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COA: Origami in the Garden


"Every origami design has a beautiful and almost perfect star that the paper reveals when you unfold it," says Kevin Box, explaining how he got into the art of origami.

Knowing that any unraveled origami piece shows a star changed Box's perception about his art and what he was doing at the time. Since then, Box has worked with several world renowned origami artists to create a process of turning paper origami into bronze, aluminum, and stainless steel sculptures.

The casting process, which Box has pioneered, allows his sculptures to weather seasons and climates.

Starting Friday through March 24, over twenty-four sculptures will be on display in and outside the Memphis Botanic Gardens. The exhibit will have an audio tour by Kevin Box and other artists who have helped him along the way.

Here's what Box had to say on Checking on the Arts.



Kacky Walton: You were a printmaker first. Is that when you developed a passion for origami? 

Kevin Box: I was a printmaker by training and trade. I thought growing up that if you were going to be an artist, being a graphic designer was kinda being an artist. That was the pursuit that I chose. I had a great mentor, my uncle. He taught me that if you want to know how to design something well, you should learn how to make it, or in my case, if you are going to be a graphic designer you should learn how to print it.

I spent years studying that. I worked with paper. I had papermaking workshops. I learned about different kinds of paper and how they react. As I began to transition into sculpture and fine art, that is when I developed a deeper relationship with paper and the art of paper folding. 

Walton: When people think of origami, they think of paper. Outdoor sculptures are obviously not made from paper. You have developed a process of casting paper into bronze, aluminum, and stainless steel. Has this been done before? 

Box: The lost-wax casting process is about six thousand years old. Most artists start with a wax or clay model and go through a very simple thirty-five step, twelve-week process of being transformed into bronze.  

I wanted to do something different and fresh. Most of the time bronze is heavy looking and either brown, green or black. And, I just wanted to do something completely different that added light and levity to the material but also describe light. Brown, black, and green don’t really do that.  

I pioneered a technique specifically for lost-wax casting that uses paper as the original. In a lot of ways, it began more as lost-wax / lost-paper but I wanted to use the benefits of bronze - how durable it is outside and how long it lasts. But, I wanted it to be light as I described.  

By making the originals out of paper and then transforming them into museum-quality metals and then coating them with white paint or powder coating, it looks like paper again. It can be outdoors and can endure weather and time for thousands of years.  

Walton: It takes a year to create a piece? 

Box: Yes, in a good year. I joke with the thirty-five steps, twelve-week process but it’s no joke. Two hundred years ago it took years, like about five years, to cast a bronze statue and finish the metal work. Now, with modern technology and some of the electric tools, we have reduced that time down to a year. Sometimes if we have done a sculpture and have the mold, it can be as little as six months.  

Walton: One of your passions, besides paper, is that you create public art that can be interacted with.  

Box: One of my professors in New York introduced me to public art and the idea that a piece out in a square or a street corner can engage a broader audience than a museum where a limited number of people may or may not experience the work.  

I have placed over twenty pieces of public art throughout the country and in different locations. It was anti-climactic in the audience that we were engaging in and where I become successful in this work and getting to deliver it was working with galleries and private clients. But, then again, I was still limited to a very narrow audience.  

When I discovered the public garden, especially the botanic gardens of the country, where beginning to host these large-scale sculpture exhibitions it really excited me and my wife, Jennifer. We wanted to reach a larger audience and inspire the next generation, like school kids who have maybe never been exposed to fine art.  

We have commissioned our pieces over the years, at one point or another through a public or private collection. We have brought together the collection of pieces that we know are successful and that we know a lot of people have responded to. My wife has helped form it into this exhibition that we can then take around and reach much larger audiences.

Walton: There are some painted ponies you have done. Are they going to be in the exhibit at the Memphis Botanic Gardens? 

Box: Yes, those are some of the earliest collaborations I did [with some world-renowned origami artists]. I am a lot more like a musician in that I cannot make these things happen all by myself. The process and all of these things take a team. It's a team sport. Like a musician I have the song and the passion of a lead singer of the band, so to speak, but I can't play the drums and guitar, all at the same time – and I don’t want to.  

