and when I do that, I feel whole

 

An anonymous someone once commented that “a physicist is the atom’s way of thinking about atoms”.*

Well then, an artisan could be said to be Creation’s way of thinking about creativity.

I like that, and this post dances around that notion.

Sheep farming, Central Otago, New Zealand

 

My mother’s family farmed sheep. The station was remote in her day – a hundred dusty, gravelly miles to anything approaching civilisation. It was a high country sheep run in the South Island’s Central Otago province, and was – by New Zealand standards, huge. Over 100,000 acres. It was where I spent my childhood summers, and where I gleaned a little knowledge of sheep farming from my uncles and cousins – tending, lambing, shearing. Given that background I guess it was inevitable that my first experiments with ‘making things’ would involve wool.

 

Fingerknitting

 

Fingerknitting came first. Imagine the magic of watching a woollen chain manifest from one’s own tiny hands – and the surge of ideas about what it, in turn, could be turned into! Next I remember learning a simple way of knitting a long tube using an old wooden thread spool. It had little nails hammered around the central hole, and by winding the wool around the nails then popping the previous row of ‘stitches’ over the new round, a long tail would eventually make its way out the other end of the spool.

It wasn’t long before I learned the knack of needle management and began knitting garments. The first ones were for my doll. That’s when I learned about shaping and sizing – she was my in-house model. Soon sweaters were on the production-line. For my teenage sweethearts at first. And myself of course. I adored being able to make a garment that was exclusively my own, one that would be seen on no one else in New Zealand – or on Planet Earth. No one! It was, in retrospect, the beginning of my enterprise as a maker of wearable art.

I loved knitting. You have to love it to end up with a whole garment, because it takes a l-o-n-g time. Every stitch is a little action in its own right, and there are uncountable numbers of stitches in a sweater. Why did I find it so appealing? At the time, in my early teens, I would have said: It shuts me up and makes me feel good.

Now I’d have more to say, like: It calms me. It slows down my manic mind. It brings me to a stillness where my hands know exactly what to do without any help, where I seem to disappear altogether into a quiet spaciousness where wool and wooden sticks and fingers are dancing together as one. It makes me marvel to see the fabric coming into form – it’s addictive, especially if a pattern is being used: just another row, just to see how it’ll look…

 

Fair Isle jumper - detail

 
The hands that mastered circular needles, traditional Fair Isle patterns and gorgeous multi-hued designs produced with my own hand-dyed yarns (see example above) went on to explore other fibercrafts. Silk painting, dye craft, off-loom weaving, paper crafts – there are a few examples here. Then they went on to incorporate these in mixed media works, together with painting.

In retrospect I notice that I’ve always been attracted to acts of making that require a rather extreme degree of patience, and in return offer an almost reverential relationship with the materials at hand. (Let’s face it, you’d have to be seriously addicted to slow art to make a practice of painting the exhalation of your breath.) Renate Hiller calls it “the practice of empathy.” Her hands might be a decade older than mine, but her take on the profound importance of human handwork is identical to my own.

Renate Hiller - hand and spinning stone

I’m looking at my hand right now as we talk. It’s got a lot of wrinkles ’cause I’m 81 years old. But it’s linked to hands like this back through the ages. This hand was shaped by when it was a fin in the mother seas, where life was born. This hand is directly linked to hands that learned to reach and grasp and climb and push up on dry land and weave reeds into baskets. It has a fantastic history. Every particle and every atom in this hand goes back to the first — what Thomas Berry calls ‘the primal flaring forth,’ the beginning of space-time. We’re part of that story.

The use of the hands is vital for the human being, for having flexibility, dexterity. In a way the entire human being is in the in the hands. Our destiny is written in the hand. And what do we do in our modern world with our hands? You know, we move the mouse, we drive and so on. We feel plastic most of the time. The hands are relegated to very little that’s actually bringing dexterity to our times. So we have come ever more estranged from nature and also from what other human beings are doing – the whole social element comes into play as well, because if I make something then I think ‘Hmmm, how was that yarn made?’

So there is this loss of understanding the value of things, of the meaning of things, and in handwork, in transforming nature we also make something truly unique that we have made with our hands, stitch by stitch, that maybe we have chosen the yarn, we have even spun the yarn — even better – and that we have designed. And when I do that, I feel whole. I feel I am experiencing my inner core, because it’s a meditative process.

You have to find your way; you have to listen with your whole being. And that is the schooling that we all need today. Because we’re so egocentric and this makes us think of what is needed by something else. So we are in a way practicing empathy — empathy with the material, empathy with the design.

I think that this practice of empathy that we do in the fibercrafts is paramount for bringing healing to our world, and it’s a service for the Divine – that we are surrounded by.

– Renate Hiller


Renate Hiller is the co-director of the Fiber Craft Studio at the Threefold Educational Center in Chestnut Ridge, NY.


* Quoted in A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson


Photo credits: NZ high country sheep | finger knitting | knitting detail by yours truly | Hiller’s hand and spinning stone


29.09.12

 

daily details 29.09.12

 

acrylics on textured canvas, stitching
[breathscribe-in-progress]


Breathe out, pour yourself into existence.
This is the method of compassion:
Drink in all the suffering and pour out all the blessings.
And you will be surprised if you do it.
The moment you take all the sufferings of the world inside you,
they are no longer sufferings.
The heart immediately transforms the energy.
The heart is a transforming force:
Drink in misery, and it is transformed into blissfulness … then pour it out.
Once you have learned that your heart can do this magic, this miracle,
you would like to do it again and again.

– Osho


how many ways can you draw quiet?

I’ve tried many ways. I delight in “Seeing-Drawing”, the wonderful meditative practice I learned from Frederick Franck on one of his retreats and also from his classic The Zen of Seeing. I’ve tried just about every form of visual poetry: color, tone, texture. They have all been effective to a degree. Frederick Franck used to assert that the inexpressible was the only thing worth expressing. I took this statement as a koan as I explored ways to express that ineffable quietude.

It wasn’t until my practice distilled down to the essential life-tide of beingness that I approached real stillness, real quietude.

One soft succulent dawn in India I asked myself,  “How would I express that which is most fundamental to my life?

What would that look like?

Breathe in. Breathe out and let a line flow… and again, and again, again.

I drew my breath.

Breathscribe 1, Rishi Valley, India

That was how it began – by just putting down a simple horizontal line every time I exhaled. On the inhalation I paused; returned to my palette.

The line drawn, or painted, was as long as the out-breath, or as long as the paint in the brush lasted.

It didn’t take long for the breath to take over. As I gave myself over more freely and openly to its movement, it rose up and wrapped itself around me. It picked me up and melted me into its rhythm.

I had entered breath’s temple of quietude and I was nowhere to be found.

There was only this breath-breathing Beingness.

 


my brush is my suijo

California breathing

breath-prayer for Miriam

breathscribe series