The Capetonian man who became famous by folding paper
Folding might not help him win at poker, but Ross Symons makes some mighty fine origami sculptures, writes Lin Sampson
"Everyone said I would never make a living out of folding," says Ross Symons, a 32-year-old origami artist who has carved out a niche of cult fame with his distinctive stop-motion videos and paper shapes.
This digital native is a man who has journeyed his way beyond mediocre results at school, a tendency to drop out plus a chronic lack of fulfilment, to find what he likes doing best. It is the simple act of folding paper.
The results hang in a looped string across the wall of his tiny bachelor apartment in Gardens, Cape Town: a dung beetle, a purple turtle, a white unicorn. A handwritten sign reads HUSTLE.
As he talks, his hands are busy folding a paper crane. The paper is white on one side and green on the other, which makes it easier to match up the edges.
"There is a legend concerning the origami crane," he tells me, "which says that if someone makes 1,000 cranes, their wish will be granted."
When he left school in 2000 he started but did not finish a BA degree in audiovisual production management.
"I failed through pure lack of interest. I then went to hotel school and completed a three-year hospitality management diploma, which landed me a pretty cool job as a computer systems installer at a hospitality/IT company.
"While I was at hotel school, my brother, Brad, started a degree at an advertising school. For one of his projects he had to get a family member to make something. I googled how to make an origami crane bird."
Symons has never stopped making that crane bird. At parties he can be seen tearing labels off beer bottles and folding them into cranes. He folded the crane through a course in software development and then on through a four-year stint at Ogilvy & Mather.
"And then one day with a few guys at work I decided to make a stop-motion animation video (watch one below). It was us driving around in a car and the car was made up of two deck chairs.
"In those days my manager would be constantly asking, 'Rosco, when are you going to finish that web site?' Reply: 'Just let me finish folding this.'"
Multicrastinating had become the master. "Something was telling me to get out and find something else."
He quit his job at Ogilvy.
Finally he followed in the footsteps of Wayne Dyer (a US self-help guru of questionable merit) who was known for dedicating 365 days to one project.
"I decided to dedicate part of every day for a whole year to one thing. That thing was origami. Every time I made something I posted it on Instagram," Symons says.
It was Instagram that provided real vanity capital. Thanks to social media his work could be copied and envied and instantly recognised. Otherwise he might be a lone man in a room folding paper.
"I saw with social media that you can put anything out there and if it is a little bit different you're away."
At that stage he had 160 Instagram followers. He now has 1,600.
"Six months into the project I got this urge to charge things up, so I branded it. I called it White on Rice; that edged it up a notch. Instead of being 'dude folding paper for a year' I was herding a brand that inspired an origami Zen lifestyle."
Instagram users went mad for him. All the time he was folding the crane and making delightful stop-motion animations, gems of ingenuity and skill.
"At the end of 2014, I was asked to do a stop-motion video for Christian Dior. It was then that I realised I was going to do this full time. In the past six months I've worked with Red Bull, Adidas, Polo, and the last job I worked on was for Old Khaki."
Although Symons says he "is not interested in rules" and his apartment shows no clues to a personal life, his eyes often look troubled. I suspect origami has been a life saver, for at its heart lies a set of mathematical rules that are the silent disciples of an orderly life.
Things Ross Symons has learnt along the way:
• Have a side project. Always. Even now as a full-time artist I have a side project.
• Social media is free. USE IT. Put your ideas out there.
• Instead of running after money, try to find fulfilment and happiness. Money will find a way in.
• Think of ways you can bring all the things you're good at into one single thing.
• Surround yourself with positive, encouraging people.
• Respond to every person who contacts you as quickly as possible, via Instagram, e-mail, Facebook, whatever. You never know where that contact could lead.
• Pay attention to the things you're doing when you're supposed to be doing something else.