

Origamido horse headAlexander holding Zodiac Horse designed and executed in “roundfolding” technique by Roy Iwiki, from distorting scored curves in card stock

Orchid by Michael LaFosse

Cattlyea Orchid designed and folded of crepe paper by LaFosse

Today, mathematicians and computer programmers have created a system that largely prescribes crease patterns. “You get greater complexity,” Michael concedes, “but you also get a lot of things that can look like they evolved from the same technology.”

One is said to “perform” a piece of origami. Michael elaborates, “The very best origami begins in the design stage, where the folding, from start to finish, is elegant.  Because it’s often the little touches – the paper you choose, how you place the folds, and the little details. It’s amazing how a millimeter off at one end magnifies out at the other end, and it will change the look. Even people who do not know anything about origami can tell if something is off.People even who do not know much about origami will look at something like that and they will know something is off. And that’s like singing out of tune or not having the right color in your voice. The subtleties that shade performance are also there in the folds.”

Wilbur by Michael LaFosse, 1991

Wilbur the Piglet, origami designed and folded by LaFosse from his own handmade paper

An elegant fold is one in which the geometry works naturally. The finished piece has to look alive. In preparation for making Wilbur the pig (1991), Michael spent many hours at the Topsfield Fair, observing piglets. Having the right paper was critical. Experimenting, he came up with the perfect handmade paper —  pale pink in color, fairly stiff, with a fuzziness to its finish.  The actual folding of the piece took approximately six  hours.

When I ask if he would ever make another Wilbur the pig, he responds, “If I did, I would be trying to copy the magic in the bottle that I captured when I made Wilbur. Or I would become a student, in a torturing sort of way. Sort of, like, how did I get that just right? And then, you know, it’s just brittle. It doesn’t work.”

 

Learning Chinese calligraphy from a master

Qianshen Bai is a demanding teacher.  Leaning over his apprentice’s brush work, he points out tiny things, “This  is the problem. Her problem here is that here, so far so good, and she move this way, see the brush toward this part? The stroke should keep in the same direction. You see? You need to use finger and wrist. . . This kind of work is an illusion. The trick is, where this stroke came from, because calligraphy is art of movement.”

Although there are still quite a few people who practice calligraphy for leisure, very few take the time to study, in depth, the history and various aspects of the art of writing calligraphy. Mei Hung, Executive Director of Chinese Culture Connection, is one of those people.  In September 2013, Qianshen Bai and Mei Hung were awarded a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

In addition to learning the subtleties of the techniques in writing balanced and artistic calligraphy, Mei Hung learned to appreciate a piece of good work with a critical eye. During their 8-month apprenticeship, Mei was introduced to writing couplets, horizontal banners, and, in a smaller font, on fan shaped calligraphy. In addition to learning how to compose the writing in various styles, she completed the composition with date and signature, and the proper way to apply the seal.

For Mei Hung, having had such a direct experience with master calligrapher Qianshen Bai has been a privilige.  “Now I understand that the art of writing calligraphy can be related to playing music, practicing Tai Ji . . .To do it well is a total harmonious relationship among one’s intent, the brush, the ink and the paper. Professor Bai described it this way: the “brush dances and the ink sings.”

This apprenticeship enhanced my knowledge of the art and improved my writing skills, but most importantly, it made me feel humble. It is truly an art that requires a life long practice.” Perhaps, most importantly, Mei mastered a method of how to learn calligraphy by herself in the future.

The next deadline for Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants is April 2014.

 

Customized fruit carver comes to the Lowell Folk Festival

Earlier this spring I was searching for someone who specializes in the tradition of carving fruits and vegetables to demonstrate at the folk craft area of the Lowell Folk Festival.  This year the theme is carving traditions. After following up on a few leads, all within the Asian community, I eventually gave up on trying to find someone to demonstrate this culinary skill.

