Kevin and Jennifer Box and Their Monumental Sculpture

Jennifer and Kevin Box at their studio south of Santa Fe. Photo by Tira Howard.

Kevin and Jennifer Box have just opened a new exhibition of their monumental origami sculpture at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. The show, titled Origami in the Garden Florigami, runs through October 30.

A documentary about Kevin and Jennifer’s work, “Origami in the Garden,” will be screened at OrigamiUSA’s annual convention on Saturday, June 25, 2022, at 9 p.m. After the screening, The Boxes, along with origami artists who have collaborated with them (Richard Alexander, Beth Johnson, Michael LaFosse and Robert Lang), will take part in a discussion.

An article about the original Origami in the Garden exhibit appeared in The Fold in 2016.

Q What are the roots of your idea to turn origami into monumental sculpture?

A Kevin: My background was in graphic design, which transitioned into papermaking and fine-art printmaking. My first sculpture professor was a papermaker. Realizing that these mediums were too fragile to withstand my goals of participating in the 30,000 years of art history, I switched to sculpture. Apprenticing and eventually managing production at fine-art bronze-casting foundries enabled me to experiment with the process. Most artists start with clay and patina their final works a dark black, brown or green. I wanted my work to be different, so I simply chose a path informed by my love of paper. Initially I folded abstract stars and mandala patterns.

I started with a square for two reasons, first because the blank page reminded me of Aristotle’s philosophy of tabula rasa1 or the blank slate. To me it represents the archetypal symbol of the creative challenge. Whether you’re an artist, a writer, a mathematician or a musician, we all begin facing a blank page and the challenge to make something out of nothing. The second reason was that the square had a personal connection because my name is Box. I don’t remember learning about origami prior to exhibiting these initial pieces at an art festival in Austin, Texas. That was where I first encountered the term origami as everyone kept repeating “Oh cool, that’s like origami!” I didn’t see it until after a painstaking day of folding my first origami crane from a book someone had given me.

The crane itself was intriguing. I could see how it might be fabricated from sheet metal as well as cast, and I recognized the archetypal symbol of the white dove that it represented. I decided to deconstruct the crane, and upon unfolding it was profoundly moved by the symmetrical crease pattern that remained. This pattern resonated completely with the stars and mandalas I had been folding and casting in bronze. The fact that origami could represent an ancient creative philosophy like tabula rasa was inspiring: That this blank slate could be folded into infinite forms that lend themselves to being cast or fabricated in metal encouraged me as an artist. Finally, the unfolded crease patterns, in my opinion, resonate with spiritual mandalas, religious symbols and mathematical explanations — let’s just say I was hooked! I spent the next 20 years of my life dedicated full time to the work of interpreting what I consider to be elegant design aesthetics and the philosophy of origami in museum quality sculpture.

“Gathering Peace” by Kevin Box at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Powder-coated cast stainless steel and patinated cast bronze on stone. Photo courtesy of KevinBoxStudio.

Q How did Origami in the Garden become widely distributed (18 gardens and counting)? Did the show at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden in 2014 spark the interest of other institutions, or was a good portion of the schedule worked out early on?

A Jennifer: In 2008, Kevin and I toured the Atlanta Botanical Garden exhibit of Niki de St. Phalle Niki de St. Phalle and had big ideas that we, too, could someday produce a similar outdoor traveling exhibition. In 2013 we collected a substantial portfolio of outdoor monumental artworks and were finishing “Master Peace,” our largest creation to date, with a 25-foot version of the senbazuru.

Although this new piece was being created on spec, we envisioned it as the showpiece for Origami in the Garden. We began speaking out loud, to anyone who would listen, saying that we were going to create a traveling exhibition and have it tour public gardens. It was an idea, a dream, a goal. We were not quite sure how we would make it into a reality, but it was what we felt the universe was leading us to do. On a serendipitous evening in Santa Fe (many such moments are experienced in New Mexico), we had a show at our gallery, and Kevin met and chatted briefly with the CEO of the Santa Fe Botanical Garden, Clayton Bass. The interaction was quick because Kevin was preparing for an artist talk, and Clayton could not stay long. An hour later, after Kevin’s presentation of “Master Peace” to the audience, we saw that Clayton was still in attendance.

In learning of our desire to tour Origami in the Garden, Clayton demanded that the show begin at his garden here in Santa Fe. He noted that we could not tour the nation without starting the tour in our own backyard. Ironically enough, we had no idea the Santa Fe Botanical Garden existed because it had only opened the month before. The next spring, in 2014, we unveiled our exhibit at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden, and Clayton Bass connected us with the American Public Gardens Association, where we were introduced to over 600 public gardens as an associate member. Since then, we connect annually with the APGA and keep in communication with approximately 20 public gardens at any given time.

