Semblance Agency, Gavin Goodman, Paper art, Origami art, Pleated paper, Fine art

Beyond the fold

Meet Maia Lehr-Sacks, the gifted paper artist who is taking the discipline of origami to new heights.

A recent amble at Kim Sacks Gallery in Joburg revealed the work of Maia Lehr-Sacks (daughter of the gallery owner) and we were hooked. Using paper to create intricate folded sculptures, Maia’s artworks weave consciousness, memory and reflection into the paper folding space. What began as a distraction from the rigours of the school classroom turned out to be a gift in fine arts.

Maia Lehr Sacks, Paper artist, Sasol New Signatures Top 100, Michaelis

But make no mistake, this is not your average paper aeroplane. Maia’s works use a single inexpensive material and two basic techniques that yield complex structures of impermanence, delicacy and strength, where a 2-dimensional plane becomes a 3-dimensional curve and the act of folding and folding again becomes a nod to memory and nostalgia. Selected as one of the prestigious Sasol New Signatures Top 100 artists in 2018, the Michaelis Masters student is one to watch. 

Paper (as sculpture) is a relatively unexplored art form here in SA, what drew you to working with it? 

It began with binding simple books for myself to draw in and an interest in origami. I folded my fair share of origami cranes and I think I just got hooked. I moved away from cranes and more “figurative” origami and I tried to take the techniques I was learning through these simple folded models and apply them in different ways to make them my own. 

I generally got bored when following the instructional diagrams, so most new techniques developed through play and experimentation. More than anything I think paper became something that I worked with a lot because it was so accessible. I really hated school – and folding became a way for me to keep myself occupied and stay sane during class because it was very easy and inconspicuous to just pick up a piece of scrap paper and start folding. 

Things became really interesting as I became fascinated with how to take a linear piece of paper and get it to curve using only straight folds. This interest launched me down a path that I am very much still exploring today.

I would say the moment I fell in love with paper was probably somewhere around age five when I made the revolutionary discovery that if I stapled a few very small pages together down the middle it made a little book. I think this was probably the beginning of a major fascination with the possibilities with paper as a medium rather than as a substrate.

You graduated less than two years ago and have already taken part in numerous exhibitions here and abroad, how has your practice grown from the exposure? 

I think the greatest benefits of any increased exposure have been access to residencies, collaborations and often just enthralling conversations with other incredible makers and creative thinkers. 

It has also meant that I have had the opportunity to work on some incredible projects that have allowed me to explore aspects of my own practice that I may not have engaged with otherwise, the most recent being a commission by Semblance Agency to create a number of pleated paper works for a series of fine art prints. I am enthralled to see my work in different contexts. I am always up for a challenge and I get very excited when approached with any proposal to do with paper.

Where have you learned and honed your skills in this medium? Is there much in the way of formal training out there? 

If there is formal training in the way of paper folding out there I haven’t come across it yet. Most of my paper works were born from play and experimentation. I learnt a lot of the basics from origami books and later from video tutorials. The great thing about paper folding is that there are only really two folds – A valley fold (that faces downwards) and a mountain fold (that folds upwards). 

Further than that, it is just a combination of these two folds in different directions. You can do a lot with a simple pleat, repeated in different ways. The more I experimented, the more enthralling discoveries I made which helped to expand my practice. I am still exploring – with every new piece that I fold there is something unexpected and interesting that happens that launches me into the next piece.

Even while studying my undergraduate degree in Fine Art, I kept my paper works very much as an external interest and explored more interdisciplinary making. I worked a lot in metal, fibre and stitching and only really brought my fine art practice and my paper sculptures together much later on into my undergrad degree. Even then – it was very much more installation based. 

I became fascinated with how to take a linear piece of paper and get it to curve using only straight folds.

Much like pottery, stitching and folding are two quite primitive and intimate methods of art-making, are you drawn to these methods for those reasons? 

I think more than anything I am drawn to these mediums because I am very much a tactile person when it comes to making. I love the conversation that happens between maker and material the more you work with a certain process. I am drawn to the repetitive, time-consuming nature of these methods. I find them to be incredibly soothing. 

The histories imbued within these methods definitely play a role in the appeal. I think it’s interesting that before I begin to compose my own thoughts and concepts around a work there is already so much meaning that exists just because of the connotations and histories imbued in the materials and processes that I’m working with. These connotations become an important part of the conversation that is already happening.

What does paper bring to your works that other sculptural mediums can’t?