Then, just six weeks shy of the festival, I received an email from Craig Gates of the Lowell Festival Foundation. He’d been contacted by Ruben Arroco inquiring whether he could demonstrate fruit carving at the festival this summer. Serendipity? As it turns out, Ruben recently demonstrated fruit carving at the Rock ‘N Ribfest in Merrimac, New Hampshire. When someone came up to him to ask if he would be at the Lowell Folk Festival this July, he thought to himself, “Why not?” Hence, his inquiry. Craig passed him on to me, with the thought that it was probably too late and that I could “let him down gently.” Instead, I was thrilled to learn of this local chef who had trained in the Philippines, has been an executive chef for 30 years, and now specializes in customized fruit and vegetable carvings.

So last week, Phil Lupsiewicz and I drove over to the Highlands neighborhood of Lowell to interview Ruben Arroco. Ruben, his wife, and daughter live in a newly built enclave of condominiums tucked into some lush foliage just off a busy street. Ruben welcomed us in, offering us freshly brewed coffee and slices of tiramisu cake. Presentation was done with the utmost care; the cake was served on white porcelain plates decorated with mango carved to look like roses. Amazed at the trouble he had gone to and delighted in sitting down to this unexpected afternoon treat, Phil and I readied our recording equipment.

Ruben placed a round watermelon on a rotating board, securing its base with a rolled dishtowel. Then he picked up a very sharp tool and began to work. “I just start by looking for a nice surface and just make a little peel. I peel that until I see a little red color. Like so. . .  I’m going to make the center petals of the flower. Most of the time they use a knife to make a circle – but I just use a cookie cutter to make a round shape. This is how it’s started. See, I love that color right there, it’s coming out, the red color. Then you start making the petals. . . ”

 

Ruben makes most of his own carving tools out of specialized stainless steel. I ask if fruit carving is a relatively rare skill to have. “It is. This is actually a 700-hundred year old art that originated in Thailand.”

Ruben learned to carve fruit during his training as a hotel chef in the Philippines. “There is a place in the Philippines — Paete, Laguna — where people there make a living out of carving wood. Some of those guys, I was lucky enough to work with in the hotel. . . If you see a chef doing this, most of the time, if you ask, ‘Are you from [Laguna]’ the answer is yes. If you can carve wood, you can carve this — so I kind of learned it from them.”

Ruben picks up a specialized tool he made which creates V-cuts in one movement. “Even just making simple V-cuts transforms it and gives it that nicer look. You go around making these V-cuts, like that. Separation of the petals from the part that you carved, that’s very important. The part that is removed, they call that the negative side in the carving world. If you don’t remove that, you won’t see what you just carved.”

I wonder aloud  if there is something hard about making art which is so ephemeral. It can take from seven to ten hours to create, yet it’s there to be consumed. Ruben says, “Even though it takes a long time to make, the best part of it is when we bring it to the party and everybody likes it. Even though it took me seven hours to make, it always feels like it only took me a half hour when everybody likes it.”

“Most of the time, we bring it to the party and then they call me back say, ‘We have a problem.’ ‘What? Why, what happened.?’  ‘Nobody wants to touch it!’  So I tell them to find a kid and tell him or her it’s for them. They won’t care; they’ll just start eating it.”

Come to the Lowell Folk Festival this July 27 and 28 to watch Ruben and 15 other traditional artists demonstrate their remarkable carving skills.

 

 

 

 

Carving Traditions on Display

Come to this summer’s Lowell Folk Festival next weekend and seek out the Folk Craft & Foodways area, which is located in Lucy Larcom Park, not far from Boarding House Park. Under the shade of big tents, you will discover 16 traditional artists who spend their days carving in a variety of media (wood, stone, clay, plaster, & fruit). Like ornamental woodcarver David Calvo . . .

stonecarver Jesse Marsolais . . .

and Chinese seal script carver Wen-hao Tien.

The majority of the carvers demonstrating their skills on Saturday and Sunday (July 27 – 28)  work with hand tools — gouges, chisels, knives, and rasps. One carves with the help of an electric powered lathe. You will see whimsical carvings revealing dazzling skill, religious figures to aid worship, ornamental elements to enhance architectural trim (and hide joints) and figurative carving depicting wildlife, logging traditions, and more.

