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Origami artists lift folded paper to new heights

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One of Marc Kirschenbaum's many origami creations include a penguin, made from a single sheet of paper. (Julia Gronnevet/CNS)

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Origami artist Marc Kirschenbaum transforms blank pieces of paper into three-dimension animals and objects. (Julia Gronnevet/CNS)

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Origami artist Marc Kirschenbaum creates three-dimensional animals and objects out of single blank pieces of paper. This particular piece will soon become a golden-winged fly. (Julia Gronnevet/CNS)

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Origami artist Marc Kirschenbaum created this golden-winged fly out of a blank sheet of paper. It took him about a half an hour to create the insect, one of 11 original designs that will be featured in his newest book, Origami Bugs. (Julia Gronnevet/CNS)

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Origami artist Marc Kirschenbaum created this gigantic paper rendition of King Kong climbing the Empire State Building on commission from his apartment building's owner. It stands close to 5 feet in height and is displayed in the building's lobby in New York. Kirschenbaum folded the creation out of a single sheet of paper. (Julia Gronnevet/CNS)

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Origami artist Robert J. Lang designs and folds complex three-dimensional creatures and objects out of paper. This piece is titled Allosaurus Skeleton, opus 326. It was created from 16 uncut squares of Wyndstone "Marble" paper. (Courtesy of Robert J. Lang, www.langorigami.com)

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Origami artist Robert J. Lang designs and folds complex three-dimensional creatures and objects out of paper. This piece is titled K2, opus 391. It was created from 60 uncut rectangles of Wyndstone "Marble" paper. (Courtesy of Robert J. Lang, www.langorigami.com)

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Origami artist Brian Chan designs and folds complex three-dimensional creatures and objects out of paper. This piece, titled Mens et Manus, was created from a single uncut square. Chan is a 26-year-old graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The work is a variant of the school's logo. (Courtesy of Brian Chan, chosetec.darkclan.net/origami)

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Origami artist Brian Chan designs and folds complex three-dimensional creatures and objects out of paper. This piece, titled Dragonfly 2.0, was created from a single uncut square. Chan is a 26-year-old graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Courtesy of Brian Chan, chosetec.darkclan.net/origami)

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Origami artist Robert J. Lang designs and folds complex three-dimensional creatures and objects out of paper. This piece is titled Mt. Diablo Tarantula, opus 481. It was created from one uncut square of Korean hanji. (Courtesy of Robert J. Lang, www.langorigami.com)

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Origami artist Robert J. Lang designs and folds complex three-dimensional creatures and objects out of paper. This piece it titled A Miura-ken Beauty Rose, opus 482. Its bloom was created from one uncut square of Korean hanji. (Courtesy of Robert J. Lang, www.langorigami.com)

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Origami artist Robert J. Lang designs and folds complex three-dimensional creatures and objects out of paper. This piece is titled Grizzly Bear, opus 433. It was created from one uncut square of Korean hanji. (Courtesy of Robert J. Lang, www.langorigami.com)

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Origami artist Brian Chan designs and folds complex three-dimensional creatures and objects out of paper. This piece, titled Attack of the Kraken, was created from a single uncut square. Chan is a 26-year-old graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Courtesy of Brian Chan, chosetec.darkclan.net/origami)

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Origami artist Brian Chan designs and folds complex three-dimensional creatures and objects out of paper. This piece, titled Nicholas Wolfwood, was created from a single uncut square. Chan is a 26-year-old graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Courtesy of Brian Chan, chosetec.darkclan.net/origami)

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Origami artist Brian Chan designs and folds complex three-dimensional creatures and objects out of paper. This piece, titled Scutigera coleoptrata, was created from a single uncut square. Chan is a 26-year-old graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Courtesy of Brian Chan, chosetec.darkclan.net/origami)

Marc Kirschenbaum’s hands move across the sheet of paper with the mechanical smoothness of the gears of a clock. He folds a square in half, then unfolds it. Then he folds it again. Corners are bent inward. Triangles and trapezoids appear, then vanish. Kirschenbaum crafts a trail of creases like a spider spinning a web. Shapes emerge. The sheet becomes a geometrically amorphous creature, constantly transforming.

After about a half-hour, he is done. A paper fly with golden wings sits in the palm of his hand. Kirschenbaum, 37, is an origami artist, and the design he has just created is from his newest book, "Origami Bugs."

“It’s fulfilling,” said Kirshenbaum, who lives in Manhattan. “I kind of equate it with giving birth. And in some cases it takes just as long. It’s really a whole process where you’re just going through all these trials and tribulations and, ‘Oh, wow, I just created this.’”

