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Interview: Sara Adams - Promoting Origami

Edited by Patsy Wang-Iverson

This interview was conducted by Liliana Badillo in January 2013 via email for Mini Neo. It was translated into Spanish and published in Mini Neo Issue Number 14. The editors of Mini Neo have generously allowed us to reproduce this interview in English, the language of the interview.

-- Sara, March 2013

Tell us a bit about yourself.

My name's Sara Adams, and I'm a passionate origami enthusiast. I started with origami about seven years ago, and only a few months after that went on to teaching origami, too. About 5 1/2 years ago I additionally began producing instructional origami videos, which is probably the most visible of my contributions to the origami community. I also post various other content, much of which can be found on my website (e.g. an origami dictionary), and some in various society magazines. Finally, I am also an editor for OrigamiUSA's online magazine The Fold.

How was your first encounter with origami?

Like many, I learned my first origami model in kindergarden. It wasn't called origami back then, and it didn't interest me more than any of the other crafts I was introduced to (I did and do enjoy many sorts of crafts). My repertoire back then consisted of three models - a cootie catcher, a hat, and a boat (which could be folded from the hat).

My second encounter with origami was when I was 9 or 10 years old. I went to a summer camp and one workshop focused on origami. This time it was indeed called origami, and I enjoyed it immensely. But as such things go, it was just that one workshop and I didn't continue with it. The workshop did remain with me as a fond memory, though.

When many years later, in 2005, I was searching for a good Christmas gift, that memory inspired me to buy an origami book. Once the present had been unwrapped excitedly I was of course asked to fold along. And this is where I usually say I started with origami. Because this time round, I didn't let it be an one-time occasion, but I embraced my again-found joy for origami.

So I suppose you could say the third time is the charm.

You are well known for your videos on Youtube. How did you come up with the idea of producing videos to teach origami?

Modular Origami: Mette's Ring, designed by Mette Pederson, folded by Sara Adams

Shortly after I started with origami I joined the Oxford Origami Society. Soon I began teaching models in the weekly folding sessions we had. But something struck me. A lot of the other members found it difficult to fold the model again at home. Even when they had diagrams, they struggled and much preferred following along while someone was actually showing and explaining what to do. So I wondered how I could help them out.

Making videos seemed like an ideal solution. People could watch how to fold a model, listen to explanations, and importantly watch the video again at a later time. Liking the idea, I figured if I put work into videos, I might as well try and make them accessible to more people. After all, perhaps others had the same problem with following diagrams, or with refolding a model after a session. Or, more importantly, perhaps others didn't have a local origami group at which they could attend folding sessions. Or there were other reasons why they could not attend such sessions. I got pretty excited. But first came some research. After all, the idea for origami videos had come to me quite naturally, and surely others had had the same thought. I didn't want to reinvent the wheel. Perhaps enough material was already out there, and my job would be done with pointing the others to those videos. After browsing through a couple of video platforms, I came to the conclusion that there were few origami tutorials out there, and those usually only showed how to fold the same three, simple models: a crane, a waterbomb, a lily. All of these other, exciting models by lots of awesome designers were not to be found in any videos. Plus, the quality of the videos didn't convince me – which is to say much was horrible to watch, and impossible to follow. I figured I could do better, not just with respect to recording quality, but more importantly with respect to the actual content - showing the steps, and explaining them in an understandable way.

And that's how I started. I will note that the quality of my first videos was much worse than it is today, but at the time - even if it's hard to believe - it actually was better than (most of) what existed.

Whose work do you admire?

There is so much incredible work going on in the origami community, and so there's also much I admire. I couldn't name just one artist, or two, or three, simply because I'd be doing an injustice to all the others' work I appreciate just as much.

