Ocean Lee, 19, sits at his kitchen table. It is almost midnight, but he hasn't bothered taking off his work clothes. He just got home, but his mind is still work at work, thinking about a girl and how much he wants to impress her. He folds a square paper over, creating a triangle. His finger runs along the straight edge to create a lasting crease. He unfolds the paper, and the evidence of the fold survives. He squints in concentration as he continues the process- folding valleys and mountains until this single sheet of paper is manipulated into the shape of a rose.
Lee makes origami art, and to many who know him, origami is a part of his identity. During his high school years, Lee created thousands of creations for friends and family, never keeping a single piece. It all started, though, with a crane.
In fourth grade, Lee's teacher taught his class the story of a thousand cranes. The folding of one thousand is a long Japanese tradition. It is believed that if a person completes the folding of on thousand cranes, he or she is granted one wish. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima, a young girl who was exposed to radiation began folding paper cranes in hopes that she would be healed from her leukemia. Later realizing that she was not going to survive, she continued making the cranes in hopes to make one wish that would save future suffering: world peace.
After the lesson, the teacher taught Lee and his classmates how to craft a paper crane. Lee enjoyed the process and later bought his first origami book. He didn't know anyone who made origami but that didn't stop him from learning more complex models. He actually preferred having a new hobby that no one else could do. "I liked how unique it was," Lee says. "It reflected my desire to be different."
Origami is the Japanese art of paper folding. Many believe that it originated in China and later spread to Japan where the art was advanced. In Japan, origami became a part of the culture and survived by a long history of oral traditions and elders teaching the next generation how to fold. For centuries, directions to common origami models were not copied down, and origamists created pieces from memory.
The Japanese at first found useful purposes for origami - like wrapping origami around dried fish or decorating the outside of sake glasses for weddings and other ceremonies. Origami over time also became an integral symbol for good luck and peace, as the story of the thousand cranes demonstrates. This tradition stills exists, for many Japanese couples still fold cranes in preparation for a prosperous marriage.
Origami, however, is much more than paper cranes - a thousand created and stringed together for one wish. Modern origami is sculptural art. Like a sculptor spending hours chiseling away at a piece of marble, the folder is capable of recreating animals, people and objects.
Origamists like Lee turn two-dimensional pieces of paper into recognizable three-dimensional objects. The paper undergoes a metamorphosis, or a complete change of form. Unlike sculpting which subtracts by removing pieces of the original, and painting which adds paint, paper or other mediums to the base, origami is the only art form that exists from the beginning without additions or deductions.
Though origami began as a hobby, Lee considers his origami art. "Art is the creation of something that is beautiful to someone," Lee says.
Lee has a lot of experience with shaping things to look aesthetically pleasing. In fact, he makes sandwiches at a restaurant. Though most would view the sandwich making process as a simple one, when the restaurant is busy, he chooses "to conduct a symphony." His small space in the kitchen becomes a stage. He stacks, spreads specialty sauces and places the sandwiches into the Merry Chef and toasters at a pace that "makes music."
At his workplace, Lee is known for tightly wrapped sandwiches and his attention to detail and quality with the food he prepares. He has always been good with his hands, and origami continually challenges Lee.
Origami requires extreme precision. Lee says, "An animal that looks easy to make is in reality quite challenging, but that is what I enjoy about origami. Even the simple figures are complex."
Lee mostly follows patterns found in the several instructional origami books he owns, but even when recreating someone else's design, origami allows for expression - in the completed work and during the folding process. With interpretations and slight variations to designs, he is the conductor yet again. "When I first learned how to make the stegosaurus, I was unable to figure out the head, so I created my own head for the dinosaur. I actually liked the way it looked better than in the book."
During high school, Lee devoted more time to his origami creations than his homework. He gave origami to people he thought needed a friend, to girls he wanted to woo or to buddies as an inexpensive gift. The unique creations bridged any gaps that were between him and others. "I realized origami made people happy. I started making origami to give it away, to make someone's day a little bit better," he explains.
Recently Lee has not had as much time to devote to origami since he graduated and works full time. Origami not only requires an extreme amount of attention to detail but it also requires time. "I don't like how much time it takes," Lee admits. He is currently working on a scorpion design by Robert Lang. "After hours into the process, the paper tears. It is defeating knowing that I have to start at the beginning."
During the folding process, a strict pattern of creases and folds must be followed. Origami requires order and is an art that involves mathematics. Every fold requires exact angles, and even if slightly off, the final product will not be realized. "It is easy to get frustrated because you don't know if you made a mistake until later on in the folding process," Lee says, "and the only thing you can do is start over."
Lee has yet to find another individual in his community that makes origami. In the beginning, the fact that he alone could do it was a draw but now he is realizing the benefits of having connections with other origamists. If he needs advice about a piece, he must email leading origamists.
For those who want to start origami, Lee suggests the person "first learn something easy like a crane. Fold it over and over again just to learn precision, and then move on."
After developing confidence in the easier designs, Lee played with varying the size and type of paper he used. Even everyday paper napkins and straws become victims to his developed origami habits. "I have a tendency to start creating origami with paper straws when I am at a restaurant," says Lee. "I want to see how small I can make an object."
Adding personal touch to every design is the first step to the ultimate goal for a true origamist: to start making original origami pieces. Lee is in this stage, recreating difficult origami and making originals. "I made an original octopus out of a familiar base," confides Lee. "I gave it to an ex-girlfriend, and I realized how original it was when I was unable to recreate it."
Still sitting at his kitchen table with the turquoise paper, Lee folds it again. He has made this origami model many times before. He smiles because he knows what is going to happen next. It is the forty-fourth fold. Suddenly with a twist of his hands, the paper rose turns into a three-dimensional object. Origami is art, pleasing and functional, and a part of modern mechanics. But most of all, for Lee, origami is worthwhile as it will always bring joy to the artist and those he creates for.