Bold fold: Robert Salazar's visionary origami work draws attention to conservation issues

click to enlarge Bold fold: Robert Salazar's visionary origami work draws attention to conservation issues
PAPER VIEW: Origami artist Robert Salazar is a contractor at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) where he designs deployable structures to assist space telescopes in searching for life among the stars. Salazar is the designer behind the origami patterns for the Starshade project, which creates artificial eclipses to help spot planets beyond the solar system.

Scrolling through Robert Salazar's website yields some unusual finds.

The artist, scientist, and activist, known for his intensely detailed origami works of art, has a lot going on besides folding paper. His website has tabs for "Research," which lists projects such as Challenging Freshwater Scarcity with Solar Origami and Origami Inspired Transformers for a Lunar Base. Under "Activism," he details work such as fundraising for protests at Standing Rock and initiatives to defend the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling.

Origami was a passion he picked up at a young age. Salazar started playing around with designs when he was 8. It's how he got interested in design and physics. When he was a young teenager, Salazar set his sights on becoming a physicist. As he got older, he turned his interest to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

"I was doing research in material science," Salazar said. "I was looking for positions in material science at [NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)] every now and then again. And then people told me about this project called Starshade."

click to enlarge Bold fold: Robert Salazar's visionary origami work draws attention to conservation issues
FOLDING FOR AWARENESS: As the founder of Origami for an Interdependent World, Robert Salazar is raising awareness and funds for wildlife conservation through his origami art.

Starshade is a JPL mission designed to create artificial eclipses to block out starlight to help scientists spot planets beyond our solar system. Researchers involved with the effort wanted to use origami in construction but were unsure how to incorporate the technique. It was an engineering problem, typically something Salazar didn't work in.

"They were looking for someone to solve this problem," he explained. "I was able to solve the problem they were working on. It was very intuitive to solve as an artist. Origami in engineering and math is really in its infancy; the tools just don't exist. It's really the Wild West of origami of math and engineering right now." 

He joined the project in 2015 to design and create patterns and help implement and test prototypes. While working at JPL, Salazar realized there were a lot of problems that could be fixed by incorporating origami. He started going from project to project, jumping in where he thought his origami expertise could help.

Outside of his scientific work, Salazar still devotes much of his energy to his art and his conservation efforts. Salazar, an activist and an environmentalist, hopes to use his stunning origami works to promote sustainability and awareness of key issues that impact world wildlife. 

Bold fold: Robert Salazar's visionary origami work draws attention to conservation issues
ABOVE THE FOLD: The Wildling Museum of Art and Nature presents Folded Art: Origami Animals with artist Robert Salazar through March 25. The exhibit is in the Valley Oak Gallery, on the museum’s second floor. The Wildling Museum is located at 1511 Mission Drive, Solvang. For more information, call (805) 688-1082. To see more of Salazar’s work, visit

The origami process used to take Salazar weeks and weeks, and he often struggled with it. But now he has grown in his relationship with the medium. The rules of origami state that one may never add to or cut from the paper. That creates an interesting relationship, Salazar said. 

"All origami can be transformed from any one into any other," he said. "Because of that, they are all related to each other; you can draw these relationships to one another, kind of like the tree of life. ... So when I design, I have so many origami on this tree, any new origami is somewhere on it."

Salazar loved animals growing up, as most young children do, but didn't have a serious concern for sustainability and animal conversation until a very precise moment in his life–Feb. 19, 2012.

"I had a realization," Salazar said. "I thought about the things I ultimately wanted to do. I thought, if I change how I look at things and change perspective, I could learn to like or love or do anything. If that's the case, then what would I choose?"

It was a difficult question for Salazar to answer. He eventually decided if he was going to do anything with his life, it wouldn't be something that was harmful to the environment or other people. The path to find what that led him to JPL, where he said he's been able to fulfill that goal.

Salazar openly calls himself an activist, a title he embraces in his art and work. He is currently a wildlife ambassador with the World Wildlife Fund.

click to enlarge Bold fold: Robert Salazar's visionary origami work draws attention to conservation issues
SALAZARIGAMI: Robert Salazar is an artist, conservationist, and activist who currently serves as Wildlife Ambassador with the World Wildlife Fund. His origami work is featured through March 29 at the Wildling Museum of Art and Nature in Solvang.

"Everything is based on raising funds and awareness," he explained. "One of the first big things I did is a Lobby Day in [Washington, D.C.]."

The Trump administration had proposed cutting funds to conservatories around the world such as fisheries and woodlands, he said, so the WWF put together a cadre of ambassadors to meet with politicians for days, urging them to keep the funding. Salazar also participates in fundraising efforts as needed.

For the exhibit at the Wildling Museum, Salazar included some origami sculptures of animals native to Santa Barbara County, including the yellow-billed magpie, tarantula, and the steelhead trout. In addition to the Wildling Museum display, a group of his pieces based on marine life will also will be on display at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.

"Normally when I'm designing on my own, it's just like dreaming," he said. "But for the exhibit, I like to come up with a list of specific creatures I want to do. It's an entirely intuitive process." 

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose folds it like she stole it. Contact her at [email protected]

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