But I don't want to take the easy way out and not name anyone (although that was a tempting option). So I will admit that there are some key personalities I associate with specific areas of origami. For example, Robert Lang for his scientific approach to origami, which is truly fascinating and enlightening; Giang Dinh for his artistic, expressive wet-folding, but especially the stories associated with his pieces (I had the pleasure of hearing a talk by him, as well as talking to him personally); Tomoko Fuse for her wonderful boxes, spirals, and kusudamas, for her being such an extraordinary, yet still humble woman; Eric Gjerde for his tessellations, and more importantly his book that finally gave me the courage to attempt more advanced tessellations; Román Díaz for his geometric designs, that wonderfully capture the essence of the animals they resemble; I could go on. But I'll stop here, because the more I give names, the more I'll feel like I need to name just some more.

More importantly, though, it is not just designers whose work I admire. There are some exquisite folders out there, as well as people taking things a step further: producing or customizing their paper, using origami to create objects - be it jewelry, vases, lamps - or putting together beautiful compositions. Finally, there are people, who I admire for who they are, not (just) for their work. I have made many friends through origami, and while their work brought them into my life, it is their personality that made them part of my life. This, for me, is the true beauty of origami.

You've mentioned before that you work for Google. Do you somehow see a connection between your work and origami?

Tessellations: Tiled Hydrangea, designed by Shuzo Fujimoto, folded by Sara Adams

I'd say there's no direct connection between origami and my work as a software engineer. However, I do think some of my traits profit both my origami work and my work for Google. For example, I am creative, persistent, patient, but most importantly someone who loves to learn, loves to explore, and knows there's always ways to improve. I also have a very analytical way of approaching things, examining them, trying to understand and pull out more than is visible at first glance. If you're a computer scientist, you'll agree that all of these are extremely helpful if you work in the field. And if you're an origami enthusiast - which you probably are, as you are reading this - you'll surely recognize that these are traits that can help you progress greatly in a specific direction of origami.

Additionally, there are things that I learn from origami that profit my full-time position, and things that I learn in my professional work that help me progress with my origami work. Probably the hardest and most useful thing I've learned over time is making the right tradeoffs, or those which seemed like the right ones. Time is crucial, there's never enough of it to do all I want, so finding compromises is essential. It's important to me to produce great quality, both in my professional work and my origami work. But while I value it, I also know I cannot perfect everything to the finest detail - else I'd never be done with anything. So I've had to learn to say "This is most important." and "This is good enough." and then move on.

For example, I know that I could improve just about every video I've made public so far, but I still did put them online. They were good enough - at least at the point in time I completed them. And I hope that most viewers will agree that "good enough" for me also means "good enough" for them. Plus, if something wasn't quite as good, I can try to change it in the next video. Some things I notice myself, others viewers will let me know in comments, email, or in person. Of course I won't always agree, but getting feedback is always super valuable.

For obvious reasons it's harder for me to give a concrete example from my work as a software engineer. But it suffices to say that there, too, I have learned over time. I also get a lot of helpful feedback. Just like with comments in origami sometimes I won't agree with them, but always do I learn from them. Hence over time I progress. Which brings me back to my trait of knowing there's always ways to improve - and to do my best to find those ways and walk along them.

What inspires you?

There's so much goodness going on that it's hard for me not to get inspired. Let's take a look at the origami community, for example. Let's start with online inspiration.

Pictures of folds often make my fingers itch, make me want to fold that model, too. That may lead to researching who the designer is, what they are about. It may lead to a video, or me buying a book. Or me discovering another aspect of origami. Perhaps conversations will start and I get to know new people, or someone I already know more closely.

I receive quite a few emails. Some point me to designers and models I wasn't aware of, others pose interesting questions. Inspiration is often not far. Similarly, comments I receive are a pool for ideas, energy, and ultimately drive me to look further.

