Foreword by Dr.Robert J.Lang
Neal Elias will go down in history as one of the great pioneers of modern origami. He was a brilliant designer of origami, published in many of the classics of the 1960s, notably Harbins Secrets of Origami; he was the first person to widely exploit the technique of box pleating, creating literally hundreds of figures of humans, vehicles, objects and animals. He devised and taught many new folding techniques, including, famously, the eponymous maneuver, the Elias Stretch. But most importantly to me: in the mid-1970s, he took the time to write back to a 15-year-old correspondent folding in isolation in Georgia, sending diagrams, suggestions, encouragement and advice. For my own folding career, the path that eventually led through the Black Forest Cuckoo Clock was launched from a mailbox in Parma Heights, Ohio, where Neal Elias resided.
His work was remarkable. Even in the early 1960s, Neal demonstrated a genius for creating complex subjects from the few simple bases that were then known. He and his good friend Fred Rohm often challenged each other with subjects that hadnt ever been accomplished in origami (presaging the Bug Wars of the 1990s and origami challenges yet to come). Elias demonstrated both an interest and a particular flair at creating more than one subject from a single sheet of paper: two doves in a birdhouse, for example, or two birds in a birdbath. But his true mtier arose when he encountered the Train composed by Emmanuel Mooser. This model launch his interest in what is now called box-pleating (although Elias referred to it as square folding). Beginning with a simple truck, he began a decade-long exploration of the technique, developing scores of animals, objects, and most famously, combinations of same, drawing upon art, myth, and religion as inspiration for his subjects.
I first became aware of Elias through the Harbin/Randlett books, which preceded his introduction to box pleating; but a Spanish origami book I acquired showed line drawings of several of his then-recent works, including Urashimataro, a Japanese figure seated on a turtle (from a single sheet!). Captivated, and possessed of the brashness of youth, I wrote to the Origami Center to obtain his address, then to the man himself; he replied, sending me a few diagrams of his truck, of some human figures.
I was amazed and thereupon began exploring the box-pleating techniques myself. Over the next few years, I sent him some of my (extremely derivative) creations; he, in turn, sent me more of his own work. Corresponding with Neal and seeing his creations taught me better than any words could, that there were truly no limits to what was possible with origami. I developed my own vehicles: a Model-T car, a tractor-trailer rig out of that; but I also developed an understanding of how a model could be laid out on the paper, with all the parts interacting through folds in such a way that it could all come together. It was a way of looking at origami design that stuck with through the years and that eventually led to the discovery of many more origami design techniques.
In subsequent years, I lost contact with Neal; I moved to California, went off to college, focused on studies and job. But box-pleating stayed with me, and every once in a while, Id pop something box-pleated out. In 1987, working in Germany, I constructed the first Black Forest Cuckoo Clock, and when it was done, I wondered if Neal ever knew, or wondered, what his early encouragement had led to.
Years later, now well into a career of laser research (and with a couple of origami books under my belt), my day job took me to Cleveland, Ohio, where I knew Neal had last lived. A little research revealed that he was still in the area, and drawing back upon the brashness of youth that first led me to write to him, I wrote again and asked if I could visit and finally lay eyes upon my great mentor. He agreed, and on a fall day in the late 1990s, I showed up at his door and we met for the first time.
By this time he had mostly retired from folding, but he graciously met me at the door and for an hour or so reminisced about the early days of folding and his early designs. By this time he had discarded most of his origami collection, but he gave me a parting gift of diagrams from his notebooks, most of which had never seen publication, and all of which displayed, wit, elegance, cleverness, and beauty.
The vast majority of folders conception of origami comes (as mine did) through books and publications, and its easy to forget that there may be far more underlying an artists published works. So it was with Elias: he had designed and diagrammed roughly 1000 different figures. (His diagrams were numbered up to 1159, but included diagrams of works by Yoshizawa, Cerceda, Legman, and others.) He folded animals, yes, but ornaments, furniture, human figures, buildings and the combination figures for which he is most famous: Mother and Child, Nureyev and Fonteyn, and, Llopios Moment of Truth, the bullfighter, cape, and bull combination that is perhaps his most famous model.
From a design perspective, Neals work presaged by decades concepts that are now in the mainstream of origami. His Elias Stretch maneuver is widespread in box-pleated folds, but at an even higher level, he pioneered the 3-step origami sequence: Step 1 precrease heavily; Step 2collapse to a base; Step 3 shape to taste. At a time when most origami was flat and sequential, Eliass designs were typically 3-D, and it is clear from the brevity of his notebook diagrams that the design philosophy was not focused on the step-by-step sequence common in books, but upon a transformation from the paper directly to the basic form of the subject in other words, the base as an indivisible step. Directly and indirectly, Neal Elias has had an enormous influence on the modern world of origami; I am pleased that this tribute website will help bring that influence to light, and I look forward to the day that his entire body of work will see publication.
Robert J. Lang