McCallum: Origami behind bars

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(HOST) While most of us can take a vacation from our structured and demanding lives, commentator Mary McCallum works with a special population that has found  another more unusual way to get away from the stresses of their daily routine.

(MCCALLUM) When life gets too fast and full of clutter most of us are able to leave the world behind for a while by doing something that changes our focus and tempo.  Meditation, working out, gardening, walking in the woods, playing with the dog – there are many ways for us to  move into another environment that allows us to breathe in, exhale, turn off the din and pay attention to the moment.

On Monday and Wednesday afternoons I sit in a room with ten inmates in one of Vermont’s prisons and watch them get lost in the Japanese art of paper folding.  A captive audience, they come to the art room to do origami, which helps them escape for just a while the noise and metallic harshness of prison life.  While my boombox plays CDs of Miles Davis, Al Green and Ray Charles, the men sit amiably around a long table making origami birds, boxes and flowers.

We have a paper garden of roses, hydrangeas, lilies and dahlias made by guys who didn’t even know what a dahlia was out on the street.  One day I brought in a bouquet of some from my garden with deep magenta colored petals so they could appreciate firsthand how close their handiwork is to the real blossoms.

I sit back, a fly on the cement block wall, and supervise this class of inmates coached by another inmate.  Everything he knows about this ancient art form that began in China and later flourished in Japan he learned behind bars by reading printed directions in books.  Now his work is breathtaking.  He produces fanciful animals and fish, intricate geometric shapes, and large bouquets of exotic flowers that will never wither and die.

The men are incarcerated in this high security facility for offenses across the spectrum.  Most of their crimes were fueled by alcohol and drugs, and some included violence.  But when they are in this room they leave all that behind for the afternoon as they fold the wings of cranes and swans, design tight fitting lids to multicolored boxes, and roll delicate green stems for flower blossoms.

A darker version of the benefits of origami in a prison setting was portrayed in the popular television series "Prison Break."  One of its main characters was an inmate who used his carefully folded swans to send secret written messages to other prisoners.  Instead of using the craft as a way to shut out his environment, this con turned it into a form of stealth communication with other felons inside.  There’s always a flip side to creativity behind the razor wire.  These men have nothing but time, all the time in the world to find ways to push the envelope.

As far as I know, none of the men in my origami class have resorted to flying contraband messages around on the wings of brightly colored paper birds.  But for two afternoons a week, with a little help from Miles Davis playing dreamily in the background, they use origami to help make their world go away.

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