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Greta Rybus

Greta Rybus is a photojournalist and photo editor living in Portland. She started her blog, “Who I Met," as a way to begin juicy conversations with interesting people she meets. The blog has migrated with her from Montana, Europe, and, finally, to her new and dearly-loved home in Maine. You can see more of her work at

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Who I Met with Greta Rybus
Posted: March 11, 2013

SHAWNA HOUSTON- origami artist, writer, stagehand

Shawna folds paper stars to cast wishes. She’s been through a lot in her twenty-five years: an uneasy family history, a transient childhood, and struggles with grief and social acceptance. The tiny origami stars came into her life to help her focus and to cope. In under 30 seconds, she maneuvers tiny strips of paper into the shapes of stars. Many of the stars are placed in capsules that you can buy from Portland’s Hilltop Coffeeshop. Some stars, the special stars, are folded from paper with strangers’ wishes written on one side. Watching Shawna fold her stars, I wonder if the stars are the answer to some of Shawna’s own wishes. Perhaps every turn of paper between her fingers is an intention for something better, something good and solid and real.


For a really long time, being normal was important. I grew up really oddly, I had sort of a hard childhood. So the only thing I wanted for a very, very long time was to be normal. You know, white picket fence, settle down and have kids. Recently,  that’s something I’m not going to be able to do. So, I’m trying to find a new thing to want. Some things that have been really important to me my entire life is to be responsible, to be an adult, to have the requirements of: you have a house, you can pay the bills, you can buy your food, and you don’t have to borrow money.  That’s always been really important. I’ve been doing that since I was 17 or 18 on my own. So lately, what’s been really important to me is finding things I can do that I don’t hate. You know how some people do jobs they just hate so they can have money? I stopped doing that about two years ago, and I’ve been looking for jobs that I don’t hate ever since then. You would think that is easy. It’s not. Things that I love are writing and creating, I love working with people in creative endeavors and I need to keep that in my life.


I’m learning a lot of things about relationships. There are a lot of books about relationships, and just family and friends and strangers on the street. There’s so much of our interactions that are biological. And you would think it would be environmental. So many things that affect the way you say “Hi” come from your brain. Which is fascinating. And weird.


There is a comic called Gunnerkirgg Court, and I read a lot of web comics. One of the characters makes a thousand origami stars for her best friend. So, I looked it up on YouTube and tore up notepaper on my desk and tried to make one. It’s incredibly hard. So I decided to try to start getting better. My biological mother died in the spring of 2009. I stopped being able to read and I started really making origami stars. It’s a grief condition where the center of your brain that does comprehension doesn’t connect. I could read and read out loud, but comprehending a paragraph or a book was incredibly difficult.  By that Christmas, I had thousands of the stars. I would knit and make stars, and switch of whenever my hands got tired. I had to drop out of school, but I did go back to school and I did get a degree. I had all these stars and I didn’t know what to do with them and I had given them to everybody I knew, whether they wanted them or not.


I was working as SPACE Gallery as an intern and volunteer, and there I met Kris Johnsen and Bryan Bruchman who started Portland Pins:  gumball machines filled with little capsules. Inside the capsules are pins you can put on your jacket. And next to the gumball machines are little circles and instructions to draw whatever you want in the circles and then leave the paper in the box. And they make that paper into pins. Which, I think is great. It planted the seed for my machines. So, I bought some capsules and started handing them out to people and I started the blog and raised money on Kickstarter to buy machines and supplies and fund a website. So I still have all of that money that I am trying to put to use. Last night I started to build the website and you should be able to post your wish and it will go right to the website. That’s the goal. The idea behind the bubble gum machine is that it raises awareness for the website and you put your wishes on the website and the reason I want your wishes is that I write them down on pieces of paper. I fold those wishes into stars and then I save those stars. The stars in the bubble gum machine don’t have wishes. The stars with wishes on them get saved and put into a jar. And when I have a thousand of them, I’m going to auction off the jar to raise money for Lou Gehrig’s research or to family’s who have suffered a loss from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. My mother died from ALS and my sister and myself both had a hard time. So that’s the goal, it’s a long road.


Better! It calms me down. When I couldn’t read, I would get anxious. Since my biological mother died, I stopped being able to sit still in any capacity. So when I went back to school, I came up with a portable way to take the stars and the knitting with me so that I could knit during class, because I couldn’t pay attention. I started noticing that I could concentrate on things when my hands are busy.  It calms me down.


It’s been really interesting to see the response to the bubble gum machine. Here at Hilltop, I have to refill once a week. And if there’s two thousand capsules in them, that’s a ridiculous amount. One day I came in here and there was a little girl who was sitting at the table and had like 15 of them, the little capsules. And she had an older woman on her right, and another generation on her left. So, probably mom and grandma. She was telling them which colors they could have and why. I see her occasionally, she has a little bag she carries and there’s a bunch of stuff in there and there’s capsules in there as well. That was interesting because I have so many of these stars that it’s annoying to me. Since I put them machine there, I’ve made over two million stars. For me, they are annoying, but to other people they are great. I go to the same laundromat, and I’ve gone to the same one ever since I moved there. So the woman who works there, her name is Pam, and she knows me really well at this point. And I have her two of these capsules filled with paper stars and I ran into her last week, and she said “You have to come here and tell me where you sell these! You told me you sell these in a coffee shop.” She had been opening up the capsules and handing the stars to people who looked upset. She’d just give them an individual star. She’s been doing this since I gave her two capsules, and she was down to her favorite three stars that she didn’t want to give away. So I gave her a jar of them so she could give them out individually.  She opened my eyes to the fact that people really do like these, they aren’t just annoyances that I find under the couch when I vacuum.

For more about the Wishing Star Collective, click here. 

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