Kesa: An Artist's Heart

An Interview with Betsy Sterling Benjamin

Jane Imai, the Shumei Arts Council of America's Executive Director, and performance scholar Linda Burman-Hall of the University of California at Santa Cruz, interviewed artist Betsy Sterling Benjamin in late September during the opening celebrations for the Kesa for the Millennium Exhibit at Shumei Hall in Pasadena, California. Kesa refers to the traditional oblong robe, or sacred cloth, worn by Buddhist priests. Artist Betsy Sterling Benjamin, who worked for 17 years in Kyoto, came up with a spiritual way to mark the new millennium when she was inspired to create seven kesa for a Millennial Peace Meditation held simultaneously on seven continents on January 1, 2000. Each oblong silken kesa is an individual work of art made to uniquely reflect the specific geography of one of the seven continents, including a representation of its environment. The colors and motifs chosen by the artist for each continent are all different, each reflecting her carefully researched impression of the continent. The prayer cloths were then worn by a diverse group of seven who, regardless of any religious affiliation, while wearing the kesa meditated individually or communally for world peace. The kesa were worn in Africa (Zimbabwe), Antarctica, Australia, Asia (Japan), Europe (Spain), North America (United States),and South America (Machu Picchu, Peru). The exhibits of the peace meditation kesa have been ongoing in Europe, Asia and America. Although each kesa is individually distinguished, the collective effect of the seven kesa together makes a strong statement of unity that the artist hopes will connect people across the globe. Most recently, the kesa were exhibited in Pasadena in late September, sponsored by the Shumei Cultural Foundation and the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California. The Shumei Cultural Foundation is affiliated with Shinji Shumeikai, an international spiritual organization committed to promoting appreciation of art, Natural Agriculture, and the healing practice of Jyorei. A trip to Shigaraki, Japan, to visit Shumei's Miho Museum and see its spectacular collection of ancient art from Egypt, Europe, and the Orient, inspired Ms Sterling Benjamin during the creation of the Asian kesa.

Linda Burman-Hall: What has drawn you to Japan and its textile traditions?

Betsy Sterling Benjamin: Japanese aesthetics, respect for the arts and the intriguing culture all played a part in drawing me to Japan and keeping me for more than 17 years. I have always felt I had much to learn from Japan and the East. It's a love affair that continues.

LBH: Is your art, which embraces Japan and the West, reflective of a personal spiritual path?

BSB: Yes, I'm somewhere between a Christian up-bringing, my Unitarian adult choice as a 'searcher for truth', and Buddhism. I've recently gotten to the point where I'm ready to admit that I am a Buddhist. Just in the past year while returning to the United States, I've realized how very much my thinking, my feeling, my action, even what I say to students, is Buddhist. And I've decided it's time to come to that, but I'm resistant to dogma or labels.

LBH: You have a fabulous imaginative mind, to place yourself in each continent and create out of it, and - as you say - it comes in a flow with research on environment, people, and the endangered species caused by human impact. Have you imagined yourself personally wearing the appropriate kesa on each of the continents?

BSB: Yes, I've imagined myself on each of those continents, even though I've only been to five of them. And each kesa is so much a part of me. But just as we have children, birthing them and sending them out into the world, I am separate from them as well. I feel the kesa have their own life and work to do now.

LBH: I imagine that to create, you enter a space you've nurtured all your life, with the discipline to go there, and that's the self you put into your art. As a performer, I am interested in the 'performance' of visual art - the meditations or practices that surround its creation and reception. Are there personal rituals associated with the kesa project?

BSB: Whenever I install them, I always bless the space and bless each of the kesa again. I go from one to the other with my incense, welcoming them to this new space. I stand before them and again ask for the concerns of each continent -- for the land, the people, the animals -- and I say my prayers, going from continent to continent before anyone comes in to see them.

LBH: Your creative process brings more fabric into being than is eventually used. What are you doing with the 'outtakes', the pieces of fabric you initially wanted to include, but for some reason did not use? Have you kept them as a little scrapbook? Have you thought to use them in a future project?

