By Gerry Barker
Photos/Video by Gerry Barker
When we think about origami — the ancient art of transforming a single sheet of paper into a finished shape — we usually associate it with delicate birds or flowers, not sculptures of stainless steel and metal.
Welcome to “Origami in the Garden,” featuring 20 sculptures inspired by that centuries-old, Japanese artform from artists Kevin and Jennifer Box, on display at Mounts Botanical Garden in West Palm Beach through May 12, 2024. The New Mexico-based couple were on hand at a recent media preview to talk about their art and the exhibition.
The serene garden grounds and pathways of Mounts provide the perfect setting for Box’s creations, ranging from butterflies and birds to boats and bison. The traveling exhibit, seen by more than two million people, has appeared in museums, but the garden setting is special to Box. “It’s just lovely to see the work outside,” he said.
One of the first works guests encounter as they tour the garden is “Star Unfolding,” which Box explained is actually a self-portrait. “Early in my career, I pioneered a technique of capturing the delicate nature of paper and museum-quality metal. I transformed a paper star I unfolded one morning into cast bronze and then painted it white. This is one of the first pieces I ever did — the beginning of a career that grew and blossomed over the last 23 years.”
When people told him it resembled origami, he began looking into it, and saw “birds and frogs and little critters,” not “the interior of the soul” he wanted to convey. But as he looked closer, he discovered origami creations always unfold to reveal a star, and that’s “what hatched this entire career.”
It wasn’t long after Box embarked on creating sculptures from origami that he realized the necessity of collaborating with origami masters. “Being a sculptor, casting a work in metal is a simple, 35-step, 12-week process — it takes a year to make a piece whether large or small,” he said. His first collaboration was with a Houston artist, Te Jui Fu, and the result was “Balancing Act,” a pony and scissors with a crane on top.
Box said the pony was created from a single square of paper and the two worked together to “create an idea that hasn’t been done before” — employing kirigami, a variation of origami where the paper is cut as well as folded. Box said he wanted to create a sculpture that speaks to both origami and kirigami and the idea of “balancing our choices.”
The tallest, and most dramatic of his work on display is the aptly-named “Master Peace,” standing 25-feet high and representing 1,000 cranes. “There’s an ancient Asian legend that says if you fold 1,000 origami cranes, you’ll have a wish come true, so Jennifer and I thought this was an important story to tell” since millions of people around the world have folded millions of cranes.
“Master Peace” has 500 cranes welded together, and 500 that have been scattered into the world as collector pieces, Box explained, adding that Mounts is augmenting “Master Peace” with 500 plants to represent the other 500 cranes. By the way, each sculpture features a QR code that visitors can scan to hear its back story.
In another part of the garden, resting on a body of water, is his “Paper Navigator,” a sculpture inspired by the Polynesian explorers that populated Hawaii and crossed vast ocean distances in small boats. Describing himself as a “third generation sailor from Oklahoma,” he voiced his fascination with how paper wouldn’t exist without plants, and the Polynesians carried with them mulberry saplings — “one of the best paper-making plants in the world.”
His “White Bison” resulted from his first collaboration with Robert J. Lang, who Box refers to as “Yoda of origami.” He has partnered with Lang, a physicist and mathematician, for 15 years. Considered “a top master of the (origami) universe,” he said, “Lang was invited by the Japanese origami society as one of the first Westerners to teach them how to fold the designs that he was developing because they were so complex and so unbelievable.” Lang also discovered origami follows mathematical principles and laws, and has even applied origami to solving engineering problems.
Box explained “White Bison” is folded from a single, uncut square of paper using a technique called duogami, where one side was white and the other, silver. “The white bison is a symbol of peace to many Native Americans,” he said.
Other notable sculptures include “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” created around the theme of conflict resolution, “Emerging Peace,” featuring the process of a a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, “Pegasus,” the legendary winged horse that is a study for a larger, 21-foot tall sculpture located in Irving, TX. and “Flying Folds,” in collaboration with Lang. “It is the traditional origami crane developed in Japan,” Box said, “but in this case, it’s got feathers and three toes on each leg — look at the incredible detail all made from one single, uncut square of paper.”
“Flying Folds” also represents “the incredible potential of creativity and the real subject matter of this exhibition — a blank page.” Noting that every piece in the exhibit started with a blank page, he said “just like in life, we have a blank page, and it’s up to us to make choices and transform our lives and those around us.”
To drive home the point, guests can view a page unfolded and framed in the garden’s gift shop, along with hanging stars, which he said “is a very important part of the show.”
Just as Box initially discovered — that all origami unfolds to reveal a star — he compared it to life. “At the end of life, we can unfold into beautiful stars.”