The “Folders” – Episode Two of My Afternoon at The Institute for Figuring with Margaret Wertheim and Other New Acquaintances

Learning to Fold at Institute for Figuring animation
Learning to Fold at Institute for Figuring

On first meeting, Margaret Wertheim impresses me as one who could keep a noncommittal face when confronted with surprising news – a demeanor useful to a poker player. Unlike can’t-keep-any-emotion-off-her-face me, who would make a terrible poker player were it not for the fact that I learned early in life to stay sober during a game.

Upon hearing me disclose that I do not fold, origami or otherwise (heck, I’d be hard pressed to fold a bedsheet to pass muster by anyone older than the age of five) Margaret’s reaction is a quick nod of acknowledgement, rather than the dismay or disappointment I might have expected. She immediately resumes the setting up that she apparently had been doing before I arrived.

I use the time to browse the art in the gallery’s collection, since she does not appear to need my assistance at this stage.

As I peruse, workshop participants begin to arrive in ones and twos. At some point we are all gathered around the table that appears to be our primary work-space-to-be. It is piled high with small pieces of heavyweight paper in 2”x3” business card shape and size. The gallery walls are lined with art sculptures made from these cards as well as other folded art objects and even some crocheted pieces.

Summoning my nerve I ask a few of the others if they fold.

“Oh yes,” effuses one of the two men in the room, “I’m just the driver, but my girlfriend folds every night.”

Mental note to self, “Okay, maybe the driver boyfriend will help me not be the lowliest folder of them all.”

A young woman to my right assures me that she is so enamored with spatial relationships and math that folding should be a breeze for her. Or, something to that effect.

Wouldn’t you know?

A mother and her 12 year old son are already seated and folding together. Where did they come from? Apparently the son had been there in another room for some other purpose, but decided to pop into our group and fold for a while before leaving.

Shown up by a folding 12 year old. Now I have a sense of how my computer illiterate friends feel. . . . continues

There’s a white-haired man and another woman across the table from me. They don’t answer my question, but seat themselves and start folding, so they don’t really need to respond.

Margaret and her assistant, Christina, also take seats at the round table now, so the rest of us who are still standing do as well. Margaret asks if anyone needs written instructions. She doesn’t actually look at me when she asks the question, but when she holds out a sheet of paper, everyone knows who to pass it to.

We are folding these custom business cards into cubes. The cards aren’t real business cards. They don’t have, you know, business names and addresses and whatnot on them. They are just the size, shape and weight of business cards.

Spatial Girl is on her third box already. I am turning the instruction sheet – filled with text and line diagrams – from side to side trying to figure out which orientation will help me make sense of this visual guide.

Driver Man appears to be holding his own in the folding derby even if his girlfriend is the Real Folder.

Okay, I’m close to hyperventilating now. I can’t make heads or tails of the instructions. It’s not that I am not a visual learner, I am precisely that. I know all about the different learning and teaching modalities having taught college design and programming students for the last 8 years. But this visual guide in front of me is doing nothing to help.

I think it is partly nerves and partly a 2D to 3D translation problem that I am completely aware of having.

In an early programming class I remember how the teacher gave us a theoretical model to work with. A little robot we were supposed to move about a maze-like grid of “streets.” Only I got totally hung up when the teacher asked us to write a program that would “stack” objects that the little robot was carrying.

You see, the little robot lived in 2D space. To me, “stacking” implies 3D space. I said as much to the professor. “No,” he told me, “Just stack the objects up and down the grid.”

For days I attempted to visualize “stacking” in a 2D space. I could not. As I tried to mentally work out the programs I was supposed to write, I could not imagine stacking without using the Z (3rd dimension) axis.

Oh, Lord. I think the professor thought I was just being a smartass. I was not. I felt like my brain was going to blow up if I tried any harder to imagine “stacking” along the north-south or east-west axis of a 2D grid, and then having my robot “climb over” the stack. How can you “climb over” something in 2D space?

So, calling someone a “visual” rather than an auditory or kinesthetic learner, seems to be an oversimplification. What kind of a visual learner?

It really is not that I am a kinesthetic learner. I do not learn best by doing, but by observing – visualizing – for example what Spatial Girl is doing in real time and in 3D space folding her boxes.

Do you learn and imagine in 2D or 3D? I know for a fact that the 2D/3D learning dichotomy also translates to creating – I have always been aware that I paint in a conceptual 3D space (even on a flat canvas) and I compose music in 3D spatial layers.

The 2D origami business card folding instructions are like attempting to read Japanese hieroglyphics to me.

I stop staring blindly at the written, and illustrated, instructions, and turn my attention to Spatial Girl. Within seconds I am folding my first box simply by observing how she folds her box – in 3D space.

Soon, I am on a roll. Folding business card origami boxes with the rest of them.

After the first few, I understand the folding pattern, too, and it is a breeze to make a box. I straighten my shoulders and raise my head. My body language is now conveying confidence.

No one is talking much. We fold. We are one. I belong to the origami folding crowd.

Margaret looks around the table at everyone’s work and finally breaks the folding silence.

“I know. Why don’t we try creating random color schemes?” she suggests.

I smile and nod.

Until I look around  and note that all of my origami peers are folding lovely color and pattern-symmetrical boxes.  I, on the other hand, have just been folding whatever card I happen to pick up from the pile in front of me. My boxes are ALL randomly patterned.

Now, did this fact catch Margaret’s attention, and give her the idea for us to create a chaotically colored card sculpture, or is she being polite and encouraging others to fold randomly so as not to leave me odd-woman out yet again.

I suspect the latter. Her poker face gives away nothing for sure, of course.

My posture slumps a little.

And a little more when I then note that everyone else is managing to fold tight little boxes that hold together well, while my boxes are all notable for their loose seams and the fact that one in two of them fall apart after sitting on the table for a few minutes or when even slightly jostled.

Setting pride aside, I ask Driver Man, who is seated to my left,  “How are you keeping your boxes tight?”

He holds up something along the order of a wooden letter opener. Apparently girlfriend Real Folder brought it with them. For fold flattening. Tools of the folding trade. Who knew.

I look to Spatial Girl. She is using her fingernails to crease each of the card folds before beginning the box folding process with them. I am not about to endanger my fingerstyle guitar picking nails on origami creasing.

I decide to stand and take photos. My boxes are clearly not going to be an important element of this or the next step of our afternoon project, which Margaret is now beginning to describe to us. The next phase of our origami folding day: origami animation.


To be continued.


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