Behind the Folds

by minton on March 5, 2018

An interest in mathematics can lead to amazing new experiences. For Jan Minton and her HNRS 241: Math and Art class, the new experience was a conversation with an award-winning documentary maker*. The documentary in question, titled Between the Folds, is about the wonderful world of origami.

Vanessa Gould followed a winding path to her documentary. From a college career with numerous changes of major to an unfulfilling first job to a chance encounter with the American origami community, her story is a quintessential liberal arts story of numerous interests and skills leading to success.

Between the Folds is an engrossing story of mathematicians, scientists, and artists who became obsessed with the possibilities of paper folding. The creations go way beyond the paper cranes you may have seen, to elaborate insects (the community had a “Bug Wars” phase of increasingly complex creations) to realistic and fanciful animals to graceful abstract shapes. The creators speak eloquently and movingly about the interplay between technique and vision.

Ms. Gould answered numerous questions from the class, touching on film-making details, personalities of the people she encountered, ideas about mathematics education, and her pleasure that Roanoke has a Math and Art class. She is grateful to her subjects for their cooperation in the making of the film, but more so for the life lessons they taught her. By and large, these were people who “leapt before they looked” into origami, allowing their fascination with the process to override career ambitions. Their love of origami is evident throughout the film.

One of the “stars” of the film is Eric Joisel, a Frenchman whom Gould became friends with. (You get the idea in the film that they are all friends, and she described the community as one of sharing discoveries for the betterment of the art, without bickering over who deserves credit.) Upon Joisel’s death in 2010, Gould took it upon herself to get his life on public record through a high-profile obituary. The New York Times worked with her and printed one, an experience that inspired her current documentary Obit.

Perhaps there will be a follow-up to this post many years in the future, indicating how a class presentation by Vanessa Gould led to an important career or life decision.

* Between the Folds won a 2010 Peabody Award. Ms. Gould was on campus to show and discuss Obit for the college’s Women’s Forum. Her connection to the Math and Art class was made by President and Mrs. David Gring. Surprising connection make great events happen.