The aforementioned show at Stonybrook was an unusual experience for me. I have shown my work in exhibitions before, but this was the first time I had to be on hand for the entire show (The show was up for seven days, nine hours a day, it turned out to be a full time job). Fortunately, my wonderful wife was with me to offer moral support, fold some paper and field some of the questions that the attendees had. And there were a lot of questions.

The opening weekend coincided with the Origami Festival, with activities, classes and demonstrations for devotees of the folding arts. I didn’t have any time to check these activities out, as I was tied to the exhibition room for the duration. It was very busy. I’m sure many people that weekend were hoping to get mask-folding instruction from me. Simply folding the preliminary grid in a piece of paper can take hours, and the process of making a mask from that grid is more a matter of creative improvisation with by than step-by-step instruction. So the first most frequently asked question, “how do you do that”, doesn’t have a short, concise answer like: fold corner A to corner B, leaf-fold this bit, rabbit-ear that bit, etc…

It’s more like: “how do you compose an etude for piano”  – not to get all self-aggrandizing, but each mask I do is basically an individual composition, based on techniques that I’ve adapted and honed specifically for working with paper in this way. Paper is a sculptural medium and folding is my preferred method for manipulating it. It is not step-by-step and I don’t keep diagrams or instructions for what I do, I just do it.

Some other questions that came up at the show:

Q: “Are they each from a single piece of paper?”

A: Yes – by far the most frequently asked question, and the easiest one to answer (I wish they all were simple yes/no questions). But it is usually followed up with “…because some of them look like they’re woven…” which is not actually a question, but an observation, and an implied invitation for me to elaborate on the masks’ construction. So I elaborate. It’s a technique that is both structural and ornamental. Parallel folds make pleats that open up to form the convexities of the face and intersect with each other around the face. Where they intersect, twist folds are formed on the back of the piece which help to keep the pleats closed. The pleats get pretty tightly packed together, and where they run parallel to each other, the space between them looks like an individual strip of paper from the front. Where twist folds occur on the back, it appears that the “strips” of paper are crossing under and over one another.

The piece above uses a “basket-weave” technique. On the back you would see large, “open-backed” hexagonal twists alternating with triangular twists. On the front you see the spaces between the folds as strips, and where they appear to weave is actually a twist fold seen from the back. A weave such as this not only looks nice, but it keeps all those intersecting pleats organized and helps the mask hold its shape.

Q: “How long do they take you to do?”

A: Another simple question without a simple answer. As a side note, although I get this question a lot and I understand the reason for it, it still seems kind of an odd thing to ask. People seldom ask painters how long a piece took to paint, or poets how long it took to write a poem. It could be the Art versus Craft thing. Or the Hobby versus Occupation thing. Whatever it is, the masks are complicated objects and people like to know how long it takes to do something complicated. I would probably ask the same question to someone who makes a model ship in a bottle or builds a scale replica of the Eiffel Tower out of matchsticks. It’s a natural question.

The problem is, how to answer the question. Just considering the time it takes to fold a piece when I know exactly what to do and I have a piece of paper that has been prefolded into a grid, may be a matter of say four or five hours. But then the paper does have to be prefolded, and what about all the time spent figuring out each design? The trial and error, combining and discarding various elements: eyes, noses, mouths, to see which fit and how the folds interact. And all the models that went before, from which elements and techniques have been distilled to contribute to new pieces. Not to mention the treatment of the paper before and after folding: dying, stamping, painting, glazing, shellac, gum arabic, polyurethane, etc. which also goes through many trials and many errors. There is an evolutionary process by which the weaknesses of some pieces are culled and the more interesting bits extracted to be recombined with new ideas to form new masks, which are then distilled once again to make new designs. I’ve been doing these masks for about five years now, and you could say that the pieces I do now take about five years to make (By this token, you could also say that the pieces I did a year ago only took four years to make, which would seem to imply that either my models are getting more complicated or my skills are in decline). You can see a bit of the evolutionary process in some of my pieces from the last two years:

This was my first attempt at a bearded mask, but when I actually got to the beard, I was at a loss as to what to do. So I left the “beard” undefined and it became sort of a collar instead.  

Here I’ve used almost exactly the same face but figured out one way to do a beard, a kind of twisty thing made of linked opened hex-twist variations, something I would come back to many times for a bit of texture. 

I’ve carried over much of the beard design, as well as the nose and the mouth, although the mouth has been redesigned a bit to get a mustache which the above mask lacked. The eyes are different, I introduced a new approach to make them more defined and curvilinear. 



I’ve taken the beard and the eyes from the previous mask with virtually no modification, but have changed the mouth to make it gape open and used a newly designed nose with flaring nostrils. The ornamental detailing at the top also defines the shape of the brow and forehead. 

There are a lot of diversions and dead ends along the way, but there are certain features that demonstrate a direct line of descent, and the final piece, “Poseidon”, could not exist without the pieces that proceeded him. So while it may only take a few hours to fold him, knowing how to fold him took years and thousands of creases. 

There are more questions to address, but I’ll have to get to them in future posts.


7 thoughts on “FAQ

  1. I like this very much.

    When I was following you around at the 2006 OUSA convention, I was not infrequently asked these questions, because you were almost always answering the same questions for someone else. Me, not being as enamored of the the truth as some, I would just answer at random. “Yes, Joel folds these masks, wearing only an empty soup can on his head — he positively worships Happy Hooligan — and it only takes him an hour or two. That doesn’t take into account the ritual purification….”

    Oh, I had a lot of fun with these questions. The truth ain’t bad, neither.


  2. Truth is for the unimaginative and the forgetful. I considered many possibilities when faced with these questions, but ultimately decided that I should adhere to the truth as much as possible, if only because my memory’s not good enough to keep my stories straight.


  3. Hello Mr. Cooper

    I would like to learn your technique. I think many people would find interesting a book from you.

    Do you have in mind any future project like that?

    Your work is so realistic and impressive!



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