the making of sen - part 1

i thought i'd start out talking about my Sen exhibition at Fouladi Projects by giving you a bit of the premise. when i was researching fu-go for migratory patterns i discovered senninbari - 1000 stitch belts. [i love how research often leads to more research - by following one path you are presented with many more paths of interest]. in japan there is a belief in protecting your stomach area - so to keep men safe during WWII women would gather and make belts of 1000 french knots. at times 1000 women would gather in a gymnasium to each place one knot in a series of belts. 

wikipedia image 
the collective good will of all the women would infuse itself into the belt making them powerful amulets for the men going off to war.

a real belt : image from
they are also heartbreakingly beautiful. some have circles to indicate where each knot should be placed. some have characters, good luck charms, and drawings and text expressing well wishes. some are minimal. some are ornate.

i purchased Dr. Michael A. Bortner's book about these belts [and flags] even though it uses a font i DESPISE [papyrus]. and fell deeper in love.

the number 1000 was significant. and it wasn't the first of my encounters with it either.

in 2007 i after completing my exhibition in japan, my husband and i travelled around. we spent a few days in kyoto taking in the sites. i think by far the place that had the most impact on me was sanjusangen-do. the temple of 1000 buddhas.

below is my photo of the outside. we were not allowed to take photos inside. [although some people break the rules - i did not]. if you are hiroshi sugimoto you are invited to take photos of the inside [sigh].


they do sell and have touristy images available:

wikipedia image
but let me tell you - the photos don't encapsulate the experience. AT ALL. you walk down this very long and rather dark hallway where these buddhas all stand at attention. they practically glow. row after row. it is overwhelming and quiet simultaneously. anything in that number can be overwhelming. en masse things become other - in this case greater - both literally and figuratively.

then, of course, i thought of 1000 cranes - for peace or for good luck at a wedding, almost anyone of japanese decent has at one point or another folded a crane [and many who aren't as well].

image from wikipedia

and there's the 1000 year old cherry tree - miharu takizakura that people make a pilgrimage to. and the gift of 1000 cherry trees to washington DC from japan post WWI. [it was actually more than 1000, but the original import that was a test run was 1000 so for my purposes, i'll buy into the 1000 story]

and so my own relationship with 1000 began. i knew i wanted to do drawings that represented these ideas. i knew that almost everything i did would need to be done in the multiple of 1000. i figured this would be an endurance test for me too. i've done crazy things before, but what if i did a whole show of crazy ?

and how was i going to work with iconography that was so recognizable - dare i say even cliche? who needed to see more drawings of cherry blossoms, cranes, and buddhas? if i was going to work with this imagery i felt the strong need to make sure that it was more than a simple representation of what i already knew.

Senbazaru [blue], colored pencil and embroidery on Duralar, 27” X 27”
i started with 1000 cranes. working from the idea of the japanese flag i wanted the final result to be a circle.

as i drew i realized that it looked a lot like a doily. BONUS. and thankfully when there are 1000 of them piled together in this way [and drawn so small], they look less like cranes and more like a target, or stripes [also BONUS]. i couldn't help but giggle at the fact that this is such a contemporary art construct - concentric circle, alternating colors, but using the crane altered it enough to make it interesting for me. a tongue in cheek, decidedly feminine slant on a usually masculine minimalist approach.

i didn't want to put 1000 french knots in this one [fearful it would obscure the drawing quality] i placed a few in the center. [my forever homage to eve hesse].

Senbazaru [red], colored pencil and embroidery on Duralar, 15” X 15”
for this crane piece i riffed off the more traditional way to hang the cranes. i decided to go monochromatic, repeating a series of 8 reds.


then to the right i embroidered 1000 french knots  - 125 in each of the 8 colors - and i matched the embroidery thread to the colored pencil color. with the last row of knots i let the threads dangle past the confines of the vellum.

Senninbari mitsubishi planes, embroidery, acrylic and ink on cotton, 43.5” x 13.5” 
i thought i should do a couple of pieces that were more reminiscent of traditional senninbari. i set the above one up with 1000 circles into which i places french knots. then i drew mitsubishi airplanes - japan's WWII fighter plane.

Senninbari sakura, embroidery and acrylic on cotton, 24” x 25”
for this piece i wanted to hint to the japanese flag. there are 1000 french knots here too, just placed closer together. each circle emanating from the center gets slightly lighter in tone. the stamp is an interpretation of sakura/cherry blossom.

Sen Sakura, 2013, acrylic, xerox transfer, charcoal, colored pencil, graphite, ink, pins, embroidery on Duralar, 24"x 36"

this is the 1000 cherry blossom piece. there are actually 1000 cherry blossoms scattered throughout this image. some drawn, some painted, some xerox transferred. the faint pink dots in the background follow the map of the shikoku pilgrimage - 88 temples that people visit - particularly in spring when the blossoms are in bloom. 

again i set up a temple for the knots, but this time only placed them in the random circles that got filled in by the ink.

Sanjusangendo crowns [red], acrylic, embroidery on Duralar, 10" x 10"
finally i agonized over the buddha. i just didn't want to try and draw a buddha. i felt like i had been able to get around the icon status of the crane and the cherry blossom OK, but the buddha? how ??? in looking at the 1000 buddhas i realized they have a very distinct head piece. so i took that and simplified it - coming up with a shape that i actually really liked [and again reminded me of the japanese flag]. 

i tried a small version first. 1000 red buddha crowns - french knots on the last row of each color.... 
Sanjusangendo crowns [golden], colored pencil, embroidery on Duralar, 28" x 28"
and then a larger version. more reminiscent of the actual hall way. [although i've been thinking i want to do a very long narrow version too - to further replicate the feeling of walking by so many buddhas]
again - couldn't do knots in all 1000 - so just did the gold ones. like the buddhas in real life.

so there you have it. almost all the drawings. next i'll talk about the 1000 doily installation [and the one drawing that corresponds to it]. the project that would not have happened without the generous support of so many people... perfect timing for this time of THANKS...

the show is up through december 21 - if you are local or coming to san francisco for the holidays and would like to see it....

one last thing - there is a recent group of women [founded by an artist and kimono maker] who formed a collective after loosing their homes in the tsumani disaster - and who have adopted the concept of senninbari. i LOVE what they are doing. the senninbari project check them out


Sophia said…
This is so interesting Lisa! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and process on your recent work/show. I loved seeing this show the first time around, and it will be a different experience to go back to take another look after reading this post.
Di said…
Such beautiful, delicate and thoughtful pieces Lisa! So lovely to see them and read about the ideas behind them, and the whole exhibition. A poor substitute for seeing it all in person I imagine, but that will just have to do for me for now....
Christine said…
these are just gorgeous lisa! wish I could see it in person. thanks for sharing all the images and inspiration! lovely!!!
magali catteau said…
Oh Lisa,

These are so beautiful and so delicate like sakura...
I do like that you get behind the creative process and let us know the aim behind your creations.
Can't wait to see what you have done with "our" doilies...
Emily Barletta said…
These are so beautiful! Thanks for sharing the images, it's so nice to see the details.
shari said…
loved your pieces and am so glad you gave us the background. what a great post, l. xo
Anne Marie said…
This is beautiful and delicate. I love reading about your process, the things you aimed for and the things that shows up unplanned because of the process... and that ends up adding to the original idea.

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