By Susanne Beck
Seeing pink elephants on the Upper West Side? Chances are you’ve visited this year’s stunner of a holiday origami tree at the American Museum of Natural History. Inspired by the museum’s featured exhibition, The Secret World of Elephants, this year’s 13-foot faux fir can be found, until January 15, 2024, in the Ellen V. Futter gallery, on the first floor.
Ros Joyce, librarian of Origami USA and tree co-creator with Talo Kawasaki, says she has had elephants on her mind and in her hands since the beginning of 2023. “We started plotting and planning while we were taking down [last year’s tree] in January,” she explains, after being alerted that an elephant exhibit was on its way. As always, the team decided to mix fact with fancy. All three types of proboscideans are featured in the display: African (Savannah and Forest) as well as their smaller Asian counterpart. The now-extinct woolly mammoth is included as well. On a more whimsical note, they added some well-known archetypes to the scene, including the pink elephant model and, of course, “the elephant in the room.”
Joyce says the pair doesn’t have an exact count of how many elephants finally made it onto the tree but Kawasaki confirms the garland “parade of elephants” alone amounts to 412. While the collaborators handmade most of the folded wonders themselves, hundreds of models were also sent in from around the world – “from Japan, Australia, various parts of Europe. And around the corner, too,” Joyce says. Kawasaki adds that they received so many contributions in response to their request that they fashioned a quilt of 300 of them, displayed carefully behind the tree. It was a first for the team, one they consider a success. “We’re really happy with the quilt,” Kawasaki notes, “because it added another dimension and extra color to the whole tree installation.”
And speaking of color, besides pink, there is an explosion of different shades — and shapes and sizes — of elephants around, underneath, and beside the tree. And other wildlife, too. Joyce explains that part of the tree’s background is filled with some of the many handcrafted creatures that are saved and stored each year, folded beauties representing just a few of the animals found throughout the museum, like dinosaurs and birds. “We have huge boxes in a big storage room down in the dungeon — in the lower parts of the museum. I don’t want to throw anything out,” she said, laughing.
When pressed as to which elephant is his favorite, Kawasaki says “I guess it would be Paul Frasco’s Balancing Elephant which was used for the tree topper and the Elephant in the Room,” part of the diorama of over 40 elephants that ring the base of the tree. Also on display there, what Joyce describes as “a beautiful mammoth skeleton that was made by a young guy in Germany,” and her own contribution of “retreating Asian elephants”, the only rear-view image in the bunch.
It is clear that in addition to the fun they have had creating the tree, both Kawasaki and Joyce have enjoyed spending time enmeshed with creatures who seem to be just plain good in so much of their behavior. “I do appreciate how smart and thoughtful elephants are,” Kawasaki says. They look out for their own kind. Matriarchs are known to carry — and share — crucial information about availability of food and water, and how to handle dangerous situations. And when they move as a group, it is always at the pace set by the slowest among them.
“Origami is math for sure,” concludes Joyce. “Origami is science. And origami is a beautiful, actually, a magical thing we build.”
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