“Pinwheel Wildflowers” by KevinBoxStudio, Jennifer Box, Beth Johnson, Michael G. LaFosse and Robert J. Lang. At the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Powder-coated fabricated aluminum and steel, kinetic. Photo courtesy of KevinBoxStudio.

Q How did the new show, Origami in the Garden Florigami, develop from the original Origami in the Garden?

A Jennifer: The flower is a theme that has been sketched and proposed for public art from KevinBoxStudio since at least 2016. As artists, we are always working on future projects, although we do not always know which ones, at what times, will become a reality. When the Atlanta Botanical Garden committed to a larger exhibit, we knew we had the opportunity to create different subject matter and bring to life some of the sketches. In fact, we brought too many ideas to them, and we had to pick and choose with the garden what could work for them as well as us for the new show, Florigami.

Q What do you hope to communicate in your work?

A Jennifer: Kevin and I have different ways of saying the same thing with the work. I want to bring people joy and peace and Kevin would like to raise consciousness. We want visitors to see and feel the possibilities. We hope they’ll experience a connection to the work, to us, to each other.

“Casting can capture the detail of a fingerprint...” “Ghost Deer,” Opus 787 by Kevin Box and Robert J. Lang, at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Powder-coated cast stainless steel. Photo courtesy of KevinBoxStudio.

Q I am impressed with your ability to use casting to show the layers, thickness and irregularities of paper. Did this technique evolve for you?

A Kevin: Lost wax casting is a 6,000-year-old process that can capture the detail of a fingerprint from the artists hand in clay, all the way through the very complex casting process and into perpetuity. My initial excitement was about the challenge of capturing such details of paper like a fold, a crinkle and even the subtlety of a watermark. Once origami came into the picture, the folds and layers lent themselves to the surface details that contemporary lost-wax casting captures well. The bonus was recognizing that certain pieces could scale up infinitely using sheet metal fabrication. The simple fact that origami begins as a flat piece lends itself to cutting flat sheets of metal and welding them into the complex forms.

An example of fabricated sheet metal: “Perennial Peace, Tulips for Betty” by the KevinBoxStudio and Michael G. LaFosse, at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Photo courtesy of KevinBoxStudio. Powder-coated fabricated aluminum.

Q When do you choose sheet-metal fabrication?

A Kevin: Fabrication serves primarily for very large-scale pieces that consist of box pleats or large, fat planes. Wet-folded pieces do not lend themselves nearly as well to fabrication, so there are limitations. I first wanted to prove the concept with the help of an engineering team. In 2011, I was commissioned to do a large monument called “Folding Planes” that began with a blank rectangle at the bottom and demonstrated the creative process by folding itself — seven times, to represent each fold — into a paper traditional airplane at the top. I had the opportunity to work with a world-class engineer to prove that we could do it out of metal. We also proved that welding metal shapes together, inspired by folded paper designs and origami, resulted in structurally strong shapes capable of holding themselves up at full scale.

We had an opportunity to practice this further with a commission in 2014 of a 21-foot tall Pegasus called “Hero’s Horse.” That project resulted in the engineering firm GPLA Gregory P. Luth and Associates winning the highest award from the Structural Engineers Association of California for a “special structure,” which basically means it’s not a building. What the judges loved about the piece was the fact that the sculpture itself was also serving as the structural support. Usually there is a structural support hidden within a skin or building that basically hides the engineering. In this case we proved that the natural folding of origami in paper creates a usable structural design that holds up in metal.

Q What are your long-term goals?

A Kevin: We hope to continue developing our studio and 35-acre property as the world headquarters for Origami in the Garden traveling exhibitions. We have about five acres that open seasonally to public tours and programming. I personally hope to continue collaborating with some of the world’s most talented origami artists on a smaller, desktop scale. My greatest ambition may be to establish that origami has a place in the history of art and that the philosophy within it is universally inspiring.

1. “Tabula rasa (/ˈtæbjələ ˈrɑːsə, -zə, ˈreɪ-/; “blank slate”) is the theory that individuals are born without built-in mental content, and therefore all knowledge comes from experience or perception.” From Wikipedia. [back]

“Scents of Sincerity, Rose Kusudama,” Opus 753 by KevinBoxStudio and Robert J. Lang, at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Powder-coated fabricated aluminum. Courtesy of KevinBoxStudio.

This interview was edited for clarity.