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Origami whiz just keeps folding — even in dreams

He's pretty much always folding paper. Or thinking about folding paper. Or dreaming about it when he's asleep, picturing the hundreds of creases it will take to make a piece of paper smaller and more complicated.

If you count the dreams, Matthew Jones says, he probably spends 75 percent of his time doing origami.

And not just stylized paper cranes, perhaps the most famous example of the Japanese artform, but true-to-life house flies and pine cones and, once, the jaw bone of a deer.

When he was 3, his mother brought home a book on origami. By age 5, he was inventing his own shapes, which year by year became more complex. Now, at 29, there is paper all over his house.

He wonders if there's a connection between his epilepsy, which began at age 14, and his origami talents. Maybe, he says, a brain-wiring malfunction is responsible for both; maybe the same thing that allows him to visualize the thousands of folds that make up an origami centipede is also the thing that makes him stiffen and shake.

"I've spent a lot of time thinking how my brain works and where the epilepsy comes from," he says, then points to the back of his head, at the base of his skull.

It's not the frontal lobe epilepsy sometimes associated with visions of God, he says, but rather something more rudimentary. Something more "lizard," he says. His seizures are classified as tonic-colonic.

"Sounds like a drink," he laughs.

Jones spent most of his life making origami and then throwing it away, since it was the folding, more than the folded thing, that intrigued him. But a few years ago, after marrying his wife, Michele (who walked down the aisle carrying an origami wedding bouquet), Jones began thinking of all that paper work as actual art. He began painting his creations and framing them.

His first solo show of origami runs through Nov. 9 at Art Access Gallery, 230 S. 500 West. It's called "Folding Decay," an exhibit that, as a gallery flier explains, "begins with death, moves through decomposition and ends with regeneration." So, in addition to flowers and a nautilus shell, there will be dead cicadas, maggots and decomposing leaves, and a piece called "Rotting Rack of Lamb." All of these are actually quite beautiful.

In elementary school, even before the epilepsy, all he wanted to do was fold paper. He would hold the paper under his desk, while gazing dreamily toward the ceiling. In the second grade, he says, the school classified him as "partially retarded," and he was in resource classes all the way through high school. In resource, he says, he was bored, forced to learn what he already knew.

His jobs since graduating have usually involved paper in some way — for a while he fixed laser printers, and he and Michele owned an arts magazine, "Local Muse," for a couple of years; now he works at a blueprint shop — so there have always been enough scraps and recycled paper around to make something with. There is often a paper cut or two on his hands. "Big troll hands," he calls them.

He's never met an object he couldn't figure out how to fold, he says, although it's taken years to solve the origami wasp problem. But there are plenty of things that he would choose not to make into origami, simply because they'd be too tedious. A lawn, he says, by way of example. Or the human genome. His default origami is a cicada, which he can fold effortlessly, without looking.

Because of his epilepsy, he walks instead of drives — a man in fedora and suspenders who spends a lot of time looking at the ground, noticing what the rest of us ignore.

It took him nine hours to turn a piece of paper into a centipede. It's an exact replica but not a perfect one — because Jones always tries to make some small imperfection in each piece he creates. Not a tear, of course, because the ethics of origami say no tearing, no cutting. Just some small blemish to convince him he needs to keep folding.