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Shifu and Healing: Practicing Empathy

Summer 2017
Summer 2017
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Velma Bolyard is a hand papermaker, textile and book artist, recently retired from teaching emotionally disturbed high-school students. Bolyard's paper mill and blog are both called Wake Robin. Her teaching of shifu and paper arts has taken her to Australia four times, to Canada, and across the US. Her artist books are in many university and private collections, and her botanical papers and contact prints are used by private presses and binders. Birds weave their nests with wild fibers. It is not such a leap for observant humans to imitate, to twist fibers to make them stronger, to weave with them. Spinning fiber into thread is a form of practicing empathy explains Renate Hiller, former co-director of the Fiber Craft Studio in Chestnut Ridge, New York. "When I do that, I feel whole.…This practicing of empathy that we do in the fiber arts is paramount for bringing healing to our world."  It has been my experience that the spinning of handmade paper into thread, or kami-ito, for making cloth has had a wider meaning than just making my hands and heart happy. It is an activity my friends and students have practiced to facilitate healing.

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It is aston¬ishing that a long, thin strip of paper can become a thread, be spun, and be woven into shifu cloth, and that this textile process can bring about healing. Some of my friends and students lend their observa¬tions in this writing. As I teach what I like to call "North Country shifu"—my version of the refined work practiced by "real" shifu weavers—I have noticed that students come to a haptic understanding of making this textile, and through that process, sometimes a deeper, healing response happens. One of my favorite ways of thinking about shifu's healing power comes from Susan Mills, a book artist and teacher, whom I first met in my 2015 class at Women's Studio Workshop. "Shifu will autocorrect to ‘shift' on my Android phone," writes Mills. "Shift is a great word to describe the hand process of spinning and weav¬ing cloth from paper. At a time when paper has separated from its relationship with text, when paper is defined as a trash problem, or an endless recycling loop of producing more paper from paper—shifu shifts paper outside these definitions. For me, this fits with the definition of therapy as treatment intended to relieve or heal a disorder."2 I first came to know about shifu in 1985, after reading Dorothy Miller's magazine article on the Japanese art of shifu.3 I was capti¬vated by the idea that I could spin and then weave a textile from my own handmade paper. I attended one of Miller's shifu classes and came away with a spool of finely spun dress pattern paper. Once home I made some abaca paper from which I made thread for shifu. The in-depth process of preparing fiber to make the paper, and then the deep concentration needed for continuous cutting were almost impossible for this busy artist, farmer, and mother of young chil¬dren. I learned, however, from Mary Ann McKellar, in her Paper and Book Intensive (PBI) class in 1999, that I could spin paper dry, thereby skipping several steps in fiber preparation for traditional shifu. Back home I spun many papers, Thai Unryu, kozo, lokta, my own abaca, daylily, and milkweed. Using a spinning wheel, drop spindle, bobbin winder, and a charka, I continued making threads. Weaving began on short, narrow warps on a floor loom. Knowing it takes long hours of spinning to make a length of cloth, I developed a collection of many threads and dyed some with natural dyes. Even¬tually I met Hiroko Karuno and despite hearing that she prefers not to teach, I asked her if she would help me. She graciously invited me to her home for a weekend of kami-ito making. That was a wa¬tershed time for me.  I found a lokta paper formed "Japanese-style" at a local sup¬plier, purchased some, and began making lokta shifu, a textile that Tom Leech introduced me at PBI in 2001, and that paper became very useful to me. I wanted to weave moro-jifu (Asao Shimura de¬fines this as shifu made with both paper warp and weft). I was also thinking about making cloth with four selvedges so I constructed a simple loom out of a stump of 4 x 4-inch hemlock and wire brads. With this "stump loom" I now could needle weave 2.25-inch squares which became pages for tiny books. These shifu books had limp vel¬lum covers, containing poems on vellum that I stitched to the pages. In 2012 I started to incorporate this simple, low-tech approach to shifu-making in my workshops. It was clear to me that my students could juggle several new skills, including loom construction, in a few days. Our worktable would become quiet with concentration as spinning and weaving skills flourished. It seemed natural to ink sheets with images and words before cutting, spinning, and weav¬ing them into small cloths, and so we did. At around the same time I had entered the blogging world and found that it brought me into conversations with others interested in paper and textiles. One day an email arrived from Wendy Gold¬en-Levitt, a therapist working primarily with children. She asked if she could purchase some handmade paper to use in her textile-based practice. I agreed, but thought the kids might easily destroy the papers, so I suggested a handmade paper book. I made a book of handmade paper pages covered by lokta and cotton shifu. The children now call it The Grief Book. Golden-Levitt and I have talked about how this book facilitates healing in her practice, how the chil¬dren read it and tell stories, listen, smell, or touch it. They leave messages in it, some for me. Sometimes a child will put The Grief Book on her bare abdomen, connecting deeply with all it holds. It is not just that The Grief Book holds healing stories; the handwork involved in making shifu was itself a therapeutic process.  