New York’s Origami Tree Folds Into City’s Holiday Traditions

By Charles Passy

Rockefeller Center might be home to New York City’s most famous Christmas tree, a behemoth that tops out at more than 70 feet and draws both tourists and locals like a yuletide beacon. But for nearly 50 years, it has had competition from a tree defined less by size than by the fact it is adorned with hundreds of ornamental figures of various creatures, from dinosaurs to jellyfish.

And they are all made from folded paper.

The Origami Holiday Tree at the American Museum of Natural History has emerged as the city’s alternative take to the Christmas tradition, one that has been embraced over the years precisely because of its quirky beauty. Created in cooperation with OrigamiUSA, a national nonprofit organization that promotes the centuries-old Japanese art form, the tree is a major draw for the museum during the season.

“It’s a wonder of its own,” said Ellen Futter, the museum’s president.

This year, the 13-foot tree carries special meaning on different levels, said Ms. Futter and officials with OrigamiUSA. As New York’s cultural institutions face many challenges because of the coronavirus pandemic and the lack of tourism resulting from it, the tree is a needed attraction. Museums also are capped at 25% capacity because of statewide safety restrictions, though Ms. Futter said the institution sometimes has trouble reaching even that limit, particularly on weekdays.

The tree, which each year has a different theme, incorporates 1,000 origami cranes at its base in the 2020 edition. In Japan, the 1,000 cranes symbolize hope and good wishes, which the OrigamiUSA tree designers felt was an important message to convey in this difficult year. The cranes are in various colors, tying in with the institution’s current “The Nature of Color” exhibit.

“We try to make the tree about the museum,” said Talo Kawasaki, who designed the tree with Ros Joyce.

The tree features 1,000 origami cranes presented as symbols of peace and good wishes as New York continues to endure the many challenges posed by Covid-19.

It is no small effort to produce 1,000 paper cranes in addition to the hundreds of other figures on the tree. While OrigamiUSA team does bring back many figures from year to year, the 2020 tree posed a challenge because of the crane aspect plus the difficulty in rounding up volunteers to help during the pandemic. Mr. Kawasaki, who also works on a volunteer basis, spent countless hours producing about 500 cranes himself.

The team didn’t even know if the tree would be a reality this year because the museum, like others throughout the city, was shut down for so long due to the pandemic. That meant planning and production, which normally takes several months, were consolidated into a short autumn time frame.

The American Museum of Natural History isn’t the only institution in the city to put a spin on the Christmas tree. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is known for its elaborate tree display, replete with figures of angels and cherubs and an 18th-century Neapolitan Nativity scene at the base.

Outdoor displays abound, too. For example, Bryant Park’s Bank of America Winter Village always incorporates an oversize tree. This year, however, the village will have a trio of trees to create a different effect and allow for better social distancing if crowds show up.

The world is “doing everything else differently this year, so why not?” said Irene Vagianos, a vice president of the Bryant Park Corporation.

The American Museum of Natural History came up with the origami concept decades ago almost by accident. OrigamiUSA officials said the project began with the late Alice Grey, a museum entomologist and origami enthusiast who liked to decorate her office during the holidays with a 3-foot tree adorned with paper figures. In 1972, the idea arose to turn it into a public display with a larger artificial tree.

The American Museum of Natural History came up with the origami concept decades ago almost by accident. OrigamiUSA officials said the project began with the late Alice Grey, a museum entomologist and origami enthusiast who liked to decorate her office during the holidays with a 3-foot tree adorned with paper figures. In 1972, the idea arose to turn it into a public display with a larger artificial tree.

Part of the fun of the museum’s tree is that viewers never quite know what they will find among the hundreds of figures, from an origami ostrich in one spot to a koala bear in another. But there is no mistaking what tops the tree this year—a giant paper Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in place of the traditional star. It plays into the museum’s ever-popular dinosaur displays.

Viewed as a whole, the figures are meant to provide a note of whimsy during the holiday, Ms. Futter said. But Wendy Zeichner, president of OrigamiUSA, said the tree also serves as a reminder of our creative spirit, which is why her organization usually holds origami instruction at the museum in conjunction with the exhibit. This year, OrigamiUSA is continuing the tradition, albeit online.

SOURCE : WALL STREET JOURNAL

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