Perhaps most inspiring are usually conventions. I get to see great work, but more importantly meet great people. I've had exquisite conversations with other attendees, which have let me come home full of ideas, things I want to do, overflowing with inspiration. By the way, these conversations may be with designers, "normal" folders, or even people who don't actually fold themselves. Taking in a different view point opens my perspective. When confronted with different ideas than your own, new ideas are usually just around the corner, too. Of course, at conventions workshops and the exhibition, books and paper all also inspire. But people are much more powerful. It's perhaps also one of the reasons why at conventions I mostly talk with people, rather than fold paper. Actually, people are generally the aspect that's most important to me in my origami hobby. I have met many wonderful friends through it, and continue to get to know kind fellow enthusiasts. Origami may be the reason I get to know them, but friendships form because of who they are. It is this great pool of interesting personalities, the great sense of generosity and sharing that inspires me most.

Do you have some ideas you would like to try?

Ah, yes. I have more ideas than I have time to execute. Some ideas are smaller, some grand. Some ideas might fall short of what I think they could be, for others it's a pity I don't have the time to execute them. I restrict what I do quite a bit. It's important to me to do something well, rather than start several things and not do them justice.

Origami from Irregular Shapes: Spiral, designed by Tomoko Fuse, folded by Sara Adams

For example, if I had unlimited time, I'd love to give designing a go. I'd like to write a book, and actually already have an idea of what I could contribute that isn't quite out there: a publication, with which you can learn to read diagrams - accompanied with videos, of course, to help move from watching instructional videos to diagrams. I'd like to do a series of interviews with designers, travel to more conventions and perhaps document those, too. I'd love to teach more paper-related crafts, such as kirigami. I'd love to learn more about book binding and paper production, try them out myself. I'd of course love to do tons more instructional videos, both in English and German, as well as remake my old videos, which are of a poor quality and don't do the models justice. I'd love to hold local workshops again, not necessarily anything commercial, but rather charitable: perhaps at children's homes, retirement homes, hospitals, rehab centers, schools. Oh, I'd love to also look into how to explain school mathematics with the help of origami. I'd love to then write a book (or several, actually) on that, too.

And there's more. There's always more. But I don't have unlimited time, nobody does. So I pick some ideas and follow up on those. If I find that I've got some extra time, then I can see whether I want to follow up on another idea.

Lately, however, time hasn't really been freed up, but rather decreased. That's not really a bad thing, after all I'm spending that time with my little baby son, my husband, my family. I've managed to still make videos, to continue my work as editor of The Fold, and also - although only periodically and often with much delay - answer all the origami emails I get. In that, the visible work I do hasn't suffered much. I spend much less time folding by myself, and this year also didn't get to go to the Italian convention. But these compromises I'm happy to make. Origami is a part of my life I greatly appreciate, especially the people that I've met through origami, but it's not the only thing that matters. Finding the right balance is key to maintaining that love for origami, but also all the other great aspects of my life. And of course, I also have many non-origami related ideas that keep on popping up and which I'd like to try - time permitting.

What do you think is the future of origami in terms of its recent spread on the internet?

It's very hard to predict the future, but if there's one thing the recent developments have shown, it's that more people are getting aware of origami as something fascinating. With origami appearing in science, art, and commercial settings I believe non-folders are not perceiving it as "just a childen's pastime" anymore. This may lead to more people folding, but more importantly more respect for origami.

Complex Origami: Eagle, designed by Nguyen Hung Cuong, folded by Sara Adams

With respect to the effect of origami spreading on the internet, this I do believe will lead to more people enjoying origami. I believe people who are fascinated with origami will have an easier time starting to fold themselves, and those who've tried it a little bit will have (and already do have) a great pool of inspiration and instructions (be it video, diagrams, CPs) to further this hobby.

Additionally, designers can present their work, exchange ideas, get inspiration, and so I also believe the explosion of new designs that's been happening in recent years won't slow down.

Another advantage is that people can get in touch with others more easily. Designers can get feedback on their work, admirers can pass messages to them or even communicate with them. Fellow enthusiasts can help each other out, be it with specific folding steps, finding designs or instructions, or whatever moves them. Thus, the online community strengthens the community, especially internationally, and makes origami more social. This trend, too, will continue.

