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Ancient art a benefit for seniors

Origami teacher brings class to Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center in hopes of enriching lives

Posted: May 9, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: May 9, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Teacher Shuko Shikauchi Nielsen, right, instructs the class on how to fold a winter bird out of paper at an origami class at the SCV Senior Center in Newhall on Friday.

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As a child in Tokyo, Shuko Shikauchi Nielsen grew up with origami. It was taught to her by her mother, her grandmother and teachers throughout grade school.

The ancient art of folding paper into intricate 3-D objects such as flowers, birds and geographic shapes is so commonplace in her native land that Shikauchi Nielsen didn’t consider herself an expert.

“I have to tell you, talk to any Japanese person, and you’ll see, they are just as good as me or anyone else,” Shikauchi Nielsen said.

That modesty belies Shikauchi Nielsen’s skills as a teacher. Over the last eight years, since relocating to the United States with her husband, Shikauchi Nielsen has instructed students of all ages and all levels in the Japanese art.

She taught her first origami class in the Santa Clarita Valley on Friday, as part of a continuing series on Fridays through May 20, at the SCV Senior Center in Newhall.

“Origami is a very good thing for seniors. It’s a quiet, tranquil activity that doesn’t take muscle, and brings peace of mind,” Shikauchi Nielsen said. “You can make a lot of things from a single piece of paper. This is good to develop and maintain hand/eye coordination. It can be mentally stimulating, too.”

Now a Newhall resident, Shikauchi Nielsen lived in Asheville, N.C., upon coming to the states. She sought translation and interpretation work, but found prospects lacking, so she turned to teaching Japanese privately.

It was in Asheville that Shikauchi Nielsen saw firsthand how powerful a force origami could be in a senior’s life.

A student named John unexpectedly showed up on her doorstep, his 80-year-old mother, Margie, in tow. His mother knew how to fold cranes, he explained to Shikauchi Nielsen, but she needed to find a new design.

“I was surprised, because I wasn’t expecting it, but I got a bunch of paper and showed his mother how to fold irises,” she recalled. “I found out later that Margie was on the verge of severe depression, and John was trying to help save her.”

The iris design was a hit with the elderly woman, so much so that Margie began folding flowers in the hundreds, and eventually in the thousands. Her efforts caught the attention of a museum in Akron, Ohio, where she lived. The museum eventually asked Margie to show her flowers at its gift shop.

When Margie passed away last year, John sent a letter that she had written. In it, Margie said Shikauchi Nielsen had saved her life.

“I realized origami means much more than just folding paper. That probably encouraged me to talk to the senior center and propose my class to its seniors,” Shikauchi Nielsen said.

Robin Clough, director of recreation and volunteers for the center, was happy to have Shikauchi Nielsen come on board.

“I think origami is really unique and an important part of the Japanese culture,” she said. “You can make something so beautiful out of something so simple. It’s something new to learn, which stimulates mind, body and hand coordination.”

In Shikauchi Nielsen’s experience, her American students react uniquely to learning origami.

“Honestly, some people find it difficult; some find it very easy. It just depends on the person,” she said. “Being Japanese, we are trained from early childhood, so we develop those skills naturally. It’s just folding paper; you just need to develop dexterity. It takes some patience in the beginning, but then, with that patience, you can make awesome things.”

During her classes at the center, Shikauchi Nielsen will demonstrate how to make animals, such as birds, seals and fish, as well as flowers. Once the basic origami skills are conquered, students can take their creativity to whatever level they desire.

“You can make characters that express your inner world,” Shikauchi Nielsen said. “What’s marvelous is that you start with a single square of paper and turn it into all kinds of shapes. Origami is everyone’s craft. It’s something everyone can enjoy.”

Origami classes at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center, Friday May 13 and May 20, 10 a.m.to noon, $3 class and $3 materials, 22900 Market St., Newhall. Info: (661) 259-9444.

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