As you visit the craft area, see if you can discern the place of origin for each of these carving traditions whose techniques and styles originated in Italy, Greece, Japan, French Canada, Puerto Rico, England, Cambodia, and China. Ask questions. What role does design and drawing play in producing carved art? How are these individual artists able to sustain their craft in today’s globalized, mass-produced marketplace?

 

 

Model Making: Ship Models & Pipe Organs

On Sunday afternoon, April 21st, the Lowell Folklife Series will present an intriguing program featuring three master craftsmen.  Joining us will be National Heritage Fellow and shipwright  Harold A. Burnham, noted maritime historian and ship modeler Erik Ronnberg, Jr., and Greg Bover of CB Fisk, Inc.  With hand-crafted models up on stage, they will talk about the role of model-making in the building of world class pipe organs, 60-foot wooden schooners, and historic miniatures of seafaring vessels.

For Burnham, a half-hull ship model is a design tool. Bover’s company, CB Fisk, Inc., creates scale models to ensure that each pipe organ complements the architecture that surrounds it. For Ronnberg, the full-hull ship model is a historical representation, a form of visual storytelling. All three individuals are well-known to each other, and hold each other’s skills and knowledge in high regard. Their discussion will no doubt be full of fascinating details, tricks of the trade, and little-known facts about the importance of model-making.

This event is free and open to the public. It will take place in Lowell National Historical Park’s Visitor Center theater on Sunday April 21, 2013 at 3:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/lowe or call 978-275-1719.

“The old guys got it remarkably right.” John Kristensen, Firefly Press

The “black art” is alive and well, at least amongst a few dedicated souls who cast metal type, set it, and print with the aid of hand-cranked proof presses. I had the good fortune to be invited to a recent gathering of letterpress and book arts aficionados — this group of friends and practitioners have been meeting each summer for the past 19 years to share their love of letterpress printing and bookmaking. One of the speakers at this typographic congress was John Kristensen, proprietor of Firefly Press — a local printing shop just beckoning for a fieldwork visit. To get a sense of what John means when he says, “Letterpress printing; there’s nothing virtual about it” watch this video by Chuck Kraemer.

Video by Chuck Kraemer for WGBH, 2001

Reviving a tradition

Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

Porcupine quills — a raw material, that is not so easy to come by. But Eastern woodlands and Great Plains Indians have long been used to decorate baskets, boxes and garments. The tradition has been beautifully revived by Dave Holland, who makes a form of regalia dating back to the early 18th century. Dave sews the quills to leather using a netting technique. Below you see an example of this quill work on a tobacco pouch. Holland’s regalia is used by pow wow dancers and reenactors, as well as in film work. When asked how he got started making regalia, Dave says, “I used to do some reenacting myself but I couldn’t afford to buy the regalia. But once I found a road kill, and the rest is history.”

Photo by Jason Dowdle

Metalsmiths demonstrate their skills at Lowell Folk Festival

The art of metalsmithing was one of 15 craft traditions on display at the 2008 Lowell Folk Festival. Retired sheetmetal worker Dick Clarke of Local #17, assembled and disassembled a tin man, explaing how the human form was fabricated from flat sheet metal.

Weathervane maker Marian Ives worked in copper on a codfish vane. One of her vanes tops the Merrimack Mills, a textile mill building just a short distance from the festival site. Marian had never seen the finished weathervane mounted atop Merrimack Mills and was eager to find the building. The jury is still out on whether Hook Lobster will have Marian repair the six-foot lobster weathervane she made for the 3rd generation business, which was recently damaged in a major fire.

Strong showing of Massachusetts crafts artists at Lowell Folk Festival

 

Massachusetts was well represented in the crafts area at this summer’s Lowell Folk Festival. Festival goers got to meet and ask questions of artists who demonstrated the making of weathervanes, duck decoys, Chinese calligraphy, hooked rugs, porcupine quill work, native twined baskets, Ukrainian decorated eggs, Cambodian ceramics, hand carved signs, Puerto Rican carved saints and carnival masks, wooden boatbuilding, ship’s wheels, tin men, and white ash baskets. The participating craftspeople are are just some of the artists featured in the exhibition, Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts, on view at the National Heritage Museum through February 8, 2009.