I knew of John Smith from my first days in the BOS, when he was chair of the Council. His academic work on subjects such as the (in)famous “Origami Instruction Language” were way over my head and I was aware that he had a keen and challenging intellect. However, it wasn’t until I joined the Council in the 80s that I really got to know him.
His chairing of our meetings was a superb example of the required skills, he encouraged us to have our say, then at the end would offer a concise summary of what the choices were. I remember feeling somewhat intimidated by his thoughtful analysis of issues and (unlike myself) he seemingly wasn’t given to joking during meetings. I felt the Society to be extremely lucky to have him at the helm.
He worked hard to move both the Society and study of origami forwards and was a key factor behind the publication of COET, a collection of papers from the first International Conference on Origami in Education and Therapy in 1991. Other publications of his included: Notes on Origami and Mathematics, A Bibliography of Origami in Education and Therapy, Inspiration for Teaching Origami, Notes on the History of Origami, Simplicity & Realism in Origami and SNOW.
As the years rolled by, I grew to know him a lot better and learned that underneath his orderly and professional demeanour lurked a man with a child-like wonder at the beauty of paper-folding and a twinkle in his eye. When he was particularly impressed with a new design, he often turned to poetry (including haikus) to express his feelings, such as this, inspired by seeing Fujimoto’s Cube
I sit and look at you my friend, and marvel at your being .
From one perfection to another.
From the anonymity and illusion of the plane, to the reality of the cube.
Yet the two are one; it is time and space that have changed.
I sit and look at you, my friend, and wonder at your perfection
All is needed, nothing is wasted.
And what a journey from one perfection to another!
An instant of magic when anonymity changes to reality.
When the plane becomes a cube,
When nothingness becomes reality, with shape and space and meaning
Here is the mystery of our art.
We both shared a love of simple folding, which he expressed in his development of “Pureland Folding” and “Forgiving Folds” in which he hoped that the simplicity he so admired would help develop models suitable for children to learn. We also enjoyed computing, then at the start of the PC as we know it today. I bought my first “decent” computer from John, a green-screen “Apricot” with a (gasp) 20Mb hard drive, which I was utterly thrilled with.
He also contributed several essays and booklets about ideas that excited him, often bringing together origami and mathematics. Each had its own acronym such as “Curio” (Curve Induced Origami), and SNOW (Symmetric Nodal Origami World) and OIL (Origami instruction Language). His contributions to the early days of the Society were immense and will no doubt be documented elsewhere.
I spent many happy hours with John over the years, at BOS convention, overseas conventions and especially at a tribute to Thoki Yenn in Dessau (right). I set up and maintained a website for him, called “Bits Of Smith” (now hosted by the BOS here) and was amazed at the breadth of his knowledge and expertise.
As John grew older, his acuity inevitably lessened, but his charm only grew and he was able to really “let his hair down” from time to time. His phone calls were often to discuss some finer point of theory or to point me towards a new delight he had discovered.
In more recent years, his calls were fewer and often quite emotional, his mobility was on the wane and eventually he moved to a care home. By all accounts though, he was still alert and engaged with his fellow residents, although his physical health didn’t allow him to travel to the BOS 50th, despite our efforts to make it happen. I was delighted that he got to see the first copy of my tribute to David Lister, since he had (gently) nagged me for several years to produce it!
John was a towering giant of origami academia and his thought-provoking work will continue to influence future students of the art.
Kim Jong Un has discovered a new weapon – trumpigami 😉
Latest design, a floating cube – origami defies the laws of nature, sort of…
Published by Bloomsbury Circus
On the surface, this book (Udall’s debut) is about a man called Jonah, trying to come to terms with his grief following the sudden death of his wife. He meets several characters though his time in Kew Gardens, one of whom addresses her own problems through the medium of origami. Whilst a main theme of the book is sadness and loss, but it also shows how the human spirit can rise to find happiness again. The reader is taken on an extraordinary journey and like all good books, things are not as they initially seem.
This is the first novel I have read that integrates origami into the story so effectively and Udall has clearly made a serious study of the subject. On her website, the page of “inspiration” is a montage of images, which include many beautiful models, including those of Robert Lang and Seb Limet. Origami references are scattered throughout the book, even including a quote from Yoshizawa. One chapter includes the building of a “Memory Tree” where people fold cranes and write down things they have lost or found and hang them from a tree.
Peter Engel is acknowledged in the credits for his book “Origami from Angelfish to Zen” as is the classic Hokusai woodprint “A magician turns sheets of paper into birds”, which one of the characters has as a tattoo on her arm. However it’s clear, at least to an origami reader, that Udall has done far more than simply insert references, she understands that folding paper can be a spiritual journey. For example:
“She watches the movement of her hands across the paper, wondering if the real magic of origami is in the doing rather than the end product.”
“Origami has shown her that nothing is set in stone. A bird can be refolded into a boat, a fish, a kimono or any other extravagant vision. At other times it aches to return to its original folds. The paper begins to fray. It tires, it rebels.”
To be clear, this isn’t an origami book, it’s an enchanting story of loss and rebirth. However, if (like me) you see origami as far more than a recreational novelty, you’ll be delighted to see how sensitively our art has been woven into a story.
