Question time over beers with 38-year-old South African origami artist and stop motion animator Ross Symons – @white_onrice – who gave up his modern day job to pursue the century-old art of folding paper.
You are essentially folding paper in a digital age to make a living. Please explain how this came about?
In 2014 I gave up my job as a website developer for an advertising agency. I wasn’t feeling fulfilled and when my brother asked me to contribute to a time capsule project, I literally tore the label off a beer bottle and made a ‘Tsuru’ (Japanese for crane). I then committed to a 365-day photo challenge on Instagram, taught myself how to fold and with a lot of muscle memory and dedication turned the craft into a new career path.
So you can relate to our own tagline of ‘The Past Perfected in the Present’ and the similarity of the love of the craft?
Oh absolutely, I love taking something tactile and possessing the patience, skill and imagination to produce something digital. Like your Bavarian beer-brewing rules of using only malt, hops, yeast and water – my paper folding repertoire cannot include cutting or an adhesive of any kind.
How has modern media helped the exposure of an old school craft?
I’m a perfect example of how my initial engagement on Instagram helped me create a business. Because I was posting every day and engaging with followers and comments during the 365-day Instagram challenge, Instagram actually featured me on their own account and their blog, and the impact was immediate. When I was first promoted as a ‘suggested user’ I went from 1 000 to 10 000 followers in a day, and then after the featured post, grew to 35 000 followers in less than 12 hours! Obviously that exposes your name to different brands, and today I’m proud to have worked with many global companies, including Christian Dior, Adidas, Red Bull and most recently Pixar.
Can you remember the first time you were paid for an origami piece?
You bet! In 2014 there was a pop-up ‘Bacon Bar’ at a restaurant (Le Quartier Français) in the South African Cape Winelands town of Franschhoek. They commissioned me to make 250 paper pigs which decorated the store front. I was paid 5000 Rand (€275), and literally thought, ‘I’m getting paid to fold paper… how is this happening?!’
What do you do with ALL the creations that you’ve folded?
I give some away, I throw some away – actually I threw a lot away during the 365 project. But I also like to leave some little nuggets around for people to pick up. There’s nothing better than someone tagging me on Instagram with an image of their ‘find’ at a coffee shop or bar in Cape Town, where I live. I take inspiration from Banksy here, the anonymous British street artist, hoping to surprise people with something unusual to catch their eye.
Do you have an anecdote about being somewhere and noticing someone watching you fold?
I do, and in a very apt place! In 2019 my girlfriend and I travelled to Japan on holiday, visited a few cites and just soaked up the culture. One night we were sitting in a small restaurant in Tokyo – and with what’s completely natural for me – I began folding while we were sitting at the counter-top space. I usually zone out, but looked up momentarily and caught the gaze of two chefs staring at me in bewilderment, with an expression of, ‘how is this Westerner doing this?!’ Nikki and I got engaged in Shibuya, so Japan is special to me on more than one level.
What’s on the playlist when you’re on a deadline and need to fold under pressure?
Mostly EDM (electronic dance music), I’m particularly fond of the Progressive House genre, with South African producer Protoculture (Nate Raubenheimer) providing the inspiration when I need it.
Now that you’re a globally renowned artist and animator, do you ever find the craft difficult or that it’s becoming too repetitive?
It’s always difficult, but I have a simple mantra: Every time I am folding [or creating] something new – that’s the hardest to date. It prevents complacency, make every fold like the first fold. And the first [unfiltered] beer after the fold is a very rewarding feeling!
Interviewed by Barry Havenga for AND UNION