Fabricating Art

The silky twists and twirls of origami master Chris K. Palmer invite contemplation. Folded and pleated, his intricate patterns are seemingly without beginning or end.


No matter how long you study one of Chris K. Palmer's silk "Shadowfolds," its mystery never completely unfolds.

Hexagons, squares and triangles intertwine, spiral and twist into ever more complex variations with indescribable grace. A Bach cantata comes to mind. So does a flurry of snowflakes, each unique but based on the same natural blueprint.

You may spend hours meditating on these designs and still have no clue where Palmer started, how he painstakingly manipulated the silk into the three-dimensional, infinitely symmetrical shapes called tesselations or plotted the pattern's journey so it ventures ingeniously from one path to the next.

The only person with an intimate understanding of the way fabric can be pleated and coaxed into mesmerizingly precise polygons is Palmer himself. Even the Glen Burnie resident appears in awe of the aesthetic and technical leaps he made after intensive trial and error.

Palmer's work, a synthesis of Japanese and Moorish traditions, is unique, says Michael G. LaFosse, a Massachusetts-based origami artist and author who has included Palmer's paper work in his recent book, "Origamido: Mas- terworks of Paper Folding" (Rockport, $35). "His incredible investigation into the bigger potential of that whole area of paper folding and folding in fabric is definitely pioneering," LaFosse says. "He is one of, if not the, greatest pioneer of that technology in our time."

Palmer, though isolated, is not working in a vacuum. The ancient art of origami enjoys enormous popularity, evidenced by hundreds of related Web sites, passionate online debate and scores of clubs and books that demonstrate astonishing advances in origami design.

A quick glance shows publications dedicated to folding Biblical figures, Celtic knots, dollar bills and dinosaurs.

"Origami mathematics" is a nascent but burgeoning field. Thomas Hull teaches a mathematics of paperfolding course at Merrimack College in Massachusetts.

And a computer program written by California scientist Robert Lang "can take any stick figure and calculate a pattern of creases that will produce that figure," according to the online magazine published by the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Anyone adroit enough to follow the program's prescribed creases can turn a piece of paper into a lobster or other complicated creature.

"I think basically we're seeing origami being adopted by many kinds of people [in the service of] their particular interests," LaFosse says. "Whether they are mathematicians or design artists, or even educators, they find origami useful. They've been able to take basic techniques and, with their own creativity and purpose, they've enriched the art by creating new possibilities."

Palmer's textile pieces, formed from sheer, ivory-hued silk using no cutting or piecing, are as peaceful as they are astounding. When illuminated from behind, lighter and darker design elements emerge to reveal a piece's inner structure. When illuminated from the front, the layers within become invisible.

From either side, each piece of "fiber mosaic art" invites contemplation. To follow a pattern through its transformative journey is to enter a calm realm of symmetry and rhythmic order.

Shot through with low winter light, Palmer's work has an understated spiritual quality. It is created, he says repeatedly, "all for the glory of God."

Art over acclaim

An avid skateboarder and Tom Cruise handsome, Palmer is quietly self-possessed, as enigmatic as his Shadowfolds, which he carefully unfurls from a long, rectangular box and hangs from windows, pins around a naked light bulb, drapes on the floor.

A California native, Palmer, 33, left the Northwest in 1997 to come East and has lived in Maryland since 1998. By day, he designs programming that allows online visitors to play game puzzles on a Web site of Kadon Enterprises, a 20-year-old Pasadena-based company.

Palmer, who occupies a tiny apartment and works at a table in his bedroom, says living here puts him closer to East Coast galleries and museums. Yet his work has not been displayed locally. His monk-like existence, and unaggressive attempts at recognition, reveal a private person whose intensely personal artistic vision is more important than acclaim.

He comes to the door of his employer's home/headquarters, a spool knave around his neck handy for the constant snipping and stitching his textile work requires. Palmer is a bit pale, as you might expect of a man who spends much of his time doing close work and living inside the abstract world of patterns.

Looking back, it appears as if Palmer had an inherent sense of the pattern his own life would take. As a child, he was an avid "folder" who enjoyed following the origami designs of others. He was also beguiled by repetitive design as it appeared across cultures, be they ancient mosaic tilings or Celtic knots.

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