Stargaze ft. Artist Akemi Nakano Cohn

“What I create is a deep reflection of who I am, how I envisage peaceful existence…When I walk, I see traces of squirrels, birds, and other animals on snow covered ground…It brings me to think about life that ever existed, or still exists…I fill the vessels of my memory and slowly empty it in my art form…”

This is a story of an artist who applies her ideas to various materials, such as rice paper and fabrics using Katazome (rice paste resist) with natural dyes and mineral pigments, Nassen (color rice papste resist), Shibori, stitching and other traditional Japanese techniques. Her art form is influenced by changing conditions of light, that project shadows and beautiful silhouettes of falling leaves or trees moved by a strong wind…

Her name is Akemi Nakano Cohn and she is a part of my “Real Life Heroes” series.


Q1. We know that you were born in Japan and learnt Japanese dyeing techniques for ten years under the master, Haru Izumi. We would love to know more, how did your journey as an artist began?

I was born and grew up in a traditional family in Yokohama, Japan.  As a child, I lived in a room surrounded by shoji screens. The shoji screens recorded changing conditions of light that projected shadows and beautiful silhouettes of falling leaves or trees moved by a strong wind onto the walls around me. In that room, I felt I was part of natural cycle, I shared a transient moment with nature. This experience and perception became my fundamental art form.

A large influence towards art was an art teacher in an elementary school.  She was unique, creative, and fashionable.  I started to visit her house to learn drawings where she was teaching art to neighbors’ children.  There, I don’t remember learning any techniques; I just loved to hang around her art circle.  Compared to my traditional family, her value was fresh to me. It opened a door to a new fresh world.

I got a degree of graphic design at Tama Art University in Tokyo, and worked as a graphic designer for several years. 

The trip to India made a big change in my entire direction. When I traveled to India, I noticed wonderful handicrafts.  I wanted to use my “hands” rather than designing on paper (or computer). After returning, I looked for a teacher who could teach me traditional art and craft techniques. I found Ms. Haru Izumi who was an artist/artisan. I studied Katazome (traditional paste resist technique), Nassen (color rice paste resist) and Shibori (shaped resist dyeing) techniques under a private instructor.  After ten years, she suggested, that, I develop my own art applying what I had learned.

I visited friends in the U.S., to find a possibility to live in the States as an Asian, middle aged woman trying to make a new start.  In order to get a job, I thought education was the priority.  I studied English as a second language for three years in Portland, Oregon preparing to apply to graduate school.  Since, I was accepted by the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, I studied for two years and received the degree of MFA in Fiber Art.  A professor at Cranbrook introduced me to a textile artist in Chicago, I got an interview and accepted.  I moved to Chicago.  I worked there for three years as a textile designer. I, now, have enough time to teach classes and conduct workshops internationally, locally, and make pieces in my studio. 


Q2. By applying various indigo dyed blues of fabrics and rice paper, you create a memory-induced magical world where plants, animals, and humans respectfully co-exist. Does it mean that you derive your inspiration from environment, eco-system or mankind?

I made ‘adaptation’ and ‘transplant’ series about migrated people (include myself) using plants.  Then, I was invited by University of Nebraska as a visiting artist, and by Ragdale Foundation as an artist-in-residence, I noticed the “prairie” around there.  Prairie made me think about the adaptation in our own time.  I started to think about our environment.  It offers life not only for plants, but also for insects, animals, and other creatures.  Everything is connected to everything else.  I witnessed the fact that prairie is preserved as “natural” prairie, surrounding among residential areas, just like animals in a zoo.  In our modern technological society, there is a conflict between progress and ecology. As a result, Broken Circle series, Urban Prairie series, and Relocation series were born.



Q3. Your art is an expression and as you say – “therapeutic” process through your life, how does it help you express?

In dealing with the loss of my father, the skill (stitching) helped me just as therapeutic process.  Stitching is a slow process, and I shared the time with his memories while stitching. I also cut stencil paper.  The action of cutting stencil is repetitious and tedious.  While cutting, sometimes I think about ideas, but often I don’t think anything, it just like a state of meditation for me.  It calms me down and the time is peaceful. 

Q4. What are you currently working on?

The new ‘negative space’ created, indicates the trace of its existence.  When I walk, I see traces of squirrels, birds, and other animals on snow covered ground.  Snow stays and shows the foot prints of deer, rabbits, and other creatures in the forest.  Animals are gone, but these traces indicate their existence.  The trace stays creating a negative shape as a memory.  Although I continue to think about “memory”, I have some ideas at present.  It is a “healing quilt”.  I use natural dyes, and some dyes are used as medicine, such as ginger, safflower, pomegranate, turmeric, etc.  I will research those medicines (mostly oriental medicines) and dye them on various fabrics to patch and make a quilt to wrap the body.


(These journeys have been personally shared with me by our ‘Heroes’)

Know more about ‘Our Hero’ – Akemi Cohn @


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