I have had several adult students tell me how making shifu has helped them in their healing process. Fiber artist and professor Re¬becca Cross attended one of my classes. Cross writes: "Grief, especially grief that follows the loss of a daughter, be¬came my new reality five years ago. As the years passed, my emo¬tions became more complex: I have learned that time does not heal. Time just makes the chasm between you and your lost one more vast. I began writing all manner of transgressive thoughts on kozo, including how I could die, too; what I could have done differently to prevent her death; my fury that she and we were robbed of her future; fantasies of other ways I could disappear from my life, travel far, far away and make a different life elsewhere, leave my husband and son, my beloved co-survivors, leave everything to go be alone in my self-hatred. To inscribe these thoughts on paper that I could then slice apart and spin into thread, then crochet or weave into art pieces, became a way to both articulate these terrible aspects of my grief, and hide from the many people who loved me my disturbing ruminations, by rendering them illegible, while still retaining their truth in these objects. This work could preserve my excruciating loss by transforming these ideas into something beautiful. And it was through this transformation that I could, in part, remember Emma, by ‘speaking' the helplessness and devastating sorrow I felt in losing her. This became, and still serves, as a sacred process of survival, wit¬ness, and remembrance."4 Artist and calligrapher Therese Swift-Hahn has used shifu in grief work as well. With her background in textile design, her sensibility, and her hand skills, Swift-Hahn immediately took shifu making to a deep level, experiencing a way to release into a process uniquely her own. She describes: "For two seasons \[I've\] been creating specially made pieces as personal "offerings" to be burned to assist with the release and trans¬formation of that which no longer serves. In a spirit of gratitude, even the most undesirable things can be released and transformed in the alchemy of fire. Spring Offering 1 was powerfully beautiful as it burned with delicate smoke curling up into a crystal-blue, early-spring sky. Additional kami-ito was written on and spun post-ritual to weave a small vessel of invocation. Sacred pieces of art used in ritual are certainly nothing new to humankind; and we are living in a time when such potency of intention is dearly needed to transform our world from the inside out. The making of kami-ito and shifu provided a great balm to my heart through a period of many deep losses during a very short time that year. Many late eves and early mornings were spent writing on, cutting, and spinning large pieces of handmade mul¬berry. Anytime I needed centering, the paper would be ready for me. My drop spindles were my prayer beads. The paper spinning process is profoundly meditative and grounding, and serves to witness every subtle, unnamed thought that gets captured inside of its core as it's spun. Construction of the shifu object then brings it all together into a thing of beauty which is always so much stronger  Sometimes the healing work is quiet in character. Australian papermaker Barb Adams explains:  "As I work with my little shifu book, ideas have taken on a heal¬ing theme. They have pages frayed with grief and pages woven into wellness. The making may be where the healing comes in, as I am forced to ‘be with' the spinning and weaving and I am taken away from my thoughts. I focus on the thought of healing. Shifu needs so much focus and takes me away from my chattering mind into my heart, my feelings. It helps me PAUSE instead of rushing to comple¬tion. Healing takes time too. I think my book may now have words on the paper before I make the kami-ito. The paper I made for this book is \[re-pulped\] hemp paper. I can add different amounts of each color to the vat and have the papers in the same color range. It is strong, too, so spins well. I started with the idea of making the warp from the fringed side of a sheet of paper…as my life does when I am grieving…then mending the damaged edge as I weave it into shifu."6 Susan Byrd, author of the seminal book A Song of Praise for Shifu, lived and worked with master shifu maker Sakurai Sadako, and be¬came an expert in traditional shifu. Byrd attests to the therapeutic na¬ture of all stages of the shifu making process. "I love how my hands feel against the damp paper as I roll the strips on a slightly rough surface. The next step, which is to separate and make a continuous thread, has a calming effect that mentally prepares me for spinning the thread, and it is the gentle sound of the spinning wheel itself, as it is repeatedly turned, that further soothes my body and mind. Finally, my soul rejoices when the rhythm of the loom's beat is heard and the paper thread is being woven into cloth."7 I have taught shifu in Australia several times, and in one class I noticed a very engaged student. She was fiber artist Felicity Griffin Clark who was profoundly affected by the transformation of paper to textile, and has incorporated some of that into her work. She writes:  "Spinning, knitting, or weaving, whether it's wool or silk or pa¬per, always reminds me so much of the psalm that talks of the  than it appears." creative spirit ‘knitting you together in your mother's womb,' taking those very basic elements and creating something smooth and rich and new, so full of energy and possibility. Yarn is captured energy and matter, isn't it, so full of potential and beautiful in itself. And spinning is so meditative and mystical, reminding me of dervishes, of women walking, of rhythm and spirals drawing you deep into the numinous. In spinning you are irresistibly drawn into the creative reverie. The first thing that springs to mind is the return to \[the\] fundamental in making shifu. The meditative process of approach¬ing the paper and working with it to become ready to spin, the in¬credible healing power of spinning itself, and the final weaving back into a three-dimensional form."8  Fiber artist Kate Hamilton attended the workshop I gave at the Women's Studio Workshop in 2015. At the time she was mourning the recent death of her mother, a weaver. She writes:  "I'm not a weaver or a spinner. Instead, I'm involved with mak¬ing very big, room-sized clothes. I took \[Velma's\] workshop because my mother had loved weaving and I really missed her. I wanted to be doing something that connected me to her.