You know what origami is.
You may even know about kirigami, the version that allows you to make cuts. And if you know about that cutting art, you have possibly also heard of scherenschnitte. They are all examples of creating beautiful craft from paper.
But they are all totally spineless.
If you want a real craft challenge, take the loose leaves of paper, bind them together and slap on a cover. Then fold them page, by page, by page. Precisely. Very precisely.
This is the art of book folding. It is the ability to see in 3D and calculate the journey to a shape millimetre by millimetre. All within the tactile warmth of pre-loved literature.
It is the world Caron Dallas creates in her tiny garage studio in Newtown Avenue, just over the road from Peoples Coffee roastery.
She trades as Norac Salad, inspired by a friend who kept describing her workplace as ‘the salad bowl’. When she tumbled to how that phrase came about she adopted the heteropalindrome as her own. (For the word-curious, these are apparently also known as semordnilaps, semi-palindromes, half-palindromes, reversgrams, mynoretehs, reversible anagrams, word reversals, or anadromes.)
We visited Caron at her studio on a quiet weekend afternoon, and she put aside her work for a little while to share her story.
Newtown House: Tell us a bit about your life to this point. How have you come to be doing folded book art?
Caron Dallas: It started during my six years of living and working through Europe and North Africa. I would work in the UK, then go travel until the money ran out, then go back and get another job. A friend I stayed with had one of these folded books. I copied it. Then, whenever I read a book on a train I would finish the book, fold it, and leave it on the train as a gift.
I had always wanted to be an artist, so when I came home I did a fine arts degree with a sculpture major at Massey University. I did big Perspex installation stuff. One piece was a mirrored styrene teleidoscope [a type of kaleidoscope] for the Taniwha's Den Festival that was held in the Hinekura Valley over in the Wairarapa. But I wanted to take advantage of having this workspace here and do something that I could physically manage for when I got to be a proper old lady - not just a little bit of an old lady but a proper one!
I opened on my 60th birthday a couple of years ago with a big barbecue out front on the street.
NH: Your work appears to involve a combination of artistic vison to ‘see’ the end result and then a lot of precision and patience to make it work.
CD: That’s right. You create a pattern of the shape, with every page creating something like a stitch in the pattern. You then mark each page in the book where you will make the fold on that page. It took me six months of working out designs and patterns and making mistakes and speeding up as well as learning to use the computer to make patterns that I could repeat. I know what different paper quality will do and I can see what it's going to look like. The more architectural shapes involve a lot of mathematics, but the technique is all in my head now.
NH: It sounds a bit like knitting.
CD: Once you know what you're doing and you've created the pattern, yes, it's like knitting. You know how you start off with a stocking stitch, but then as you get better you throw in a complex Aran pattern with different-coloured cables going through it, then it becomes far more complicated. That's where I think I have got to - Aran with complications.
NH: What are your most popular works?
CD: Shapes and names are the most popular commissions I get asked for. It’s also about the books. People will either request a specific book or give me a book. Sometimes parents will give me their child’s favourite book from childhood and ask me to make an art piece for their 16th or 21st birthday.
NH: How long does it take you to make a typical piece?
CD: Many of the shapes, or names, can be folded in a day.
NH: Is there a perfect book to use?
CD: Yes, the perfect book is a Reader’s Digest Condensed book. I love them - it's not high literature, it's good paper, lots of them are bound really well and they're a good size for posting. They're so evocative of Kiwi summers – every camping ground, every caravan and every tent site seems to have a stack of them. I do get a lot of opinions about me using books and damaging them or whatever. My catch phrase is that no books were harmed in the making of these. It's all folds: there are no cuts in this technique.
NH: What do you do if you make a mistake – can you refold the pages or do you have to start again?
CD: It's extremely forgiving. If it's a little mistake it's just a matter of unfolding and going back.
NH: Are you an avid reader?
CD: Yes. This art is an extension of my love of books in general. I only read novels on a Kindle now. It’s lighter and I can make the print bigger. I still have my collection of art books and I do have a few treasured books. A particular favourite is Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. I also love Liane Moriarty, she did Big Little Lies, but I re-read Jitterbug Perfume at least once a decade and every time it brings me joy.
NH: Where do you source your books from?
CD: I source from TradeMe, but lots are just given to me when people are tidying up or shifting house. For a long time I couldn’t use paperbacks. Then my friend, Meg worked out a way of marbling the edges [using an ancient Turkish technique], which gives them a special look. I also I worked out a way of turning them into cylinder shapes.
NH: What’s your favourite piece?
CD: My recent favourite is a work I did for the organisers of Booktown, an annual event in Featherston. It is a massive typewriter keyboard, with one book for each of the characters. It took me about four months to make given the complexity of designing each letter or symbol. When I saw it installed I burst into tears, I was just so moved.
NH: What sort of work are you yet to try – what might the future hold?
CD: Building on the typewriter idea I want to do the periodic table - each book will be an element. And I will be using Salvation Army hymnals, so it will be a cross of science, art and religion.
NH: What do you like about living in Newtown?
CD: It’s the diversity of Newtown, and I see it all past this place every day. There’s every nationality, every body type. I also love the brightness of the kids from the Council flats down the road, the wee ones that I've watched growing up.
Caron Dallas / Norac Salad. Origami Books and Objects of Desire
May 2018 update: Sadly, Caron's creative cave will shortly be demolished and her seven year stay will end. The site was part of the Salvation Army Wellington South Corp's church, but it was sold as part of the centralisation of their services to a single complex one block south. Caron's old base will be developed into an apartment complex by a property developer - another stitch in the tapestry of Newtown's gradual reinvention.