Kirshenbaum is one of several origami artists pushing this ancient Asian craft into new territory. Origami (from the Japanese words “ori,” to fold, and “gami,” paper) is undergoing a renaissance, according to artists and OrigamiUSA, a nonprofit group headquartered in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Although origami's exact origins are cloudy--experts say the practice is many hundreds of years old and began in either China or Japan--the hobby is being taken more seriously as an art form as its practitioners devise more complex and challenging structures out of a single sheet of paper.

Origami’s history in the United States can be traced to one woman, Lillian Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was first introduced to origami at a family gathering in the 1940s, according to OrigamiUSA. She then dedicated her life to spreading the craft, connecting "folders" from around the world and founding the first origami conventions and the largest hobbyist group in the United States.

That group, which has become OrigamiUSA, has about 1,700 members, holds monthly folding sessions, publishes a bimonthly magazine called The Paper, and hosts an annual convention in New York that drew 800 enthusiasts last year. This year, the convention will be held at the Fashion Institute of Technology from June 22 to 25.

Origami enthusiasts call the transformation of a flat piece of paper into a 3-D creation a magical experience. “It’s the magic in creating something extraordinary out of something very ordinary,” said Tony Cheng, president of OrigamiUSA. Cheng doesn’t design objects, he only folds, as do the majority of origami practitioners. “You can pick up a piece of paper and create almost anything,” he said.

But with the help of computers and the Internet, others are finding more excitement in the challenge of creating complex designs out of a single sheet of paper. New techniques are being born. New artists are emerging. Origami is becoming recognized as a legitimate art form, said Jan Polish, an OrigamiUSA board member.

Old-fashioned printed guides to folding can often require pages and pages of diagrams to explain the stages of folding a complex model, Polish said. But with the help of computer software and the Internet, some origami designers are putting up photographs of their newer creations on Web sites as well as displaying their models' "crease pattern," a single page showing a summary of all the creases. Other artists viewing the pattern can understand the folds and figure out the sequence.

“Complex models that are created get promulgated and spread so far, so quickly, far more quickly than it was before the age of the Internet,” she said. “No one would have found out about this even 20 years ago. Certainly not with this speed.”

Robert Lang, 46, who holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a Ph.D. in applied physics from the California Institute of Technology, is one of a handful of artists who makes a living out of his passion for origami.

Lang, of Alamo, Calif., recently spent a week folding a life-size giant pteranodon (a flying reptile from the Cretaceous Period) for permanent display at the Redpath Museum in Montreal. He has sold some of his creations on his Web site, langorigami.com, for several thousand dollars.

“The things being done today are exponentially more mind-boggling than the things that were done, say, 10 years earlier,” he said. “You’re now starting to see artists who are synthesizing techniques from different sources to create a unified whole.”

Lang uses modern tools like a laser scriber to make the sharp creases that his more complex models require. He has also created a computer program, TreeMaker, which enables users to better understand and design crease patterns.

His lectures and book tours have attracted some serious converts to origami. In 2003, Lang’s book "Origami Design Secrets," presented a theory called circle packing. Brian Chan, a 26-year-old graduate student at MIT, was astounded by Lang’s ideas. Chan had practiced origami as a child but had never tried to create his own designs.

But he is now one of the art form’s most cutting-edge designers. At last year’s OrigamiUSA convention, Chan created a buzz with his creation entitled "Attack of the Kraken," which featured a 3-D sailing ship being attacked by the legendary sea monster. It was created from a single uncut square of paper.

“Origami is the perfect marriage between a mathematical challenge and fine art,” said Chan, who sells his creations on his Web site, chosetec.darkclan.net/origami/. “It’s kind of like a Rubik’s Cube that you figure it out, but then, you can’t really get artistic about it. But origami, you can.”

As a child, Kirschenbaum transformed candy wrappers into tiny origami animals. Today, his apartment, which is also the site of his computer consulting firm, is littered with his creations--a gray raccoon, a brown spider and a black and white penguin, to name a few--some displayed on shelves, some in boxes. In 2003, Kirschenbaum was commissioned by the owner of his building to fold an origami piece for the front lobby. There, about five feet high, stands a paper model of King Kong climbing the Empire State Building, all folded from one single sheet of paper. Origami biplanes hang from wires, encircling the beast.

“Origami’s been around for a long time, but as far as it being an art form, it’s really only been like the last 60 or so years,” he said. “By art form standards, that’s really recent. So technically, if you picked up origami right now, you’re practically a pioneer in the growing art form.”

E-mail: cjt2117@columbia.edu