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Shifu-Making: An Active Woven Meditation

Summer 2017
Summer 2017
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Carolina Larrea  received her PhD in arts, production, and research from Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, Spain. She is vice president of IAPMA and head of the diploma program in the arts of papermaking and bookbinding in the School of the Arts at the Pontificia Universidad Católica, Chile. As a visual artist and associate professor, she teaches papermaking as a means of expression and book arts. In her art practice, she explores the nature of papermaking and its creative process. Shifu is the millenary Japanese art of cloth woven from paper yarn. It has been made into elegant kimonos and accessories for the finest wardrobes. I have used this traditional art as a starting point—from the manufacturing of paper, to spinning it into yarn, and weaving it into cloth—then moving it into the territory of art as a space for creation, that, in itself, provides a practice of active meditation. The perception of the material's nature, that is transformed in our hands little by little, focuses our attention on the process of manufacture as a path to self-knowledge. Through the gradual work in the art of shifu, a door opens, allowing for deep reflection and awareness of the possibilities for a traditional form to lend new means of expression.

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Spinning requires paying attention to the movement of the hands, the humidity of the paper, and the precise level of energy in the agitation used to separate the threads so that the whole body and conscious presence are needed to reach just the right balance of thickness and uniformity of the paper thread (kami-ito).1 The practice of this type of work leads us without premedita¬tion toward a state of deep concentration that transforms each step of the process into a task of complete awareness. I demonstrated this quality of the practice as part of a group performance during my post-graduate course at Universidad Federal de Bahía, Brazil, in 2009. For the performance, I spun long strips of paper completely by hand, without the help of a spindle or any other tool, with the goal of expressing the gradual transformation of paper into yarn. During the time that the action persisted, the other participants de¬veloped their own actions such as dancing with lights in time with my beating heart, breaking ceramic pieces with a certain rhythm of walking, and reciting a poem while submerging their feet in water. I spin paper in silence. I might give the impression of absence to an outside viewer, but I am fully immersed in an awareness of the act itself. I feel the sensation of paper transforming into a thin thread in the palm of my hands. Small balls of yarn materialize, side by side, as if they were the communion of the moments in which they were executed, like small capsules of frozen time. Due to the meditative nature of making shifu, I place it among the traditional arts of Zen Buddhism or Geido¯ ,2 a practice developed through walking, intuitively tending to each step in which the most important part is precisely the act of doing, more than the results, for true knowledge lies in the way, in the do¯ . I weave shifu on the loom with this intention.  Starting from a practice linked to the popular crafts of one country, I move it into art's own language, where tradition gives way to creation, by using the material's inherent characteristics, ex¬perimenting with other traits that enrich its qualities, and adding an expressive element by imprinting a photographic image on the weave and finding a new interpretation of the image by opening, distorting, or modifying the regularity of the weave. I have been exploring a dialogue between shifu and rari, the traditional Chilean practice of weaving horsehair.3 Crafted together, Japanese-paper yarn and horsehair make an interesting couple because of their dif¬ferent characteristics. Patience and a lot of perseverance are nec¬essary to understand the rebel nature of horsehair and reconcile it with the softness of paper yarn. The result is the consequence of the passing of minutes and hours of concentration. Sometimes the weav¬ing records the rigidity of the horsehair—when it does not want to "behave"—and sometimes I am able to follow its natural curves and it moves freely with the paper yarn.  Weaving has brought back other more familiar handcraft that I learned as a small girl, such as knitting and crochet. Without notic¬ing the hours pass and almost without looking, I knit time and create a space at every stitch, opening a world of calm. From the rhythmic movement of knitting sticks emerges a woven path, sometimes hav¬ing a direct route, and sometimes taking the shape of webs with di¬verse directions. In the end I can conclude that in hand with practice and patience, each piece I create in shifu and other weaving techniques represents an intimate encounter between art and craft. There is a process of integration in which the hand does not dominate the material but rather allows itself to be guided, so that each element participates in accordance to its essential qualities. It is from this interaction that images arise, and the paper speaks and expresses its utmost beauty. Kami: paper; ito: yarn. 2. Geido¯ means art, do¯ : trail, way, path 3. Rari, woven with horsehair, is similar to very fine miniature basketry, and typical of Chile's central and southern regions.