BSB: Yes, I have them all in boxes, together. I haven't yet dealt with whether they will have an independent existence. It is a joy, however, when I open these boxes of my fabrics to recognize that this is Australian kesa material, or that is the sky blue of the North American kesa, and I have a small scrap of it still. I'd love to see those woven in. I've been strongly imaging that the next kesa will be a very abstract one.

LBH: The number seven seems to figure prominently in this project: seven kesa for the seven continents, seven columns to the design of each kesa, even seven months of work.

BSB: I was also born in the seventh month, on the 27th. But as for creating the kesa, it was a very short gestation period, actually, for such a project.. Each of them could only take a month in preparation because of the obvious deadline I had of January 1, 2000.

LBH: And today we learned that there are also seven crystals, one for each continent.

BSB: Yes. At today's lecture someone asked whether I'd included any little artifacts sewn into the kesa, for instance as a talisman. No, but I did send seven small crystals that I'd brought from America to Japan in my collection. It seemed right to make a small pocket and include it, with the instruction that the recipient could do what seemed right with it. I had never before mentioned the crystals to anyone, until asked today. My daughter buried the Asia crystal on Daimonji, where a Kyoto group meditated with the Asian kesa. In Spain, the woman who had worn the kesa said that since Spain had had the marvelous kesa, she wanted to carry the crystal back to her native France to bury it on a mountaintop there. And later, in Tasmania, I got wonderful photos of a sunset burial up on Mt. Wellington, so it was not buried in downtown Hobart where the interfaith service was held, but later on, in privacy. Perhaps those crystals help me now, even as I stand in front of each one of those kesa, to connect to where it still exists on each of the continents. And those who wore the kesa -- they, too, also have that strong connection of time and place, since they left something behind, buried.

LBH: Something deeply symbolic that stays behind. A beacon for all our thoughts. Among the Balinese, crystals symbolize the pure mind of Shiwa, the highest God, just as in some parts of the West a diamond may represent pure intentions. Given that your kesa are global, and their work goes on, do you still consider them to be personal?

BSB: Yes, they are very personal. As someone said, "There's a personal story in each one of these" - that's certainly true because they come through me.

Jane Imai: We are very grateful for your presence. Since the shock that hit everyone recently, there has been much confusion about flying. Did you ever think you might not come here to guide us through the exhibit?

BSB: No, never. But when the disaster happened on September 11, the kesa had just left my house the Monday afternoon before, and the tragedy occurred early the next morning. The exhibit was supposed to be in Los Angeles by Friday, and so it was in transit when all of that happened. Apparently the box they were shipped in was at a FedEx depot in Massachusetts, waiting to fly out of Logan Airport, headed for Los Angeles that day. So here we were, right in the middle of this disaster. I really did think, as I drove around that day, "Where are the kesa? What if they are gone?" Then, as I let go, I felt sure they were safe. They could not have been destroyed.

Jane Imai: So they are truly miracle kesa.

Betsy Sterling Benjamin, born in the United States, has successfully devoted herself to studying kimono in Kyoto for nearly 20 years, becoming a preeminent historian of Japanese textiles. She is the author of a major monograph, 'The World of Rozome; Wax-Resist Textiles of Japan' (Kodansha: 1996). She currently makes her home in New Hampshire, but teaches and exhibits almost continuously. Her work was recently exhibited at the Harvard School of Design, the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota, the Seniwati Art Gallery in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia, and at Shumei Hall, Pasadena, California. Her kesa are the standard size, 2.02 meters by 1.08 meters. They are made of Japanese silk, with bindings of Indian silk purchased in Singapore, and backed by an Indonesian blend of cotton and silk. The artist explains: "Since the 1950s, 1960s, I knew I probably would be alive when the year 2000 came around and I wanted to be in a special place and do something special to mark it, so that I would remember it clearly". Her inspiration comes from "life in Japan, winter studios in Spain and Indonesia, textile research, and looking within." Linda Burman-Hall is Professor of Music at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Jane Imai is the Shumei Arts Council of America's Executive Director.