Thursday, March 13, 2008

Arlene Elizabeth - Peace maker

The idea for this entry occurred the other day when Nate, a member of my family, sent me this video about French origami artist, Vincent Floderer:

(If viewing from your inbox and you are unable to see the video above, please click HERE

While Vincent Floderer is, indeed, a fascinating origami force with which to be reckoned, his more spiritually oriented counterpart lives right here in the Bay Area.

I met Arlene Elizabeth at an art opening at Institute of Mosaic Art in Oakland. Subsequently we became friends.

Arlene Elizabeth
Now, writing an accurate characterization of the woman is not a simple task. I've thought about this, and suffice it to say, Arlene has the persona of a gentle lioness, the intelligence of a physicist, and the artful inclinations of a genius all wrapped together in a peaceful, loving heart. John and I are happy that she and her partner, Ruth, and their son, Ian, live so nearby. They’re good folks (and good cooks!) ;-) .

A creator of high-end, sculpted furniture and cabinetry by trade, Arlene’s other art work is about peace and social justice. Her work is informed by her desire to see healing in communities and in individuals that have suffered trauma. Her iconic tapestries fuse the revered disciplines of origami and mosaic. The works are based on photographs that have been broken down into detailed grids of individual pixels.

Power to the Peaceful

I do not exaggerate when I say that Arlene aspires to some lofty undertakings. One project includes a grassroots effort to build origami mosaics in the likenesses of The Buddhas of Bamyan that were destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban. She wants to hang the giant mosaic in front of the destroyed icons until Hiro Yamagata, (the Japanese artist who has been commissioned to rebuild them) can complete this monumental reconstruction.
Site of the now-destroyed Buddhas of Bamyan

In other words….her art has something to say.

Arlene Elizabeth’s work illustrates and reflects the following insights:

* Art is a Healing Ritual: Each work is composed of thousands of folded peace cranes.

Both origami and mosaic are arts used to aid meditation.

* We Must Become the Change We Wish to See in the World: These works seek to exemplify Gandhi’s ethos of personal light transforming public darkness.

* Reality is Based on Point of View: Because each crane is a pixel, the viewer is challenged to focus on the individual parts making up a greater, meaningful whole.

* Complex and Simple Things Coexist: Both mesmerizing and challenging, the works integrate the idea that reality is something that can be easy to grasp and also impossible to describe.

* Life is Folding and Unfolding: Using origami and mosaic as craft and metaphor, these pieces play a mirror game with the viewer. One is challenged to see life a mystery to be explored and a gift to be accepted.

Arlene’s unique method of creating these pieces entails gluing hand-folded cranes individually onto canvas backing. The finished works resemble pointillist paintings or pixels viewed up close on a large screen. One has to stand at a distance to appreciate their full impact. I have yet to see a photograph that can capture their surprising visual effect.


The notion of 1,000 cranes as an international symbol of peace has been around since the late 1700’s. After 9/11, Arlene and friend, Daegan Reimer, utilized this concept to launch the World Trade Center Healing Project. With the help of other crane folders who contributed more than six thousand individually folded birds, Arlene and company hung strands of origami cranes at ground zero. They distributed others at Strawberry Fields, the memorial to John Lennon in Central Park.

Arlene said, "The crane is really useless to you until you give it to someone else" "The process of folding is important, but it really becomes empowering when you share it with someone."

World Trade Center Towers

Arlene now uses the medium regularly for creating art and teaching children about peace. She has, turned literally thousands of the intricately folded gruidae into elaborate, giant mosaics. Recent projects include a gift of one of her mosaics to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.


Someone pops a paper bag filled with air. That is a demonstration of violence. It is loud, it is dramatic and it got your attention. Maybe you saw it coming, and you knew that he was going to do something, yet you did nothing to stop him. You didn’t stop him because you really didn’t know what he was going to do, or didn’t want to believe that he was going to do it. This is because you expect him to behave a certain way, and that way is PEACEFUL. We are conditioned for peace…not violence. When violence happens, we are so surprised and taken off guard that we don’t respond. We just can’t move. Often we rationalize by telling ourselves ‘it must be a mistake’, because our lives are 99.999% peaceful. And yet when that .001% of non-peaceful activity occurs, we can’t get it out of our heads. Our realities become redefined by the violent act and we forget that we are—and the world is---99.999% peaceful. We want to deny “the violence” access to our psyche, but the image of it dominates our imagination and memory.

And yet, we cannot allow ourselves to become immobilized. We need to erase those images, by replacing them with their polar opposite. People want to SEE a demonstration of peace. We need to see it. And we want it to be as dramatic as violence.

People want to know how folding a little bird can help. It works like this: I want peace. I want my peace restored---my inner peace---my peace of mind. I want to feel good about people and not fear them or feel isolated. So I plant an idea of peace like a seed, and I water it with hope. There is no faucet handy to water it so I enlist anyone who will listen to help, and we set-up a bucket brigade to water and nurture the seed. Soon it becomes a plant, and then a tree. Finally, after a lot of time has passed, we have a tree with fruit that nourishes everyone, including the skeptics who asked “how can one tiny seed help?”

Folding a single bird helps a little. Folding a thousand birds helps you a lot. But contributing those same birds to a central movement helps you and everyone else tremendously, by creating and providing the physical manifestation of peace and love and thoughtfulness that we so crave. This is the demonstration of the antithesis of violence, and yet this too you won’t be able to get out of your head; you won’t be able to tune it out, turn away, deny it, reject it, avoid it, be unmoved, or unchanged. It will not be easily achieved, it won’t be loud, and yet all will hear it, and they will know that united we Americans ---and people from all over the world---stand for Peace.

By folding origami cranes we commemorate, we honor, and we show spirituality without being religious, and patriotism without politics. Just people honoring life.

Ian - Childhood and Nature

Ian, arms outstretched in front of mom, Arlene Elizabeth's work.

At this time, Arlene does not have a web site. However, I am going to build one for her in the near future….and when I do, she is going to give me this:
It will be, indeed, a blessing.

How to Make an Origami Peace Crane


Judy said...

This is wonderful. I am enamored of the crane form as well, and the power it has. I would have never thought about the idea of using the crane for a mosaic element.
I have recently begun a crane project of my own, and I will be sure to link to your post in my blog. Thank you for letting me know about Arlene and her work.

HeArt Collective said...

this is an amazing use for the cranes. i have a 1000 crane project going on for my best friend and fellow artist, stacey ballard. thanks for sharing this unique story... very touching, indeed.

love and light,

freebird said...

Great review of her art. I sent a link to your blog page to my grandaughter who likes to fold cranes. She likes art also and I'd like to expand her world (she tends to think of realism as the "real" goal of art. (She just turned 11 so I have hope she will learn much more is art).

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