Art For The ‘Alala’

Former veterinarian Shannon Nakaya is now an aĉionado of origami, and is using her newfound passion to raise funds for an ‘Alalā bird (pictured) habitat in Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens.

Avian vet Shannon Nakaya has been a supporter of feathered friends for 35 years. Through the decades, she has treated countless parrots, cockatiels, parakeets and pets, not to mention dogs, cats and guinea pigs, as well as volunteered her time to perform surgery on hundreds of injured wild birds including pueo (owls), ‘io (hawks) and nēnē (geese).

As she currently scales down her practice after a long and demanding career, Nakaya is putting herself into focus by exploring new challenges, including art and writing. For Nakaya, the craft of origami allows her to combine her knowledge of animal anatomy with her passion for creativity.

“My background is atypical of many artists, as my degree is in veterinary medicine,” she says. “Origami started as a mind game for me and has taken on a life of its own. Complex origami is like a puzzle that involves math and art. It’s a relaxing pursuit compared to bird surgery, which is high-stress, time-sensitive, and emotionally and physically draining.”

A fourth-generation resident of Hawai‘i, Nakaya grew up on O‘ahu and graduated from Pearl City High School. She obtained her bachelor’s in anthropology from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, followed by a doctorate in veterinary medicine from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, also located in Massachusetts.

Shannon Nakaya with her origami canary creation. KAREN ANDERSON PHOTO

Upon returning to Hawai‘i in 2004, she embarked on a veterinary career on the Big Island that integrates traditional Chinese medicinal practices, including acupuncture. An avian specialist, Nakaya also works extensively with local raptor enthusiast Steve Snyder, who runs a licensed raptor-rehab center in North Kona. She delivers her post-op patients to Snyder, who rehabilitates the recovering birds of prey for eventual return to the wild.

Nakaya recalls doing simple origami when she was a child. Later in vet school, she would pass the time folding cranes while listening to long-winded lectures. Although making the traditional 1,001 cranes for wedding and anniversary presents turned out to be repetitive and boring, the process inspired her to take things to the next level.

About eight years ago, she tried her hand at more complex designs. Three years ago, she began coming up with her own original creations.

“I’m compelled to work with my hands, using precision and fine dexterity to make it perfect,” she says.

Former veterinarian Shannon Nakaya with her eclectus. KAREN ANDERSON PHOTO

Quite naturally, Nakaya gravitates toward creating animal-themed origami. Her home in North Kona is “inhabited” by a veritable menagerie of origami creatures including dogs, cats, snails, turtles — and, of course, birds — as well as 7-foot dragons suspended from the ceiling and whimsical trolls that hang on her gate in the front yard.

Her background as a veterinarian informs her art.

“My origami is always animal-related in a style that features anatomical detail, texture and expression. That’s where I get to draw upon my veterinary knowledge. I know where the bends in the legs are supposed to be, for example. The art of origami in general has advanced into more sophisticated and eclectic representations. I want to show people that origami can be more than just paper craft.”

Speaking of paper, Nakaya doesn’t utilize actual paper for creating origami. Rather, she uses an archival-grade synthetic material called polyethylene. Because it is waterand tear-resistant, polyethylene origami can be displayed outside on the lānai or even in the yard. Nakaya buys the product in rolls and hand-dyes it herself.

“I enjoy doing commission work because I get to match colors to people’s interior spaces,” said Nakaya. “My designs are often whimsical and aim to draw out the inner joie de vivre in people. I have also worked out ways of creating structurally stable larger pieces — like 3-foot trolls or 7-foot dragons with 1,000 scales — demonstrating that origami has the potential to be more than just desktop craft.”

Shannon Nakaya crafts everything from corgis to dragons out of origami. PHOTO COURTESY SHANNON NAKAYA

In the last several years, Nakaya has created pieces for local and mainland art installations, as well as private commissions. A member of the Big Island-based group Epic Origami, Nakaya saw her work exhibited at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo in 2015. She will also participate in the Kona Palisades art studio tour this November.

In keeping with her long-time commitment to help native birds, Shannon has been creating origami representations of the endangered ‘Alalā (Hawaiian raven) that is currently extinct in the wild.

The captive breeding program at Keauhou Bird Conservation Center in Volcano has kept the species alive. Through the sale of her ‘Alalā origami pieces, Nakaya is helping raise money to fund an ‘Alalā habitat for Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens in Hilo.

“I designed the ‘Alalā for the zoo because they are raising money to construct an exhibit for the first and only public display of the species,” she says. “I’m donating 50 percent of proceeds from any purchase of this particular piece that will go toward the development of this exhibit.”

Whether folding origami, writing a book about her centenarian grandmother, or visiting her existing animal patients in town, Nakaya never strays far from her love of caring for people and pets.

Most of her living room, in fact, is devoted to her special-needs bird friends including three rescued cockatiels, an elderly blue-and-gold macaw, an injured eclectus parrot and a blue-crowned conure she’s had for 30 years (not to mention two adorable corgi dogs that participate in agility training).

“I could never fully wean myself away from birds,” she admits. “Birds will always be a part of my life. My grandmother lived to be 103 years old, so if I follow her genetics, I should have plenty of time to achieve success in a second career.”

To view Nakaya’s origami portfolio, visit origamidog.us.