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November/December 2001


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 monastery archives.

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 work.

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.

Monastic Jody Hojin Kimmel taught the drawing portion of the retreat.
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.

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.

Retreat participants first drew parts of nature that resonated for them. Then they stitched simplified versions that captured the "abstract essence" of the drawings.
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 improving.)

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.

Akiko Kotani. Photo: Jennifer Swartzfager.
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

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 Rock University.


This article first appeared in:

Nov/Dec 2001

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