Origami helps artist find her wings

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published March 5, 2019

 Artist Tamm Whitty stands behind some of the origami cranes — these are suspended with string — that she created for a new art exhibition on display at Grosse Pointe Congregational Church in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Artist Tamm Whitty stands behind some of the origami cranes — these are suspended with string — that she created for a new art exhibition on display at Grosse Pointe Congregational Church in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

 These three origami cranes are part of a larger Zen garden  with additional cranes.

These three origami cranes are part of a larger Zen garden with additional cranes.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Thousands of paper cranes — some only about the size of a dime — have found a safe place to land at Grosse Pointe Congregational Church in Grosse Pointe Farms.

What started as a personal challenge — to create 1,000 paper cranes in a year — turned out to be so much more for artist Tamm Whitty, of Grosse Pointe Park. For “Senbazuru: A Journey of Unfolding” — an art exhibition on display at the church through April 8 — Whitty ended up creating an estimated 2,000-3,000 origami cranes of various sizes, along with roughly 600 spherical origami works known as the Japanese brocade design.

The number of pieces alone is staggering, but it’s the meaning behind them that’s really notable. Whitty said origami has helped her through a period in her life that’s been marked by personal challenges and self-discovery. Through origami, she has found purpose and peace, something she hopes to share with others.

“When you think of origami, it is an art of paper folding,” Whitty said. “The way I look at it, it is also (an) art of unfolding, (like) a butterfly coming out of its cocoon and unfolding its wings.”

Whitty is a professional opera singer who serves as the music and Arts Ministry director at GPCC. She’s also a fine artist. Since she was a child, Whitty has been creating origami. For her, it all started as a way to keep the creative youngster occupied during a 1979 Super Bowl party.

Whitty said that in school, she was always doodling in her notebook, something she still does today. Some of the origami works in “Senbazuru” feature her doodles, as do painted rocks at the outskirts of some of the Zen gardens she created for her cranes.

“I actually end up listening better when my hands are busy,” Whitty said. “When I was a kid, the teacher would think I’m not paying attention at all (because) my head would be in my notebook. But when my teacher would call on me, I could repeat what was just said almost verbatim.”

Over the past year, Whitty said, she made origami pieces at opera and church music rehearsals, and even while out at restaurants and bars.

“I kind of wanted the show to open people’s minds,” she said. “When you’re sitting at a restaurant or bar and people see you folding a crane, it starts a dialogue.”

Senbazuru is a Japanese term for a group of 1,000 origami cranes. According to an ancient legend, the gods will fulfill a wish, like happiness or good fortune, to anyone who creates 1,000 cranes.

Whitty said she thought of folding 1,000 cranes for years.

“It gives an intention to every piece you create,” she said.

Origami is a peaceful art, and it has also been used in medicine.

“It’s therapeutic,” Whitty said. “Being a musician, there’s a certain rhythm to it as well. You get into a pattern — fold, crease, open — that becomes a form of meditation.”

They may look alike, but each of the cranes is different from the others, even if the difference is subtle.

Visitors will find cranes made of hand-painted paper, maps and papers in every shade of the rainbow. Some cranes are perched atop rice or sand, some are suspended with string, some are grouped and framed. There’s even a panel Whitty made that shows the process of folding and unfolding that goes into forming a crane.

Lori Zurvalec, of Grosse Pointe City, an artist and chair of GPCC’s Arts Ministry Committee, said Whitty explored the idea of what the cranes meant to her in this exhibition.

“We weren’t sure about our (art gallery) programming because of impending construction (at the church),” Zurvalec said. “Tamm … took what was going to be a humble placeholder show and turned it into something astonishing.”

St. Clair Shores artist Kay Van De Graf, who attended the opening reception for “Senbazuru” Feb. 28, called it a “striking show.”

“It’s absolutely astounding,” Van De Graf said.

Grosse Pointe Shores artist John Osler, who created two original photographs using Whitty’s origami, said he admires Whitty’s gift for this ancient art form.

“Origami is so grounded in tradition,” he said. “She took it and she expanded on it.”

Whitty insists she’s “by no means an origami expert,” but she still hopes to share this form with others by leading an origami workshop in conjunction with the exhibition. At press time, a date for that workshop hadn’t been set yet.

She said she hopes others will share their experiences and challenges with origami as part of “Senbazuru,” and she hopes others will give it a try.

“This is a journey that gave me a lot of joy throughout the year,” Whitty said.

Grosse Pointe Congregational Church is located at 240 Chalfonte Ave. The exhibition is open to the public from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays or by appointment. To make an appointment to see the exhibition, contact Whitty at (313) 319-8363.