Translucency. This evokes a sense of fragility and transience within the works because it reinforces the idea of an ephemeral work and the temporary nature of everything in life – we’re here for a moment and then we’re gone. Physically, paper is not made to last like other materials; for me this adds an element that makes the work more enticing, it’s delicate and it exists for a period only. There’s  a freedom in that, I can create something without the weight of it having to last for millennia. Other materials I’ve tried to fold with just don’t have the same energy. Paper is delicate but can be so rigid.

How do the themes of memory, nostalgia and transition become 3 dimensional artworks?

These themes can be seen more in the process than anything else. Many of my creative processes rely on the repetition of a simple task over and over again. I find this process of repetition to resemble my own process of remembering – of replaying past moments again and again – which is somehow where my mind goes when working.

I find that most of my processes are so ingrained in my muscle memory that I often drift off while working. My hands stay busy but there is a certain disconnect that happens that takes me away from the “now” and somewhere out of time and space. To me that is what nostalgia is – this longing, not so much to be somewhere else, but rather to be free from the confines of the “here and now”. 

One of the questions I get asked the most when people see my work is: “Wow, how long did that take you?”. To me this question highlights a characteristic of my work that is really important to me, that the time taken to create the works is a visible characteristic within them. Because of this, I find that the works themselves stand as physical evidence of time having passed.

Can you tell us about the origami methods you use to create 3-dimensional form in your paper works?

Many of the methods I use are based on origami “tessellation” techniques. These are essentially made up of simple processes that are repeated to create more complex patterns and I suppose could be seen as part of a more abstract realm of paper folding. Each new paper work begins with a series of simple folds. Often beginning with a single pleat, repeated multiple times in different sequences and directions to create different variations. 

These origami techniques are what I incorporate into a lot of my works, although in a much more experimental way than what would be considered traditional. Most of these models are based on a folded grid. Once I understood how the grid worked, I could play and collapse it in different ways to create different forms. The more I grew to understand the grid, the more complex the results became. 

The three-dimensional nature of many of my folded works is very much a result of the paper responding to the tensions that each new fold exerts. It is not always a direct intention, most of the time I have no idea what the final work will look like until the last fold is in place.

Who do you find inspiring locally and abroad in this field?

Issey Miyaki has always been a huge inspiration. His completely innovative and experimental application of traditional origami to fabric is hugely impressive to me. One of my latest inspirations is Goran Konjevod, a mathematician and theoretical computer scientist who also makes the most incredible organic paper sculptures. 

We’re not talking about regular paper, are we? 

You would probably be surprised. I really love to experiment with a range of different papers including “regular” ones. Sometimes the more specialised art papers are much less interesting to work with. Each new paper responds to a sequence of folds differently. When trying to decide on a new paper to use I look at three things: the paper needs to have a good “memory” i.e.. it needs to maintain a fold well. It also needs to be strong enough to not tear easily when stressed, but also thin enough to be folded onto itself over and over again with ease. 

The paper I use most frequently is something between an architectural paper and cloudy tracing paper, but currently my absolute favourite paper to work with is greaseproof paper. It is unexpectedly durable, super thin and the greaseproof nature of the paper means that despite how thin it is, it retains drawing ink really well. I’ve collaged with it, drawn and painted onto it, and have sewn it into life sized installations.

And what other materials do you apply to the paper to tell your story?

Material wise, I often layer and collage different kinds of papers on top of each other and then draw onto the new surface before folding. I am fascinated by how the marks made on the paper beforehand completely transform with each new pleat that is folded.

Your Nautilus II Triptych was one of the Sasol New Signatures Top 100 in 2018, can you tell us a little about that project and the resulting selection in the Top 100?

This triptych included hanging works that are now known as my nautilus sculptures. They were some of the first variations of my hanging paper works that I had experimented with. It was incredibly affirming being selected. I think in a way it really helped me to realise that what I was making was new and interesting, and that it was worthwhile to push working with paper.

What are you working on at the moment, anything exciting for our readers to look out for?

I am currently working on a series of paper folded lampshades in collaboration with AOS Creations who are making the most exquisite wooden bases. Other than that, I have just started a Masters in Fine Art at Michaelis School of Fine Art so I’m very much looking forward to seeing what new work comes out of that.

Interview: Mila Crewe-Brown
Production: Mila Crewe-Brown & Jean-Pierre de la Chaumette
Images: Gavin Goodman, Kelly Van Graan