Stitching & Inspiration:
A Zen Retreat
on Fibers and Drawing
Breath, the hand, and fiber art
are inextricably bound.
|The monastery's main building, in which retreat
participants meditated and took meals. Photo from the
On June 16, together with one of my former students who is
now a senior monastic of the Zen Mountain Monastery near Woodstock,
New York, I presented a retreat there titled "One Stitch at
a Time." Its general theme was the integration of drawing
and stitching, a theme that has animated all of my recent
I was delighted to receive the invitation to lead the retreat
from Mn. Jody Hojin Kimmel, MRO, but because of my lack of
experience with formal zen practice I was hesitant to accept.
She suggested that we share responsibilities: she would lead
the drawing session, and I would lead the fiber session. This
gave me confidence: she would be present to guide me through
the zen elements with which I was not conversant, and I would
simply teach what I know.
I was wrong about my role. Instead of functioning as a kind
of "expert" guide to the uninitiated fiber artists, I became
a student of fiber art in the very act of teaching. Although
zen is often associated in our Western minds with mysticism
and with experiences that cannot be shared in ordinary language,
I can communicate directly one aspect of my art that I learned:
not only is the natural gesture of the human hand basic to fiber
art, but also breath is embodied in every strand that our hand
touches. When the retreat was over, I felt like a beginner.
It was a good feeling.
|Monastic Jody Hojin Kimmel taught the drawing portion
of the retreat.
A brief account of my weekend at the Zen Mountain Monastery
will help to elucidate how I came to the insight on the presence
of breath in the fibrous soft arts. I was picked up at the
Albany airport by Hojin on Thursday and taken to the monastery
where, after a light supper, the new students (and I!) were
given instruction in zazen, the most fundamental of
zen practices. Zazen consists of sitting silently (this
monastery permits a range of positions), inhaling and exhaling
quietly, and attempting to empty the mind of all thoughts.
I emptied my mind of all thoughts but one - my ankles hurt!
After evening zazen, Hojin and I gave a short oral
introduction to the retreat participants; then 9:30 p.m. meant
lights out. Although all I did was eat lightly, sit, and talk
briefly, I felt too overstimulated to sleep well at all.
Dawn zazen, beginning at 5:30 a.m. the next day, felt
different. The awareness of my own breath (I was instructed
to count each breath - inhalation, 1; exhalation, 2 - up to
10, then begin again at 1) somehow replaced entirely the consciousness
of ankle pain. After breakfast, morning service, and silent
caretaking (most of us would call it "housekeeping"), Hojin
presented the drawing part of the retreat. Because Hojin is
a splendid drawing teacher, and because she is the guiding
spirit of the entire zendo (meditation hall), she provided
both the artistic foundation and the spiritual atmosphere
that would infuse my part of the retreat on the following
day. I did not realize its subtle power until I returned home,
and I am still learning to respond to it.
|Akiko Kotani, Deep Winter #5-10, 2000; silk
stitched on four layers of "casa sheer" polyester; each
panel 78 by 28 by 4 inches. Photos of the artwork are
by the artist.
Hojin had the students create a "visual koan." By this, she
meant fashioning what she called a "resonance" drawing, a
drawing of a part of nature that evoked a special feeling
in the person - the feeling of receiving a gift. For each
member of the "class" of 20, I had prepared an 8- by 8-inch
handwoven silk plain-weave canvas, two bobbins wrapped with
black silk, and tapestry needles with which to stitch an image
on the canvas. I had made what I thought at the time was a
conscious and straightforward pedagogical choice. I asked
the students to study their drawings, then to select what
they regarded as the irreducible abstract essence. This might
be a single line, or "subimage" within the larger image (or
within a part of that image). Whatever the person found to
be most provocative within the visual koan, this is what I
wanted to have stitched onto the silk canvas. This general
procedure belongs to my own aesthetic, so I felt confident
going from student to student, dialoguing with each one in
an effort to aid the selection process.
Somewhere and sometime in the midst of these interactions, something
strange and wonderful dawned on me. I was not "teaching" these
"students" to translate their images on paper into the medium
of fiber. Nor, really, were these students "teaching" me, although
this was closer to the truth. Rather, each visual koan was guiding
all of us. And the meditative practice that resides at the heart
of the monastery generates the energy and the aura that pervade
and that make the visual koan - the apprehension of the individual
part of nature as a gift - possible. With gentleness and with
great force simultaneously, I experienced the earthly source
of and the power generating our artwork at the zendo: breathe
in - 1, breathe out - 2, breathe in - 3, breathe out - 4, and
so on. (I did not become a skilled "breather," as I often found
myself counting beyond 10 even on the final morning. But I am
|Retreat participants first drew parts of nature that
resonated for them. Then they stitched simplified versions
that captured the "abstract essence" of the drawings.
Just as I have come to understand stitching as an extension
of the most basic affirmative gestures of the human hand,
I have also come to see stitching as an enhancement of human
breath and of the unobtrusive but essential silence dwelling
at the basis of all human speech. I now interpret artistic
inspiration, often understood in terms of unexplainable impulses
and images (as I previously thought), in a more mundane but
just as profound fashion: inspiration means, simply
and literally, to breathe in.
Inspired by the movement of breath out/breath in, the fiber
artist can stitch images suggesting a going out/a coming back.
Breath escaping down/breath rising may inspire stitching that
suggests a journey to the underworld/a coming back to the
upper world. The juncture of inhalation and exhalation may
inspire a stitch that joins. Inhalation may inspire a stitch
that penetrates; the subsequent exhalation may inspire a stitch
that runs. The sudden intrusion of an unwanted thought may
inspire a stitch that pricks. The departure of that thought
may inspire a stitch that satisfies.
Upon my return home, I studied my own works of stitching intensely.
I was surprised to find significant zen presence in them, for
I had no conscious awareness of this during any part of the
creative process, nor was I aware of the strength of this influence
until the recent moment of insight. This intensive, esoteric,
yet ultimately simple zen outlook must somehow reside within
the depths of the more lay-oriented Buddhist influences I inherited
from my Japanese-American family tradition. My current works
strive for the essential simplicity that governed the activities
of the Zen Mountain Monastery: the simplest weave, the simplest
stitch, the simplest line. There is still far to go, though
this "far" is always near. To advance, I must always begin again:
breathe, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.
|Akiko Kotani. Photo: Jennifer Swartzfager.
One-person shows by Kotani are planned in March-April
2002 at the Organization of Independent Artists in New York
City and in fall 2002 at the Robeson Gallery at Penn State
University in State College, Pennsylvania.
Akiko Kotani is a fiber artist in western
Pennsylvania, where she is professor emeritus of art at Slippery