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Folding his way to gold: SMU paleontology student is an origami Olympian

IMG_9361.JPG  On a flat table are four origami creations, arranged left to right, of pre-historic beasts no larger than a hand. A human hand is off to the right of the items, as a size reference.
Bill Zeeble
/
KERA News
Travis Nolan’s origami creations based on skeletal fossils from digs. A Dimetrodon, a Microraptor a Therizinosaurus and Triceratops. Just behind them are fossil vertebrae of a Plesiosaur. Nolan's hand serves as a size reference.

Travis Nolan attends Southern Methodist University and ranked 5th in the world last year after taking gold in the IOIO, the International Origami Internet Olympiad. He’s a 20-year-old paleontology student who’s been into dinosaurs since the time he could talk.

Travis Nolan, SMU paleontology student, likes to hang in the basement of Southern Methodist University’s Heroy Hall. When he’s there, he’s his element; surrounded by fossils in the university’s Shuler Museum of Paleontology.

He’s been obsessed with dinosaurs since he was barely able to talk. One recent summer day in that very basement, he arranged a few items on the table before him. The fossilized vertebrae of a Plesiosaur, thin pieces of specially treated paper, and ancient animals no larger than Nolan’s hand. – most are smaller.

“They were monsters. You know, crazy animals, but they were real. Like, dragons are cool,” Nolan said, “but as far as we know, not a real thing. Dinosaurs? Just as bad-ass, but they were really stomping around.”

The crazy beasts on the table were designed and folded by him and are accurate to scale; and represent small masterpieces of his art, his origami.

“This is a Dimetrodon, a Microraptor, a Therizinosaurus and a Triceratops,” he said as he pointed out each creation.

Nolan is an international prize-winning, paper-folder. In last year’s International Origami Internet Olympiad, he took gold in the original design category for his Anomalocaris, a 500 million year-old predatory shrimp. His 5th place overall finish helped the U.S. rank third out of 60 participants in the 2021 Olympiad, America’s highest finish to date.

From trains to dinosaurs to award-winning origami

His origami art grew out of his devotion to dinosaurs. He was 3 when it all started.

“My dad bought me a dinosaur puppet and I don't know if it was anything special about that puppet, but I thought it was kind of cool. And then I thought it was really cool, and then it was all dinosaurs all the time,” Nolan said.

Well, almost all the time. While most kids his age got caught up in baseball or basketball, cars or kazoos, he only got sidetracked once, briefly.

“There was a transition period,” recalled Nolan, “where we went from trains, to dinosaurs on trains, to dinosaurs eating trains, to just dinosaurs.”

By the time he was 8, Nolan had joined the Dallas Paleontological Society and started working on digs. At 13, the family was on a trip and stopped in tiny Seymour, southwest of Wichita Falls.

“And here's a 100-foot mural of dinosaurs and prehistoric animals that was new,” recalled Nolan, “and all of this commotion. So we pulled over – it's a real small town - and there's a big sign on the door that says Under Construction, Future Museum, do not enter. And so we walked right in and met Chris Flis.”

Christopher Flis is a paleontologist and director of the Whiteside Museum of Natural History in Seymour, Texas.

He soon claimed a new volunteer in Travis Nolan, who learned as much as he could from Flis, the Whiteside director, while working on nearby digs.

Flis has watched the youngster grow up. He’s impressed that the young man’s dinosaur obsession has persisted into college, while evolving creatively.

IMG_9354.JPG Four-legged origami animal with large sail fin, on a table
Bill Zeeble
/
KERA News
Dimetrodon, in origami, created by SMU paleontology student Travis Nolan. On the table are more of Nolan’s creations based on ancient fossils found in digs. In the back are fossilized vertebrae of a Plesiosaur.

“And so when he takes a Dimetrodon skeleton, or a dinosaur skeleton, and he turns it into this incredible work of paper art that is anatomically correct, it just blows your mind,” Flis said.

Origami itself didn’t blow Nolan’s mind at first. Folding a paper airplane didn’t send him soaring, On the other hand, his imagination took flight when he considered turning some ancient beast – say, the Anomalocaris - that predatory shrimp – into origami.

“That was just the only path that I could see,” said Nolan. “Can I fold a T-Rex? Can I fold Triceratops? Can I fold something more obscure?" Nolan wondered. “Do they have an Acrocanthosaurus? Do I have to come up with one? You know? It was really just a game for a long time, but I had a lot of fun with it.”

Along the way, he learned a lot, said Dale Winkler, director of SMU’s Shuler Paleontology Museum

“He really uses the origami as a way, as a means, to learn more about the animals you know, the details of their structure and their anatomy and so forth,” said Winkler.

At the same time, said Flis, Nolan’s art can bring long-extinct animals closer to us.

“It definitely helped him to visualize what these animals should look like in life,” Flis said. “Travis does that very easily. He can take a skeleton and he can turn it into something that looks like they were here yesterday.”

IMG_9367.JPG We see a young, dark haired and bearded man sitting at a table, his hands on a small shiny piece of reddish brown paper. By his right elbow are origami animals he’s created, the size of a hand or smaller.
Bill Zeeble
/
KERA News
SMU paleontology student Travis Nolan folding another origami creation in the university’s Shuler Museum of Paleontology. By his right hand are – in paper - a Dimetrodon, Microraptor, a Therizinosaurus and a Triceratops. Also on the table are fossilized vertebrae of a Plesiorsaur. Since he was 3, Nolan says “it was all dinosaurs all the time.”

Today though, Travis Nolan is an SMU undergraduate student. Eventually, he hopes to learn and fold his way toward a PhD in paleontology.

More about Travis Nolan: He co-founded Adroit with Catherine O’Mary. Adroit is a Dallas-based group of origami enthusiasts.

SMU tells us Nolan also uses his paper-folding skill for good. He volunteers with Paper for Water, a Dallas nonprofit that creates origami ornaments to raise money to fund water and sanitation projects worldwide.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.