Conversations with the Makers

An array of questions to fibre/textile artists and their answers.

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Kiranada Sterling Benjamin, USA

Kiranada Sterling Benjamin profile:

While I move more and more into the contemplative aspects of art, painting with "hot wax and liquid dyes on thirsty cloth" is an apt way to describe the work I have done for almost fifty years. My background in fibers includes graduate studies, training in the Japanese kimono industry, research in the traditional Japanese classical arts and meditative time on the cushion.
My work reflects eighteen years of life in Kyoto, life in Indonesia, Mexico and New England as well as a year in solitude, 2014 — 2015, in a small hut in a New Zealand wilderness.

I continue to work with applied dyes, and hot wax on silk; a meditative process for me; centering and ecstatic; both planned and spontaneous. I work with color and pattern, layering and mark making with resist-dye techniques, using the materials of acid and natural dyes, ahimsa (non-harm) silk fabric and ganryo pigment.

In the past many images for my work came from textile research, ancient craft traditions, natural surroundings and a delight in process; however a 2015 exhibition focused on making ‘silence visable’. This follows an interest in the spiritual qualities of cloth, transformation that began with the creation of a series of seven kesa (Buddhist monastic robes) now in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem MA. These cloths of healing and unity encouraged me to present my work in a freer form, as images for meditation on flowing layered silk.
My work is a centering and a meditation in this diverse world.  


Conversation with the Maker(CWTM): Do you have a dedicated studio?

Kiranada Sterling Benjamin(KSB):After returning from Japan in 2000, I realized that I was living in a very small cottage and working in the living room. A Japanese friend, who greatly supports my art, financed a free-standing 20’ x 20’ studio to work in, the following spring. It’s still unfinished but I can work there from April to November before the snows come. It has cabinets, storage, tables, wall space to hang partially completed work for assessment and an area to work seated on the floor. My electric wax pot is nearby and my work is stretched across the room, the way I worked in Japan. The big 7’ steamer slips out the door and I load it to steam the silk on the porch. So ideal.

CWTM: Can you describe a typical day?

KSB: I have a lot of variety in my week but if it’s a ‘studio day’ I’m up early, on my cushion to meditate, have my breakfast and walk the 100’ over to the studio beneath maple, beech and pine trees. The wax pot gets turned on while I assemble what I’m working on. I have already transferred my drawing to the reverse side of my silk and my full-size sketch is pinned to the wall nearby, dyes for the project are mixed and on a tray with dye brushes soaking.  I settle on to my floor cushion, warm my wax brush and begin following the flow of “hot wax on thirsty cloth,” the happiest moments in my day. When finished with the waxing, perhaps two hours later, I slide my dye tray over and begin with color next.  The layering of wax, dye wax continues. With my classical music playing, I may work for six hours or more and not notice that any time has gone by. There may be numerous walks back and forth to the house for a fresh cup of tea, a short lunch or a wait for dyes to dry, but my mind is always on the work I am doing. Later, I might hop into the lake at the end of the road, for a late afternoon swim.

CWTM: Would you consider your art making to be more about the process than the outcome?

KSB: I delight in the process and am very interested in the place artists (and meditators, athletes and even surgeons) go when completely involved in their work. A place of ‘flow’ evolves. However, I am an image maker and use my work to convey a feeling, vision or a teaching so the outcome is an important  part of this.

CWTM: Do you agree that a small element of uncertainty about the finished look is what makes the process of creating so enticing?

KSB: I do not know exactly how any piece will look in the end so, uncertainty is part of the process. After working with these materials for thirty-five years I am comfortable with having it develop as I go…. although I have a solid polished drawing underneath the play of color and technique.

 CWTM: Any indispensable tools or equipment? ….

KSB: Those wonderful Japanese brushes.

CWTM: Do your pieces start with a planned course of action or are they more spontaneous?

KSB: As mentioned, I have been trained in the kimono-industry of Japan so pre-planning and a solid layout are vitally important to my outcome. I may do many thumb-nail sketches and carry them around for months. Eventually they percolate and I begin working, a number of days, on full size sketches. These are reworked and erased numerous times until I’m completely satisfied with them. At that point I go over the drawn lines with a black marking pen so I can see through the silk I lay on top to trace off my image. There is a great deal of pre-planning in my work, yet there is spontaneity in the color shading, application and wax technique that comes next,  but I have the good drawing beneath to ‘hang this on’.

CWTM: Your greatest source of inspiration is….

KSB: The written word, the visual image.

 CWTM: Favourite quote? 

KSB: A bit of poetry from 14c Japan:

Mind set free in the Buddha realm

I sit at the moon-filled window

Watching the mountain with my ears,

           Hearing the stream with open eyes.

CWTM: Best advice you’ve ever received? 

KSB: “You have only this life to live so do it intentionally; make every day count.”

CWTM: Worst advice you’ve ever received?

KSB: (Upon return from Japan); “You must get a good full-time job so that you’ll have medical insurance in case you get sick.”    What?

CWTM: What inspires your creativity?

KSB: I was born with a creative spark and it pours out in lots of different ways, always there however, in everything I do. I am inspired by poetry, landscapes, the inside of a flower, my Buddhist studies and the land around me. Colour pattern and texture intrigue me. Sometimes some wax resist experiments will just inspire a piece.

CWTM: You’d be lost without…

KSB: my good Japanese wax brush and the superb dye brushes that help me with the techniques I love. Having the right equipment is so much easier.

CWTM: Is it important for us to be recognized by the art world and if so, how can we help affect that change?  

KSB: I believe in what I am doing and would continue with it whether anyone ever saw it, recognized it, or not. My cup runneth over. My creativity is expressed in multiple ways in my life, in my art, in my teaching in my attitude to life. My work teaches me and completes me. After many years, I realize that recognition is not important to me but sharing is, thus I teach, encourage and exhibit. I feel that the ‘art world’ should respect the work we do however much depends on us… presenting it in a professional manner and believing in it, having something to say. I feel that there is much education of the general public and of ‘the art world;’ that is needed. If we work seriously, hone our professional skills and present our work as it should be, the recognition will come.      Just believe in it.

CWTM: What is next for you?

KSB: Ahhh, just pure Enlightenment, waking up. Possible?