Imagine having the ability to create anything you can dream of with just your hands and a piece of paper. Avon Koh, Executive, Office of Research, SingHealth, shares how his love for origami has opened up a whole new world and even taught him a few valuable life lessons.
A world of fantasy
Balrog from The Lord of the Rings, the FIFA World Cup trophy, an ancient dragon – these are just a few pieces of intricate origami art which Avon has created with his incredibly deft fingers.
An ancient art dating as far back as the 6th century, origami may seem like child’s play to many. On the contrary, Avon shares that some designs can get very challenging, requiring lots of careful planning and intricate engineering. What’s fantastic about this art form is that it’s cheap and easy for one to get started. All you need is a piece of paper to create models of any kind without a single cut, even for the most complicated ones. How fascinating!
The Balrog (L) started off as a 45cm x 45cm piece of paper but several hundred folding steps later ended up a 10cm tall paper model. Designing the FIFA World Cup (R) was difficult as it required Avon to devise a solution to show the two green stripes of the trophy – all using just one piece of paper.
Origami 101The process to creating an origami model typically goes like this: First, decide on a subject. Next, design the model by studying its attributes and select which ones to include in the final product – such as facial features, wings and scales. For each attribute, one will need to assign folding solutions and a logical position for it on a square piece of paper. Finally, fold and shape the model.
Avon shares that completing an origami project could take anywhere between a few hours to a couple of months. What’s most important, though, is to never give up.
“Art takes time.” Avon says, “But that shouldn’t be an excuse to stop. Find pockets of time to work on your project, and soon enough, you will reach the finish line!” He speaks from experience, of course, as one of his most recent models, an ancient dragon, took him two months to complete.
The ancient dragon model which took Avon two months to complete.
He quickly adds that it also took wet folding and shaping to create the magnificent dragon. Avon reckons that these are some of the more advanced skills that any serious origami enthusiast should have in their arsenal.
Wet folding, shaping and wallpaper glue helped turn this work-in-progress into a beautiful ancient dragon.
As the term suggests, wet folding is folding origami with slightly damp paper. This yields a more organic outline as opposed to straight, harsh folds. Shaping refers to editing the final product to make it look even more life-like, such as adding nails to the claws of a dragon. Avon lets on that as one grows in their folding journey, the shaping process is expected to get more complicated, eventually requiring tools like clips, wires, tweezers, paintbrushes and even wallpaper glue. The latter helps hold the paper and loose flaps together to make the model sturdier and not crumble when it is left on its own.
Avon uses tools, such as tweezers, to shape his origami pipe.
A beginner’s journey
For Avon, the interest in paper art started when he was a mere toddler. Barely able to feed himself, he remembers being taught by his cousin how to fold a flapping bird – one of his very first models. This seeded his interest in origami and he began learning some basic folding techniques on his own, even at a tender age.
As his interest deepened, he turned to instructional books to glean more skills. To get more reading material, he would ask to be rewarded with origami books for doing well in his primary school exams.
Otherwise, he would scrimp and save his pocket money just to buy more books to feed his interest. To date, he has amassed close to 20 origami books. These days, Avon finds himself turning to online resources, such as tutorials on blogs and YouTube, which are plentiful and free!
His artistic journey started as a lonely one, however. “As a primary school kid, I was the only one in my social circle who enjoyed origami.” Avon shares, “I had to solve all the difficult steps myself!”
Things then took a turn for the better when he joined an origami interest group in his secondary school. Friends who shared the same interest supported Avon, helping him grow his skills as a both a folder and designer at a much faster pace.
Learning from the best
He cites Robert Lang from the US and Ronald Koh from Singapore as origami masters whom he aspires towards.
Robert Lang is a physicist by training and had worked for NASA before devoting himself to the art fully. Avon admires Lang for his ability to deconstruct origami elements and communicate them effectively so that others can easily pick up design skills too. “His models are very scientific internally, yet artistic externally.” Avon enthuses. He cites Lang’s Pianist, Cellist and Violinist ensemble as one of the most interesting as the models are able to “play” their instruments when you tug their heads.
Lang’s Pianist, Cellist and Violinist ensemble
Lang’s book, Origami Design Secrets (OSD), is one of Avon’s most prized origami manuals. A few hundred pages long, OSD provides countless tools to aid in designing origami models while leaving the reader room to explore and come up with solutions of their own.
Putting Singapore on the origami world map is Ronald Koh, a retiree. Avon has been learning from Koh over the past few years, as they are both members of the same interest group, Origami Society of Singapore. Renowned worldwide for his designs, Koh suffered from a stroke in the recent years but has recovered well with much determination and a positive attitude. Armed with only one functional hand now, he is still able to fold beautiful models and is, in fact, more active than most members of the interest group!
More than just a hobby
Aside from the physical impact origami has had on Avon, such as an improved hand-eye coordination and mental stamina, it has taught him some valuable soft skills too.
“Learning to design origami has taught me to become more goal-driven.” He shares, “I now think in a more logical fashion with a focus on the end point, and can better discern between when to ponder on conceptual decisions and when to dive into the specifics."
This has also helped Avon in his role in SingHealth as the Secretariat to the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), a part of the Office of Research. He explains, “In my line of work, we use the ‘Integrated System in Healthcare for Research (iSHaRe)’ software to process research applications. As we work on improving the system, focusing on a goal – to make the system easy to use for researchers – helps keep my thinking on track and not be distracted the countless details.
Being focused helps me to decide what are the must-haves and nice-to-haves, and prioritise what must be done now versus what can be done later.”
Avon (centre) and his colleagues from the Office of Research.
Origami has also taught Avon three key lessons that have had great impact on his approach to life, in general:
1) The importance of education and exposure to various disciplinesThe more exposure one gets, the more he understands, the more he can apply. Having knowledge gives us the freedom to choose how certain problems can be solved. Always seek out learning opportunities and make sure to seize them!
2) Innovation is putting the pieces togetherThis happens when a primed mind is exposed to a variety of solutions which can be built upon one another to achieve a holistic outcome. Always keep your eyes open and keenly observe the things around you. Solutions can be found everywhere.
3) Communicate to succeedBeing able to clearly and concisely communicate a message to a receiver is one of the toughest skills one can attain. If only parts of the message is transmitted and received accurately, then the lesson is not fully learnt – a wasted opportunity. While Avon is still working on this, sharing origami skills with newbies has greatly helped him hone this skill.
As for his love for origami, Avon hopes to take things further. He fancies writing an e-book, organising a convention and even participating in a design contest in the future. Perhaps one day, he will be representing Singapore on a global stage too!
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