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In the Fold

What do you get when you cross the flora and fauna of Florida with a room full of paper? If the person doing the crossing is an artist, you might get something along the lines of "FLorigami: Folded Images of Florida's Hidden Nature by Michael LaFosse," now at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach.

OK, so that title is too clever by half. Fortunately, this small exhibition is a little less self-satisfied. It consists of about two dozen origami sculptures of plants and animals from the Everglades, displayed the way taxidermy versions might be showcased in a nature center exhibit hall or a museum of natural science.

The project was a natural for origami artist Michael LaFosse, who had a similar gig in 1997 at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. LaFosse also has a background in biology, and he has previously served as a guest artist and teacher at the Morikami. In the spring of 2004, he returned to South Florida for research in the Everglades ecosystem, then retreated to his Haverhill, Massachusetts, studio with notes and sketches to re-create in paper what he had studied. (LaFosse and partner Richard Alexander run Origamido, described as "a teaching and resource center, exhibits gallery, and a production facility for fine and decorative paperfolding arts.")

Origami, from the Japanese words oru ("to fold") and kami ("paper"), is a fairly familiar term. Venture into its centuries-long history, however, and you'll find yourself in territory as treacherous as parts of the Everglades. Purists debate whether it involves folding only or whether some cutting and gluing may be allowed. Even the medium of paper can be a source of contention for artists who want to stretch the definition to include, say, sculptures fashioned from other substances such as paper-thin crêpes.

LaFosse sticks pretty much to the basics. And in keeping with the educational component of "FLorigami," each of his sculptures is accompanied by the specifics of its creation. For the pair of Schaus swallowtail butterflies at the entrance to the exhibition, for example, we learn that they were folded from six-inch squares of washi, or handmade paper; that the paper used is a blend of 50 percent hemp and 50 percent abaca; and that the pigmentation comes from carbon black and azo yellow.

To lend naturalist credibility, the scientific name, papilio aristodemus ponceanus, is also provided, along with information on the species' place in the Everglades scheme of things. These butterflies, classified as endangered as of 1984, are now found only in the tropical hardwood hammocks of the Upper Keys. A trivia tidbit claims that butterflies are found in every nation on every continent (not true: There are no butterflies in Antarctica).

An accompanying display uses the metamorphosis of butterflies as an apt metaphor for the creation of single-sheet origami, characterized as a "metamorphic form of sculpture: nothing is added, nothing is taken away." Contrast this with the compound origami found in the nearby sculpture of a wild lime tree (zanthoxylum fagara), which just happens to be a host plant for the Schaus swallowtail butterfly. In addition to paper-folding, the piece incorporates the traditional Japanese technique for creating washi eggs, used here to make a lime by gluing paper over a styrofoam form.

An origami cheese shrub (morinda royoc) evokes a similarly endangered plant that's also linked to the Schaus swallowtail. But this pairing of plants and insects pales next to the symbiosis involving the ghost orchid (dendrophylax lindenii) and the giant sphinx moth (cocytius antaeus). The ghost orchid (also known as frog orchid or dancing orchid) is a rare, leafless orchid found only in certain areas of the Everglades, and LaFosse's delicate rendering of it, from a nine-inch square of abaca paper treated with titanium dioxide, captures some of its mysterious aura. (The flower has been memorably photographed by Clyde Butcher, and it figures in both Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief and the film loosely based on it, Adaptation. ) The giant sphinx moth, folded from a nine-inch square of paper and tinted with iron oxide, is thought to be the only insect capable of pollinating the ghost orchid.

Elsewhere in the exhibition are origami versions of manatees, sea turtles, and such birds as sparrows, cranes, and an especially lovely wood stork (mycteria americana). A disclaimer in the artist's statement says that the sculptures "are not intended to be fully accurate, scientific representations," and indeed, most of LaFosse's origami interpretations go for the overall look and feel of his subjects. One display features dozens of little sea turtles so stylized that they're barely recognizable. These were created by students at a couple of Palm Beach County high schools, as supervised by the artist.

In terms of realism, the most suggestive sculptures are two reptiles, an alligator and a snake. The snake, specifically the threatened species Eastern indigo (drymarchon corais couperi), is an impressive seven-footer, fashioned from a rectangular strip of paper a foot wide and 20 feet long, intricately folded to suggest scales.

There's also a piece called One Thousand Cranes that's closer to pure art than anything else in the show. Its basis is a 20-inch square of paper that has been cut into smaller squares that remain connected to form 16 cranes that seem to grow in and out of one another. The intricate, interlocking birds are mounted on a couple of larger panels, one of which is printed with a crane motif.

Ironically, the origami sculptures that are most appropriate for the Morikami are also the ones that least fit into the theme of "FLorigami." One display case features three beautiful koi (cyprinus carpio), or Japanese carp, made from 100 percent cotton rag adorned with chigiri-e, torn appliqués of handmade paper that suggest the distinctive colorful markings of these big fish. Koi are abundant in the large lake that sprawls through the Morikami complex, and they're about as far from threatened or endangered as you can imagine. I wish the museum had played up this discrepancy by placing the origami koi front and center for this exhibition. Although these dramatic fish aren't native to Florida, they couldn't be more closely associated with the Morikami.

For a follow-up to "FLorigami," I suggest an excursion into the Morikami's gorgeous maze of gardens. There are half a dozen, each in a style associated with an era in Japanese history, ranging from the Heian Period (circa the Ninth to 12th centuries) to the Meiji Period (late 19th/early 20th Century). And along the way are all sorts of incidental pleasures: a bamboo grove, bridges, waterfalls, and a Shishi odoshi, or deer chaser, an ingenious contraption that uses water, lengths of bamboo, and rocks to create sound to startle wild animals wandering into a garden. A pair of gates marks the beginning and end of the gardens.

Near the end of the garden complex, you'll find a small island that's home to the Yamato-kan, the original Morikami Museum building, which houses several exhibits on Japanese culture. The island also includes a stunning collection of examples of bonsai, an art in itself, and an area for feeding the dozens of koi and turtles that will appear with Pavlovian predictability (little bags of food pellets are available for purchase).

I am constantly amazed to find so many people who have lived in South Florida for years and never visited the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, which has been around since 1977 and underwent a major expansion and renovation in 1999. If you've never been, use the "FLorigami" exhibition as an excuse to experience this regional treasure.

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Michael Mills

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