Discovering threads of creativity
Carol Sylvester, Special to the Star Tribune
Published November 19, 2003

Dan O'Brien sits at his loom, his hands moving the shuttle back and forth between black threads. Rows of purple and green thread begin to form an abstract pattern, but then he unexpectedly leaves a loose thread, or purposefully creates an open area in the middle of the weaving. O'Brien is following the Japanese principles of "Saori," a creative philosophy he has studied for the last five years.

"This philosophy really allows for a process of discovery," says the Shakopee resident. "Anything is acceptable. There are no mistakes in the finished product."

O'Brien moved to Japan 12 years ago to teach English, learn to speak Japanese and immerse himself in the Japanese culture. During his time there, he was offered an opportunity to learn weaving using the Saori principles. Being new to weaving, he found the philosophy very helpful.

Renee Jones
Star Tribune South

"Traditionally, Japanese arts are learned by exact repetition of the instructor's process," says O'Brien, who returned to the United States in late September.

Saori allows much more freedom. O'Brien says Saori is built on four pillars: Having fun in the learning process; learning as a group; being aware of the difference between machines and people; and being explorative.

"Saori was developed with a blatant disregard of traditional Japanese techniques," he says. "It really allows students to explore their sense of creativity because they are not focused on perfection."

Weaving irregularities into his work
Renee Jones
Star Tribune South

Developed only 30 years ago, Saori is a fairly new philosophy, and it can be applied to most creative processes. And because it encourages experimentation, it allows for a very inclusive teaching environment.

"I was learning weaving alongside developmentally and physically disabled people, people who under different circumstances might not have had the chance to learn to weave," O'Brien says. "Creating straight edges, perfectly placing threads and even following instructions all require a certain level of physical and mental ability. Some of my classmates may not have been able to learn to weave in a classroom using traditional Japanese teaching techniques, but they were thriving in this setting. It was very exciting and inspirational to see them realize that they are creative too."

O'Brien admits that his weaving may look messy or sloppy to some. "Many people certainly would say it is not 'perfect' in appearance. Aesthetically, our culture wants to see coordinating colors, consistency in technique and a pleasing look in the finished products. But that's not the emphasis of Saori. The finished product is important, but it's more about what you learn during the process of achieving that finished item."

Nonetheless, O'Brien's work has received positive feedback from other weavers. His work was displayed in several galleries in Japan. And since returning to the United States, he has shown it to members of the Weavers Guild of Minnesota and will participate in the Guild's annual show later this month.

"It was scary, getting up in front of people and showing my work," O'Brien says. "This is a very different look from what weavers here are used to seeing. Still, they responded with 'oohs' and 'ahhs,' and as a fairly new weaver, it was gratifying to hear that."

Because he doesn't see himself as an advanced weaver, O'Brien creates what he calls fairly simple items -- scarves, ties, table runners and other pieces that don't require so much expertise in the finishing process.

As his sewing skills improve, O'Brien plans to make more clothing, including vests, skirts and coats.

O'Brien and his wife -- a Japanese native and fellow weaver who will join him in the United States in January -- eventually hope to make a living weaving professionally. He has already offered to teach community education classes in Shakopee, and plans to offer classes through the Weavers Guild and other fiber arts groups, using the Saori technique. He became certified to teach the technique to others while in Japan, and is the first foreigner and one of only a few men to qualify to teach this weaving style.

At the moment, O'Brien is working with developmentally disabled adults, helping them to live independently in the community. He says he's become interested in this field because of his experience with his former classmates, and has already started using weaving in his work. He is only able to weave about an hour a day, and does wish he could spend more time at it.

"Weaving gives me such a sense of accomplishment, he says. "It really keeps me going."

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