BLOG: Turning pain into beauty — Creating art with waste

By Assunta Ng

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Steven Lee (Photo by Assunta Ng/NWAW)

Steven Lee collects pieces of political junk mail and creates magic out of them.

No one else does what Lee does — he turns waste paper into one-of-a-kind origami creatures. If there were any consolation to politicians, it would be that Lee’s origami classes have helped lots of people who are going through some of the worst moments of their lives, including Lee himself.

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Twin dragons Lee made from recycled items.

Lee’s rule is he doesn’t sell his amazing art; he would rather give them away as gifts to friends and strangers or donate them to charity auctions.

A former engineer, many have wondered about his unconventional method of making these origami animals, wondering if it is an art or a science. Lee once even challenged a Ph.D., who failed to figure out his method of design.

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Lee’s brand of origami is different from the traditional style.

When I met Lee in July, he was volunteering to teach his folding skills to a group of cancer survivors at the Asian Resource Center.

Soon, I learned that he was using origami as therapy for other people.  Even his origami teacher was an unusual character, a former inmate, whom he met at the Federal Detention Center near SeaTac in 2000 when he volunteered to teach English to immigrant inmates through a Bible study group. Out of gratitude, his inmate student taught Lee to make flowers. The rest is history.

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Lee envisions his sculptures, in this case a flock of swans, in his mind before creating them.

Art or science

Lee doesn’t really have origami instruction books in his classroom, nor does he carry diagrams or sketches with him. There is no pattern — not even a written plan. He doesn’t even research on the Internet.

Lee improvises as he makes the artwork. If you tell him to make an animal, he would first conceive the design in his head. Instantly, there will be an image. Then, he visualizes the animal’s special characteristics, size, structure, form, and color. With his engineering background and architecture degree, he probably has developed design skills.

In his classroom, he displays all the origami animals he made as models on the table. They serve as a source of inspiration to his students.

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Lee’s works are always more than meets the eye.

He relies on memory. Whatever his father taught him as a child or showed him photos of, he remembers. He can now create them by following his heart and passion. To enhance his  techniques for birds and larger creatures, he  watches television programs on animals.

Origami as therapy

An immigrant from Taiwan, Lee shared with me his painful story about being fired last year after working for Boeing as a weight and balance engineering tech. He had worked at Boeing for 16 years. Lee said that he had trouble sleeping at first when he was forced out of the company unfairly.

Creating origami became his sanctuary.

“It helps me sleep,” he said. “I felt much better (after making origami).”

“I feel amazing that I can do it. It gives me joy,” he continued after he made one artwork.

“It takes a long time, as many as 16 hours to make one object. It teaches me patience and a way to kill time for being unemployed.”

He dismissed the idea that origami requires artistic talent. “Patience is more important,” he said.

Recycling materials

To Lee, origami paper is expensive. Because of that, fifty percent of Lee’s origami animals are made of recycled paper.

Anything you think is trash, such as old paper clips and staples, he can recycle into his origami objects.

And he especially likes to use political junk mail.

“The paper quality (for political mail) is nice and heavy,” said Lee. “It’s not the thin kind of paper, which can easily be torn when you fold.”

So politicians, your imprint is now in many homes through the hands of Steve Lee instead of being in the garbage dumps. How do you want to thank him? (end)

One Response to “BLOG: Turning pain into beauty — Creating art with waste”

  1. Toshiko Kobayashi says:

    Mr Lee’s idea is wonderful.
    It resonate with my idea of using origami as a tool of therapy. I came to the US to pursue this idea and I named my theory “enrichment origami art therapy” since 2002 and I wrote my thesis about it. I would like to connect to Mr Lee if there is a chance.
    Toshiko Kobayashi, ATR-BC, LCAT
    In New York

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