On a recent Sunday afternoon, Amy Kirwin found herself sitting at a table in the Southampton Arts Center (SAC) theater, trying to remember how to make an origami crane.
With an assist from the internet, she found and followed the 12-step diagram, deftly folding, flipping and creasing until she had a perfect little bird in the palm of her hand.
Her self-satisfaction was fleeting, though, as she looked up and continued to watch Shrikant Iyer and Paul Frasco fold a giant 24-foot square piece of paper into the world’s largest origami dragon.
And they were just halfway through the 50-step, hours-long process.
“It was really pretty amazing. I was doing this teeny little crane the size of a credit card and they’re, like, making this massive dragon,” Kirwin, artistic director of the SAC, said with a laugh. “I felt inspired to create something while they were doing that.”
“We love when people come to us with these kinds of ideas,” she added, “and we’re always really happy when we’re able to accommodate and be part of something so inspiring and impressive.”
With an end goal of submitting the build to the Guinness World Records, the two-day endeavor to get there was not only physically challenging, but also artistically, mathematically and logistically complicated, explained Iyer from his home in Southampton, where the completed dragon currently lives and looms over his head, despite standing 6-feet-2-inches tall himself.
“It’s a very, very difficult thing, what we did. It truly is,” he said. “It’s not ordinary to fold that big, and then also, the dragon is not a simple model. It’s not a crane, it’s not a jumping frog. It’s a western dragon with wings. It’s hard enough getting it looking nice with 10-inch paper, so with 24 feet, we really had our work cut out for us — and we only had two people. It was really tough.”
His 33-year relationship with origami did not have an easy start, either. As a young boy, his access to the art form came through a 15-minute after school special on one of the two television stations he had while growing up in India. The Japanese program, dubbed in Hindi, was difficult to follow — and he only had one shot to get it right.
If he didn’t, the 9-year-old would spend the rest of the day trying to figure out where he went wrong.
“And that’s how I got intrigued by origami,” he said with a laugh.
When he moved to the United States 14 years later, he finally saw cut origami paper for the first time — vibrant color on one side of each square, white on the other. “I was so used to, at that point, looking through the mail and finding interesting paper, and I would cut them into squares, and I would make my folds,” he said. “I was so used to that being origami. All I needed was paper and my hands.”
Iyer’s childlike wonder at the magic behind origami evolved into testing its limits through oversized folding, which he experienced during the New York-based convention OrigamiUSA, as well as his own, Origami Heaven, which he ran for a number of years at Stony Brook University.
Through origami channels, Iyer met Frasco, who built an 18-foot-by-18-foot dragon with help from a handful of people at the Long Island convention before setting his sights on the Guinness World Record — a plan three years in the making that the COVID-19 outbreak promptly upended.
In an effort to comply with social distancing, the even larger build was reduced to a two-man job, and witnesses and bystanders were kept to a minimum inside the SAC, its theater already emptied out due to the pandemic.
On Saturday, August 8, the folding partners prepared the paper by cutting a 12-foot by 50-foot sheet in two, taping the rectangles together to make the 576-square-foot base. This, plus the first eight steps to make the dragon, took the men about three hours, and uncovered a number of complications.
“You can’t turn over paper when it’s 24 feet big,” Iyer said. “By step number three, we were already in a bad place. It takes a while before the paper becomes small, and it never becomes very small when it’s 24 feet. The final dragon is still bigger than two 6-foot-tall men. It’s bigger than us, so it was tough.”
The next day, Iyer and Frasco got creative in their problem solving and pushed through the remaining 41 steps, taking a moment to stop after each one to let out a sigh of relief before moving on to the next — only pausing to take photos from multiple angles that Guinness will eventually need to verify the effort.
“There was a lot of heavy breathing and that, itself, ended up being a little meditative,” Iyer said. “In some ways, I felt like it was good for us and good for the origami community. We have not had in-person folding. We are very isolated right now. For us, it was nice that two folders came together and folded something, made something extraordinary together — and it was not typical of our time that we are in right now.”
The four-hour day came to a close when the two men secured the nearly 13-foot-long dragon onto an armature made from PVC pipes, posed for a few pictures and watched as the witnesses signed their statements and an architect took his measurements. Last week, Iyer and Frasco submitted the evidence to Guinness World Records and, without opting for a premium processing option, they expect to wait 16 weeks for a response, due to higher submission rates as of late.
“Finishing the dragon gave us a tremendous sense of accomplishment and also it felt timely because we’re living in these funny times, very unprecedented times, of course, and it’s also these times when we really have to tap into our faith, something larger than what seems normal or possible,” Iyer said. “In some ways, it was therapeutic to do this. You’re tapping into something that’s larger than life — and creating something larger than life.”
As published in the Southampton Press and the Sag Harbor Express