It starts as a square — flat and neat. But put it in the right hands, and just a few minutes later, it will be a dragon, a spinning top, a jewelry box with a flower lid. Origami is a practice that links communities through universal designs and symbols. A small group on Mount Desert Island is just one link in the worldwide paper chain of origami folders.

Most people have never heard of the Down East Origami Society. Roxane Scherer of Manset, an artist and origami practitioner for 40 years, organized the group 14 years ago, and she keeps it simple. They meet once a month and try out a new project.

“We just get together and talk like a quilting bee,” said Sherry Rasmussen, who has been a society member since its inception.

But this fall the chatter quieted down as they raced to complete an important project on deadline.

One drizzly afternoon in late October, society members ducked through the front door of Alone Moose, a fine art gallery on the Bar Harbor waterfront owned by Rasmussen and her husband, Ivan. At a long table at the back of the gallery, they got to work transforming piles of 6-inch squares into cranes — origami birds that symbolize peace.

By Nov. 1, their Peace Cranes were in New York City for the Origami Holiday Tree at the American Museum of Natural History, a spectacle that for 35 years has been decorated by the work of OrigamiUSA volunteers across the country. This year’s theme commemorates the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Not only will the Peace Cranes adorn the needled branches, they also will be placed in the hands of those who attend the tree lighting at 10:30 a.m. Monday, Nov. 21.

The Peace Crane was born in Japan, and its symbolism has gained strength through the story of one girl.

The legend goes: If an ailing person folds 1,000 origami cranes, she will become well.

Sadako Sasaki was 2 years old in 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped near her home in Hiroshima, Japan. Diagnosed with leukemia caused by radiation exposure, Sadako attempted to fold 1,000 cranes before her death. Some versions of the story say she reached her goal, some stories say she did not, before her death at the age of 12.

Now, a statue of Sadako stands in Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, and people from all over the world lay paper cranes at the monument’s base. The gift signifies peace and commemorates victims of war.

“My visit to the Hiroshima Peace Park with my husband and son touched us because we saw thousands and thousands of cranes that were folded and sent to the park from all around the world. There were handwritten messages of peace in numerous languages,” said Rasmussen, who learned the art in Japan, said to be the birthplace of origami (though China is also said to be where origami first started).

While working for United Airlines, she flew to Japan throughout the 1990s and stayed there on assignment for two months. During that time, she learned origami with a friend, Yoko Kimura, in Narita, Japan.

“Origami makes friends, [both] when you teach how to make it and when you give it to someone,” wrote Yoko in a recent email interview. “When I make more complicated origami, I feel satisfaction when I’m done. I love the moment people say, ‘I made it!’ when they are finished.

“We learn origami in kindergarten in Japan. Kids have origami papers at home and decorate their room with origami flowers sometimes. I believe making origami trains creativity and a smart brain. So, origami is a matter of course in Japan.”

To Yoko, the meaning of each Peace Crane is different. It depends on the person who makes it and what he or she is thinking while folding the paper — “What they are thinking, wishing, praying.”

The Down East Origami Society has a history of donating origami, as well as teaching others how to fold at Maine libraries and community centers.

In 1995, Rasmussen was part of an effort to fold and send 3,000 Peace Cranes to Hiroshima to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing. More recently, Scherer folded cranes for the victims of the March 11 tsunami that devastated Japan.

Over the years, the small society has hovered around six members. It now includes Rasmussen, Scherer, MDI residents Pat Samuel and Cathy Willey and Tokyo resident Yachie Sakamoto, who joined the society while living in Manset.

For the society’s Peace Crane workshop, the gallery shelves were decorated with the society’s past projects: origami skunks, jumping frogs, swans, elephants, a birthday crown, and complicated geometric shapes with names such as “firecracker” and “fuse box.”

“It can be practically free to make,” said Rasmussen as she turned over a flapping bird folded from a map of Acadia National Park.

“Generally, the more appendages an animal has, the harder it is to make. Insects are one of the hardest,” said Scherer, who lent her menagerie of origami animals to the Hampstead Stage Company for its play “Animals Out of Paper” shown in New Hampshire. “And something made of one piece of paper is often more difficult than something made of many pieces of paper.”

While Peace Cranes filled up a bowl placed at the center of the gallery table, Bar Harbor shoppers wandered in and joined the effort, including a couple from Florida.

“When I first made a crane, I felt I was all thumbs, and my crane was really terrible,” said Rasmussen. “But I’ve perfected how to teach others.”

The society doesn’t quit a project until everyone has transformed that little square into something remarkable.

To see Scherer’s artwork, visit her solo painting and origami show at Ellsworth Public Library, Dec. 3-31. The society next meets at Rasmussen’s home in Bar Harbor at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 11. For information about the club, email Roxane Scherer at

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...