Most importantly, perhaps, the internet allows origami to become a hobby for those in remote areas (with little or no access to origami books), for those with little money (thanks to free online content), and those who don't have origami communities close-by or cannot visit these for other reasons (e.g. disabilities). Origami can be done nicely from home, it does not require expensive material, and so with many instructions being available online one of the last hurdles from the past is disappearing.

Having said this, I don't think free online content will lower origami book sales, attendance to conventions, etc, but rather support it. If there are more origami enthusiasts - and most start with free content (even if it's borrowing a book from a library) - then there are more people interested in buying books or spending money on buying diagrams online. And more people interested means more people will also eventually decide to spend money on something they enjoy, on something they'd like to get to further that enjoyment. I believe in this strongly. I've had confirmation from designers whose books I've featured in my instructional videos. They usually see a spike in book sales after I post the video and more people become aware of their work. I don't believe the online development of origami puts the commercial aspects of origami at risk, but rather boosts it, and will continue to do so.

Put together, I think the online spread of origami furthers both recognition and respect for origami, as well as facilitates more people to learn it, and thus more people to join the community - allowing origami to grow in directions we cannot yet anticipate. This excites me, and makes me curious for the years to come! Look back where origami was 5, 10, 20 years ago. What wonders will we experience and be part of in the next 20?

You work very hard on demonstrating and teaching origami. What's the main message that you want to communicate to people watching your videos?

Crumpling: Mushroom, designed by Vincent Floderer, folded by Sara Adams

My initial motivation was to help people who already enjoy origami fold more at home. It turned out that videos were also great for introducing people to origami who hadn't done it before. This motivation has partly stayed - I want to enable people to learn origami if they want to wherever they want to. This is one of the reasons why I continue to polish my teaching skills. With every video my teaching style changes a little, I try to improve each and every time.

But I also want people to be able to simply enjoy origami. It might seem strange to some, but quite a few viewers simply watch my videos or look at origami content in general, because they enjoy watching things being created - without really feeling the need to try it out themselves. In that I am promoting origami in general, not just as a "craft" to execute.

Something that has developed over time, rather than being the initial motivator, is that I want to highlight different designers. I want to give an understanding that there are many designers out there, what their work is about. I want to have people realize that the designs aren't just there, they're work done by real people, and that these designers deserve recognition, respect, and gratitude for that work. Part of showing respect is also working on producing a quality that does the designer's work justice, which again plays into the aspect of me working hard on the content I create.

So perhaps there are two main messages I want to communicate: First, "Origami is something for you to enjoy, too.", and second, "Actual people put hard work into creating origami designs, give them recognition." The second part particularly is reflected in me stating clearly who designed pieces, getting their permission to present their work, showing books, referring to their websites, but is also something I've focused on in correspondences, as well as in some articles I authored.

Would you like to add something?

Thank you. Thank you for everyone in the community that makes it what it is.

Thank you to the designers, who create and share their creations.

Thank you to the folders, who enjoy origami, who share that passion.

Thank you to the content creators, who write articles, who take pictures and publish them, who share their thoughts and experiences in emails or forums, at conventions, in workshops, in conversations.

Thank you to the teachers, who further the skills by hosting workshops, leading classes, and spontaneously teaching a friend, children, or even a stranger, a model - making origami something to do together, not just by yourself.

Thank you to everyone who enjoys origami. It's you who makes origami what it is to me. Without the people I connect to, origami wouldn't be even close to what it is for me. Origami may be something you can do by yourself, but my passion comes from the wonderful people that I have gotten to know through it, and continue to get to know.

Thank you also, Liliana and Mini Neo, for interviewing me, and allowing me to indulge in sharing some of my thoughts on origami, particularly with respect to my contributions to the community.