Happenings on Charles Street Hill: Resident Pays Forward After Crediting Black Ink for Rekindling his Interest in Origami

Gregory Skaff credits his rediscovering the craft of origami after a 37-year lull to a November 2016 visit to Black Ink, a longstanding shop at 101 Charles St. specializing in paper goods, where he acquired, in exchange for a nominal $1 charitable contribution, an origami star that has ever since graced the front door of his Garden Street apartment.

The origami bat models by Noboru Miyajima that Gregory Skaff created to help Black Ink raise money for St. Francis House this Halloween.

The folded-paper star was created by Susan Corcoran, who owns and operates Black Ink with her husband, Timothy, and given to Skaff as a token of appreciation for supporting the business’s ongoing effort to offer financial aid to a host of local nonprofits and other worthy causes.

Corcoran first origami fundraising effort came about serendipitously in 2011 when she created 1,000 paper cranes for a special storefront-window display for that holiday season. Japan had also suffered a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that November, and Corcoran was eager to help out there any way she could.

“We sell a lot of Japanese goods, and we’re very friendly with a lot of our vendors from Japan,” Corcoran said, “so we thought, ‘why not ask for a donation for a crane?,’ and a dollar a piece seemed reasonable.”

So rather than simply discarding the cranes once they took down the window display, Black Ink instead devoted some shelf space to the origami cranes and used them successfully to garner financial aid for their friends in Japan.

The effort grew from there, and Corcoran was soon folding a variety of origami pieces, such as hearts, stars and butterflies, that were offered at both Black Ink’s Charles Street store and its second outpost in Harvard Square (which closed at the end of last year) in exchange for a requested nominal charitable donation.

“We started doing it at both stores and got a great community response,” she said. “We asked people to donate money and take a folded piece of origami with them, although many people donated without taking one.”

Corcoran selects a local nonprofit as the recipient of the donations each time, and past recipients have included Community Servings, Rosie’s Place, Food for Free, BARCC (Boston Area Rape Crisis Center) and Partners in Health, which she describes as “a local yet international organization.” Or in some instances, the proceeds are used instead to aid in a national or an international crisis (e.g. some origami proceeds were used this summer to benefit relief efforts in Beirut, Lebanon, in the aftermath of the devastating bombings there).

And as a further testament of her devotion to these causes, Corcoran also personally matches the donations she receives in exchange for the origami pieces out of her own pocket.

Now 56, Skaff was first introduced to origami at around the age of 6 or 7 when his mother brought him home his first instructional book on the Japanese paper-folding technique.

“She thought I had good spatial ability,” Skaff said of his mother’s ultimately prescient prediction that he would gravitate towards origami.

His mother brought Skaff home another book on origami from Japan after she accompanied his father there on a business trip, and Skaff found yet another book on the subject at the long-running New England Book Fair in Newton many years ago.

Skaff would go on to win an oral presentation on origami in the eighth grade, but he said he lost interest in paper-folding soon afterwards, which he attributes chiefly to the absence of origami clubs or other such “resources” at that time in Sudbury, where he grew up, and at the Fessenden School in Newton, where he would go on to attend boarding school.

Fast forward to September of 2019 – nearly three years after he purchased the origami star – when Skaff first met Corcoran at the store and had a chance to thank her for helping rekindle his personal interest in the craft. As a token of his appreciation, he contributed 15 Hideo Kamatsu origami horses to Corcoran’s ongoing charitable efforts, which subsequently raised $350 in donations for the Saint Francis House, a Boston homeless shelter.

The staff of St. Francis House was completely unaware of the fundraising endeavor until a check arrived, Staff said, as it was only advertised via a small sign at the store alongside the origami pieces, explaining where the proceeds would go.

Despite the fact that nearly four decades had elapsed since he last folded paper, Skaff has found that he hasn’t lost his touch.

“It’s kind of like riding a bike,” added Skaff, who would go on to instruct the Noboru Miyajima bat at MIT’s 2019 Origami (OrigaMIT) Convention, which was organized by Dr. Jason Ku, whom Skaff described as an “origami model design prodigy, MIT professor and OrigamiUSA board chair.”

This month, in anticipation of Halloween, Skaff has donated a number of his Noboru Miyajima bats in a variety of colors to Black Ink, with proceeds again benefitting St. Francis House. (Skaff donated 11 bats to start and plans to replenish the supply as stock gets low in each available color).

And while there isn’t typically a suggested sum in exchange for the origami pieces at Black Ink, this time, they’re asking a minimum of $5 a piece for the bats, which Skaff said is a real steal since each one takes him more an hour to fold.

Corcoran agrees that the bats are a bargain at this requested donation. “We set a $5 minimum for Greg’s pieces because they’re so amazing,” she said.

Selecting St. Francis House again as the recipient of the fundraising effort was something else that Corcoran and Skaff also agreed on easily.

“Greg and I were talking about local issues and the impact of the pandemic on society here in Boston, and felt it was important to do something locally for people who are in great need,” she said.

(Black Ink can only accept cash donation for the origami pieces, Corcoran said, as they aren’t store inventory,)

Looking back on the past nine years, Corcoran estimates she has spent countless hours folding “thousands” of pieces of origami since she first launched this unique fundraising campaign, but she hardly considers this time as “work.”

“Folding is very meditative,” she said. “It gives your mind a chance to think.”

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