Pittsburgh origami club still knows when to fold 'em

| Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, 6:58 p.m.

The ancient Japanese art of paper folding has reached the ripe old age of 25 in Pittsburgh.

The Origami Club of Pittsburgh celebrates its 25th anniversary next weekend at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh — Squirrel Hill, where it holds monthly meetings.

“They provide fantastic programs that everybody is welcome to attend,” says Megan Fogt, children's librarian. “Kids and teens particularly have a blast. They teach models from easy to intricate.”

The club began when an art teacher in graduate school had an epiphany about origami. Sue Neff, 74, now a retired Blackhawk School District elementary art teacher, had folded as a child. But, she says, “I didn't realize the significance.”

Neff issued an invitation to anyone interested, to meet at the Squirrel Hill Library. Two other women attended that first meeting. It's now one of the longest-running volunteer programs offered at the library.

“I had studied the work of Froibel, the man in Germany who started the kindergarten movement,” says Neff of Sewickley. “I realized that origami had so much thinking behind it. It subtly teaches the child mathematics, and a child doesn't realize they are learning fractions, quadrants and geometry. By the time they get to 10th grade, they can do almost everything in plane geometry, because they have been doing it through origami.”

Neff chose the Squirrel Hill location because of its proximity to the universities, hoping it would inspire university clubs.

It did.

Now, there are spin-off clubs at Carnegie Mellon University — that club began 15 years ago — and the University of Pittsburgh, which is in its third year.

“(Neff) is amazing,” Fogt says.” The most important thing I've learned from Sue is that you can teach anyone origami. Even a 5-year-old kid can come up with a lovely piece of origami when they are done.”

The Squirrel Hill library branch has one of the region's largest collections of origami books, with more than 50 titles. Two books are by members. John Morin wrote “The Ultimate Origami Book.” And one of those 5-year-olds, Scott Stern — actually, he was 4 when he became a member — authored “Outside the Box Origami.” The book was published when Stern was 14 years old.

“It was just a natural extension of everything I was doing,” says Stern, an American Studies major at Yale University, who stopped by a recent meeting.

Debra Care McLean of Greenfield taught the beginning session.

Origami does not require special paper. Newspapers were used to make samurai warrior hats, with member Colin Pronko, 9, leading a demonstration on a variation design.

“We come because I enjoy the problem solving of origami with my kids,” says his mom, Chelle, of Greenfield.

The group made bookmarks with origami boats and frogs that really jump using colorful index cards.

“These look like poisonous dart frogs,” says Michelle Bethel, who was at her first meeting.

Jeri Corbin, a semi-retired art therapist from Brighton Heights, teaches the advanced class to fold the “Kawasaki Rose,” named for the pattern's designer. She's made thousands of paper roses, often painting old computer paper, to create realistic colors.

“I do this for me. It is my art therapy,” Corbin says. “Origami really offers something for all ages.”

The Origami Club takes their fold-ins on the road to other libraries, nursing homes, Phipps Conservatory and the Children's International Theater Festival or schools.

“I always say somebody will get bitten by the origami bug,” Neff says.

“One time I was in a second-grade classroom, and a child asked me if it would hurt,” she says, smiling. “It's the one bug that can bite you that won't hurt a bit.”

Jane Miller is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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