iC Dingbat

In the Fold

Story by: Jenny Chen '13J  |  Photos By: Olek Lato '15

James Lucas '15 has an inch-long fingernail on his left thumb. Is it a letter-opener? A weapon? An affectation? 

None of the above. It's a mark of a serious origami folder. Two years ago he used it to fold a couple hundred bow ties from dollar bills on a commission from Las Vegas’s Wynn casino. He can also fold anything from animals to astrological signs.

James Lucas ’15
Lucas ’15 folds origami in his room at Colby

Lucas has been doing origami for as long as he can remember. When he was 5 years old, his father gave him a book on origami and he took to it like a bird takes to flight. He has taught origami classes since he was 10 and has folded more than 1,000 different designs in his lifetime.

But Lucas still finds time to excel in many other things. He entered Colby as a Presidential Scholar (a program that allows freshmen to do research the minute they arrive on campus) and a Ralph Bunche Scholar (selected for his leadership experience and potential).

Among many accomplishments, perhaps his biggest is the ability to stay humble. “When I first met him, we bonded over Iron Maiden,” said Hiya Islam ’15, one of Lucas’s close friends and a fellow heavy-metal music fan. “And then I noticed the nail. … I didn’t even know he was a Presidential Scholar until I was asking somebody else about him.”

At Colby some of his friends call him their “psychologist,” because of his willingness to listen and sympathize with the problems they may be struggling with. But Lucas says he wasn’t always so empathetic. “In tenth grade I thought people were the scum of the Earth,” Lucas said. “People as a whole can be pretty destructive.”

This misanthropic view may stem from a childhood that Lucas describes as something “like from a Dostoyevsky novel.” At some point, though, he started to think of life as a “treasure hunt” to find people he respected, and he was surprised how many he could find. “You can bond with that person, and once you have everyone’s little story, you get a little closer to understanding humanity as a whole. I wouldn’t have evolved from being a cynical teenager to the person I am now.”

Colby has become the perfect place for Lucas to continue his “treasure hunt.” Lucas says he loves the variety and diversity in Colby’s student body.  “My neighborhood is primarily Hispanic,” said Lucas. “I wouldn’t be able to see the different perspectives of people from Africa, for example. I really like the international community here … and then I get to meet Mainers and get a local perspective.”

His friend Islam is from Bangladesh, and she is impressed by how Lucas has made an effort to get to know all the international students in the sophomore class. She says it’s nice to see Lucas, an American student, reach out to international students who often eat together.

“Sometimes we just go to Dana and sit at different tables to meet new people,” Islam said.

In addition to meeting a diverse group of people, Lucas makes an effort to learn from diverse disciplines. He came to Colby because he liked how it offered students opportunities to take classes outside of their major. “I liked Colby’s freedom and variety of courses,” he said.

This fall, Lucas declared a double major: biology with a concentration in ecology and evolution is one; environmental studies with a science concentration is the other. He’s also minoring in chemistry. As a freshman Lucas worked with Chemistry Professor Julie Millard on an experiment involving horse DNA—research she later used in her spring biochemistry class curriculum. He cowrote a paper with her as a first-year student during Jan Plan. 

 Lucas’s interest in animals and conservation stems in part from his love of origami. “When you fold an animal, you want to learn more about it,” he said. Over the years, Lucas has folded more than 1,000 animals including several he designed on his own. Currently he’s working on the sturgeon, an ancient, bony fish that is critically endangered. Its asymmetry stymies Lucas, but he sees this as a challenge rather than an obstacle. “It’s kind of like writing a book. You have to think up an entirely new route,” he said.

While he hasn’t had time at Colby to fold as much as he used to in high school, Lucas continues to share his love for origami. In spring 2012, at the recommendation of Professor of French Artie Greenspan, Lucas presented a lecture and a workshop at the Colby Museum of Art on the art of origami. This fall one of his designs called the Triakis Tetrahedron will be published by the Czech Origami Society. Lucas also continues to design and sell his work online.

Professor Greenspan was the recipient of one of Lucas’s creations—a paper version of the cartoon rat Remi from the movie Ratatouille that Lucas folded as a gift. “It’s not just skillfully folded,” Greenspan said of his paper rat. “It’s adorable. It communicates so much emotion. I’ve been here for thirty years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”


Jenny Chen '13J
North Potomac, Maryland
Majors: English, International Studies...

Olek Lato '15
Quincy, Massachusetts
Major: Undeclared