…The idea of turning paper into thread really appealed to me. Weaving, I wasn't so sure about! During the workshop, I painted sheets of paper with long letters to her, from my heart, and then cut the paper up (all those words!), spun them into thread, and wove the thread into several 2 x 3-inch pieces of paper fabric. Each one is a tiny, dense mat made from private expressions of love and aching loss. It took many hours of hard, slow, steady work, but in the end, I held little pieces of deli¬cate, beautiful cloth made out of vulnerable private words. The sad¬ness became transformed, reintegrated!... To me, these small pieces of paper fabric were manifestations of my own feelings moving from one state to another. Did I realize any of this then? Probably not the part about healing. I just kept doing it and tried to under¬stand how to work with the materials and process, while also feeling the crisscrossed emotions of sad loneliness and delighted surprise (at the beauty of what was emerging) and being very aware of the many thoughts and ideas that were passing in and out while spin¬ning and weaving. But, immediately after the workshop, I sud¬denly understood that I could make more elaborate looms that would make it possible to weave little shirts. My mother had wo¬ven many beautiful shirts for us to wear. What I could do was to slowly make many very small, woven paper shirts out of letters I wrote to her. And so I did. For a long time, it was the main thing I wanted to do. Each shirt fits into the palm of my hand. I had a very clear idea that by doing this I hoped that my words, reconstituted in a strange woven order could somehow communicate with her, and a connection, that seemed to have been sharply cut in two by her death, would be restored."9 While I have been deeply moved by shifu's therapeutic value to adults, nothing has been more rewarding than knowing how transformative shifu has been for troubled children. Wendy Gold¬en-Levitt tells about just one example of many:  "Gregory is working through his inability to speak up for him¬self. Gregory's parents tend to be highly critical and unable to connect with him lovingly or meet many of his emotional needs. Their intellectual approach to raising Gregory and their own in¬ner wounding around children, has created a ground of shame that has almost silenced Gregory, both in his home and at school. After working on and off with the shifu book as part of his heal¬ing, Gregory had made great progress. He asked me if the feeling of crying would be okay to do ‘in here.' He opened Velma's book and cried. Little by little he cried more openly, and expressed how amazing it is that ‘paper could become so strong it turns into this stuff called shifu.' He would take feathers or twigs, and bookmark the pages that he cried into during his session. Gregory also decided to leave the feather and twig markers after he was finished with his work in the studio. He penned notes for the other children coming to visit the studio. Here is one of them, verbatim: ‘you can use the Velma book for your crying. it's called grief in case you want to know. you can drop your tears in the grief book but don't mix your tears with mine. i put feathers and sticks in the pages i am crying into. thanks. greg.' Another child left me a message to be careful when I opened the book, not to let his grief fall on my toes and break them."10 "Working with children suffering from early trauma," explains Golden-Levitt, "I have come to understand and respect healing is as much of a mystery as the human psyche. Neuropsychology, mindful, spiritual practices, trauma specialists, and a Jungian framework have contributed to my understanding of children and their suffering. Poetry, mythology, dreams, and creative work have equally met the criteria for supporting a child working through dif¬ficulty. It is my leaning, within appropriate boundaries, to offer the child whatever may spark an unknown energy that rises through the psyche's defense system, in service of healing and change."11 After hearing all of these moving testimonials, I still ask the question, "What is it exactly about the act of shifu making that facil¬itates healing?" The answer is complex, and the mystery remains, but what I have come to understand is that it is a haptic, deeply real experience of the hands' work: the transformative process of mak¬ing paper, cutting, and spinning it into thread; preparing the loom; and weaving shifu that gives personal healing the space to occur. I am continually astonished that shifu making and teaching oth¬ers to make shifu offer a mechanism for matter to become other, to transpose words and thoughts into a textile rich with meaning, with spirit. notes 1. "Renate Hiller—On Handwork," YouTube video, demonstrating hand spinning with a stick-and-stone spindle, posted by Chuck Smith, June 26, 2010, 2. Susan Mills, e-mail message to the author, September 2016. 3. Dorothy Miller, "Shifu: A Handwoven Paper Textile of Japan," Ars Textrina 4 (December 1985): 43–66. 4. Rebecca Cross, e-mail message to the author, September 9, 2016. 5. Therese Swift-Hahn, e-mail message to the author, September 4, 2016. 6. Barb Adams, e-mail message to the author, September 2016.  7. Susan Byrd, e-mail message to the author, September 2016. 8. Felicity Griffin Clark, e-mail message to the author, September 2016. 9. Kate Hamilton, e-mail message to the author, September 2016. 10. Wendy Golden-Levitt, e-mail message to the author, September 5, 2016. 11. Ibid.