I tell the origami artist my idea, the story I want to tell, and here is the concept. They bring in the expertise to take a single uncut square paper and transform it into amazing detailed things. The painted ponies were the first composition that I collaborated with another origami artist, Te Jui Fu from Houston, Texas. When we met he was doing these large-scale folded pieces and I said, “Look, I have never done this before, but I want to invent a new design. I want to create a pony or a horse that is bright, colorful, and fun. Would you be interested?” 

We spent a week in the studio together, when I was living in Austin, going back and forth; manipulating the paper and coming up with different models. We came up with a final design that I transformed into metal. At that point, once the paper model is done and we were happy with it, the artist hands the design off to me and it’s my job to take it into the casting process and transform it into metal.  

Walton: Your pieces tell stories. You have a piece in the show that is a self-portrait of you and your wife.  

Box: There is a self-portrait of just me and there is also a couple of pieces that are in a lot of ways, portraits of my wife and I and our relationship.  

No matter what, art imitates life to a certain degree. With my work, the storytelling beginning with that self-portrait that is called “Star Unfolding,” is just a paper star on a steel stand. In the beginning, when I was pioneering the techniques of casting, as well as the compositions, I was interested in describing the architects of the soul – and how do you describe who we are on the inside.  

I was primarily focused on these star compositions or patterns, very geometric forms – and the idea that we are always changing. So does a star. A star is like a flame, constantly becoming. In life, I think we all resemble that. We are always changing a little bit; we are growing, revolving and learning. So, we are always a little bit different.

When I began displaying the stars, people were like, “Oh, that’s origami.” I thought to myself, “What is origami?” I really hadn’t been exposed to it or encounter it. I began to do research and study it. Most origami is simplified depictions of nature, like a bird or an animal. I was not that inspired by it. I guessed it was like origami because I was folding paper, but the subject matter was not resonating with me – until I saw the crane.  

There is a legend that if you fold a thousand origami cranes, you will have a wish come true. I thought, “That’s cool. Who doesn’t want to have that happen? . . . I’ll learn to fold one of those and maybe fold a thousand.” Well, it’s a very painstaking process to learn origami. But, the reason I was attracted to the crane was that it was a white bird and I recognized from my art history background that all around the world there have been symbols, that a white dove or a white bird often related cross-cultural as a symbol of the spirit or the soul.  

Every design and every sculpture that is in the exhibit is folded from a single, uncut square. At the end, we unfold a few of them. In the exhibit, there are a few pieces that we display unfolded patterns so that you can see these incredibly complex and beautiful designs that are hidden beneath the surface.  

Walton: Three of those unfolded pieces will be displayed, indoors. Your standing cranes, though, are vibrant with many colors.  

Box: With the standing cranes, there are two in the exhibit. One is called “Botanic Peace” and the other is called “Blooming Stars.” There are four different paintings on those two sculptures that also have stories of their own to tell. But, really reflect the bright, beautiful nature of origami paper.  

Walton: There are seventeen outdoor sculptures, like a life cycle of a butterfly and a squirrel looking for nuts. The beauty of the whole thing is your pieces get to interact with nature.  

Box: Absolutely, there is no better place to display things like that. There is an audio tour as well, where people can hear me and some of the other artists talk about the sculptures, using their own cellphones. Then, there will be interpretative signages and maps that also describe some of the stories that we are focused on as the artist and the work, and why we chose the subject matter and what we get out of the piece. 

Walton: The Botanic Gardens will also offer a variety of programs and special events, for children, families, and guests. They will have all that information on their website soon. The educational component is important to your wife, Jennifer, who has an education degree.  

Box: She has really brought together the organization of the exhibit and a lot of these components that really engage audiences, of all ages, with storytelling, materials, and art education with the culture and how the pieces are made.  

Walton: You can sponsor your own origami sculpture, at the Memphis Botanic Garden. You can visit their website or call (901) 636-4100 for more information.  

You can get more information about the exhibit and how to sponsor a sculpture at memphisbotanicgardens.com or by calling (901) 636-4100.

I owe my radio career to the Ford Motor Company. My daddy had a Ford dealership in our hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi, and he thought it would be cute if his 7-year old daughter did his radio commercials. The pay wasn't great, just a pack of Wrigley's gum, but I was hooked on radio from then on.