I can’t recall how I first connected with Mark, but it may well be through a column called “Airmail” that I wrote for the BOmag in the 80s. We became better acquainted when he invited me to join a private origami publication called “FOLD”, where along with the likes of David Lister, Robert Lang, Michael LaFosse, James Sakoda and many others, a group of 15 or so people exchanged bi-monthly columns where we talked about our lives and origami. Being fairly poor at the time, I said that I would be unable to post large packets to America on a regular basis, so he suggested a way round it would be to posting my contribution to Mark, who would then make 20 photocopies of my 10 or sp page articles. to send to the editor for collating along with his own scribings.
I rapidly discovered that Mark not only had a highly developed sense of humour (and a love of drinking songs) but that he was a generous friend. He would regularly send me copies of John Montroll’s latest books (and had John sign them) as well as any number of books, magazines and gifts.
One package from him arrived on a Saturday morning when I was still in bed and I opened it eagerly. Inside was a small brown envelope marked “Rattlesnake eggs store below 5 degrees to prevent hatching”. I gingerly opened the package and nearly wet myself when it jumped in my hands and made a loud rattling noise. It was, of course, just a rubber-band powered noise maker, the type of toy Mark loved. He must have spent a small fortune in the discount shops buying up all manner of tricks & games to give away and to amuse people. His house was a treasure trove of discounted items – like me, he felt if something was a bargain, he should buy it, regardless of whether there was an immediate need for it 😉
Mark was not a prolific creator, but he did both create and adapt numerous models. He often made diagrams of others’ work and did his best to promote models he liked. At some point, he began to create badges / broaches of models folded from foil paper that he hand-decorated and lacquered for strength before mounting a pin on the back. These eye-catching gifts were in great demand and he would always bring a massive collection of them when he visited conventions overseas. Whilst he sold a few, the vast majority, I suspect, were given away – I still have dozens.
When I was invited as the guest at an OUSA convention, I had intended to travel alone (due to lack of funds) but Mark offered to cover the costs so that my wife could accompany me. He insisted I kept this amazing act of generosity a secret, but I feel it’s right to share now to give an indication of the kind of man he was. After the convention, Ali and I spent a few blissful days at his house during his traditional “Fold & Feed” weekend. As well as seeing fireflies (for the first time!) we watched amazed as Mark and Arlene hosted an event almost the size of a BOS convention in their back garden!
In the movies, American houses often seem to have huge basements and Mark had turned his into an origami man-cave. The largest room had wall-to-wall bookshelves chock-full of origami magazines and books, as well as enough paper to stock a medium sized shop. The rest of the space was full of tables covered with more paper & books yet to be filed. Sandwiched in the corner was a desk with a computer where Mark made contact with the outside world via email or skype. Another basement room was given over to relaxation, with music system and settee, but this had turned into a drying room for his pin badges, with hundreds neatly lined up awaiting the next convention. The room next to that was the assembly room, where the models were folded, attached to the pin and lacquered, again, many hundreds were in preparation at any given time. I cannot begin to guess how many thousands of these little gems he made during his lifetime, but they have spread around the world and are universally treasured.
Mark loved to travel and visited many international conventions where his huge personality and generous nature endeared him to countless folders. We spent some quality time together when he stayed with me for a few days after the BOS 30th Anniversary in York, 1997. From time to time he was a “special guest”, such as Brannenburg, Germany in 2005 (he was easy to identify as he sported a bright orange high-visibility jacket) and Mennorode, Holland in 2009. Invariably, he was accompanied by his wife Arlene.
One remarkable aspect of Mark’s personality was his positive approach. I cannot remember him losing his temper or being disrespectfully critical of anyone. He had a great heart and liked to look on the brighter side of life. Despite this, he had some wry observations from time to time on the internal politics of OUSA.
In his later years, Mark’s beard grew longer and turned white, resembling the classic image of Santa Claus. In many ways, this was apt, since he had a huge love for children and an endless stream of ways to amuse and delight them. Whether it was a squeaker that he operated while pressing their noses, or toys he had bought in bulk from a discount store, or origami models folded to order, he was never at a loss. He also had a bottomless well of jokes and excruciating puns to share. You can hear a few of them here
He attended the BOS 50th Anniversary convention in September 2017 and even at that point was unaware of the illness that was quickly to take him from us. It’s safe to say he squeezed a lot more into his 68 years on the planet than most people ever do. He found a final release from severe pain in the arms of his beloved wife Arlene and our thoughts go out to her and the rest of the family.
A lovely photo of one of my designs posted by Rui Roda
I’m off to Germany soon to teach at the Fröbel Flastrasse conference in Weimar. Ich freue mich darauf! Conference details here.
A nice photo taken by Morigami
I found this lovely example of my XYZmbe design folded by Michal Pikula. It was a planar module named in honour of Sam Evison, a delightful man who used to run the Hazel Grove mini-meetings in the 80s when I was a regular attendee. He was awarded an MBE for services to children. I created a series of diagrams for simple models in the BOS magazine for a column in his honour.