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The secret is folding: Grand Junction artist uses origami to quiet the mind

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GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. —  Ian Koss’ hands are very busy. 

He’s folding a piece of paper back and forth making tight creases using his fingernail. It is a humid day in Grand Junction and the paper is softer than usual, loose from the moisture in the air.

“I feel like I’m folding in Florida,” says Koss. 

The humid paper reminds him of his years in Gainesville, Florida where he worked for a university, published an indie magazine and, like he’s done all his life, folded paper.

“As the legend goes,” says Koss, “I was four years old and I was living with my mother in Mexico City, and we went to a bookstore that sold English language books. They were expensive books.”

There was one book that stood out to the young boy: a book on the art of origami and how to fold paper into animals. Koss had to have it and threw a fit in the aisle. Sparing the other shoppers the misery of listening to a screaming child, his mom removed him from the store. 

“My father, who was in town visiting, went back to the store and got me the book," he recalled. "And I basically taught myself from that.”

Koss has been folding paper ever since. 

Having worked in the medium most of his life, Koss knows the relative humidity by the feel of the paper. He knows that the yellow paper always folds more crisply than other colors. Why? He doesn’t exactly have an answer to that.

He just knows he enjoys folding with yellow paper the most. 

Origins of the fold

“So people talk about origami as the ancient art of Japanese paper folding,” says Koss. “But the truth is that today's origami is neither ancient nor really Japanese. Origami as an art form was revived in the 1950s by a man named Akira Yoshizawa.”

This could be a provocative statement. It should be noted that Koss puts an emphasis on "today’s origami." He is referring to the vast array of styles and methods that bloomed from Yoshizawa’s initial efforts to create a language of origami. Those efforts are only as old as the 1950s. But paper folding is more likely as old as paper itself which has its roots in China. As the invention of paper traveled to Japan, so did paper folding. 

Speaking of Yoshizawa, Koss theorizes, “He was Japanese, but in Japan at the time, origami was something that was taught to kindergartners, and kindergarten itself came from Europe.”

Friedrich Froebel, known as the father of kindergarten devised a system of teaching that involved paper folding. Froebel’s kindergarten curriculum was embraced by Japanese teaching institutions as early as the 1870s. It is likely Yoshizawa was influenced by the cultural practice of kids folding paper as well as being taught in school. But, it was considered kid’s play until he elevated it to a known art form.

Secrets of Origami in Mexico

Robert Harbin (1908 – 1978) was a famous magician in Britain. He was one of the first illusionists to appear on national television. He was the author of many books on Magic. Harbin was also an avid paper folder and wrote 18 books on how-tos of the craft. His third book on the subject was called Secrets of Origami. An English copy would find its way to Mexico City in the 1970s and would direct Ian Koss toward his paper folding path.

Magic is often the illusion of transforming one thing into another. It makes sense that a magician would find origami interesting and useful in their trade. 

Koss said, “People are fascinated by origami because it's a magic trick. You are taking something very very ordinary, a piece of paper, and transforming it into something else, you know, with–with only the magic of your hands and no additional ingredients.”

Process not product

Koss has created a tactile and aesthetic environment to live in. Every nook and shelf in his home contains a curated splash of color and form. There are Lego rockets and car models and corrugated foldings of paper everywhere. But, it is not chaos. His is an ordered universe that is comfortable to be in. The tactile connection that origami offers seems to be a necessary complement to Koss’ work which includes a lot of screen time.  

When asked what the point of origami is, Koss replied, “There is not much of a point. It's more about the process than the product. I enjoy folding a little piece of paper. It gives me an escape into a very small and ordered world for a few minutes.”

“It's just a tool that helps me get through the day. And at the end, you have this physical object that you can give away to people.”

Akira Yoshizawa said it similarly, “When you fold, the ritual and the act of creation is more important than the final result. When your hands are busy your heart is serene." 

Koss’ hands are very busy hands.


Cullen Purser is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at cullenpurser@rmpbs.org.

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