Tomie Hahn, author of Arousing Sense: Recipes For Workshopping Sensory Experience, answers questions on her personal influences, discoveries, and reader takeaways from her book.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
Arousing Sense arose from my creative practice, teaching, and experimenting. I dream that the thirty-plus sensory prompt recipes will raise readers’ curiosity about learning through the senses and they will find creative ways to express themselves through establishing a regular practice. Early on I wondered: How can we generate new forms of knowledge? Push ourselves to bravely experiment while noting our vulnerabilities? Over the years, after leading workshops participants consistently asked for the methods and lesson plans. However, while I had over a hundred recipes for sensory, ethnographic, contemplative, and artmaking workshops, none were written out at the time. These requests motivated me to document the recipes and share some of the participants’ work. I decided to write this book to encourage people to heighten their sensory awareness, to be curious, to develop (or continue) a personal creative practice that is wildly generative, yet not stemming from a restrictive value system. Because there is an endless sea of sensory information that we are immersed in, noticing what we are aware of (and what is filtered) reveals and situates one’s reality, one’s sensibility. Arousing Sense is for everyone; no experience required.
Q: Who were your biggest influences?
People, as well as places and experiences, influenced the recipes in Arousing Sense. Studying the transmission of embodied cultural knowledge—how we learn through the body and senses—has preoccupied me for many years. I learned about ethnographic “transmission” as a graduate student, mentored by Kay Kaufman Shelemay and Cynthia Novack. My “Ah ha!” moments emerged right in the seminar rooms—the sensory modalities emphasized in various communities revealed their cultural transmission practices. The research of transmission fostered a method for comprehending the mysteries of embodiment, identity, culture, and communication in extraordinarily deep ways. How does one understand the essence of embodiment? As a child I was mesmerized by Sahomi Tachibana, my Japanese dance teacher in New York City. When Sahomi was a teenager, she was taken to an internment camp with her family but continued to dance and teach in the camps. Her passion and presence carried an embodied essence of the kind of spirit that I longed for. Reflexively, the study of transmission held the key to understanding the embodiment of many practices I had studied since childhood—okeikogoto (Japanese “practice arts”), calligraphy, visual and performing arts. My parents were visual artists, and their artist and activist friends were present in our lives—meaning, their visits or their work were always around. In this context, disciplinary artforms, activities, and contemplative practices were not differentiated from one another. Finally, collaborating with several cognitive scientists, psychologists, and neuroscientists in the past fifteen years has introduced me to fascinating perspectives on embodiment, perception, and creativity.
Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?
Many fascinating discoveries arose as I simultaneously offered workshops and wrote up the recipes. I learned so much from the participants! Students’ and participants’ creative endeavors and feedback provided inspiring insights. Some sensory prompts felt commonplace to me, yet the participants’ work and responses reflected otherwise. The discovery stood right before me—everyone’s sensory experience of the world is different. While the idea may not sound unique, the extent to which this simple idea unfolds during workshops has been profound. Discussing our varied experiences as a group in response to the same prompt ushered in a profound sense of empathy and connectedness that I did not expect. Simple, yet deeply inspiring.
Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?
One myth, related to the last question, is the assumption that we all experience the same “reality.” Participants in my university classes and public workshops actively wanted to learn how others in the group responded to a sensory prompt, especially how they expressed themselves (in discussions, writing, performance, or drawing). The curiosity was infectious, and we all noticed it raised enthusiasm, a sense of delight, and well-being. The participants offered new insights to the group. I love that. Another myth is that only some people are “gifted” and creative. In many ways I feel like my role has been to trick participants into experimenting and trying new activities. The compartmentalization of the senses in educational systems supports another deeply entrenched myth. For example, as children we learn that there are only five senses, which then supports specializations in sensory modalities and disciplinary fields. Similarly, the mind and body duality myth lingers in numerous circles. Concepts of embodied knowledge and embodied consciousness offer an understanding that the body shapes consciousness and thought. I’ll leave these four myths dangling so that readers can experience firsthand how working with sensory prompts unravels embodied mysteries.
Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?
We become what we practice. We embody our experiences; sensory awareness orients us in the world, situating us in diverse ways. Heightening sensory awareness widens our ability to understand ourselves and others and broadens our vocabulary of expressivity. Being able to communicate and freely express oneself, leaving behind expectations (and “I’m not creative” inner chides), can be liberating. It can be fun and playful even!
Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?
I enjoy listening to audio books—sci-fi, mystery, surrealism, speculative fiction, biographies, to name only a few. There’s something comforting about having a book read out loud. Listening to a book also piques my curiosity because it is a performance of text. As one might imagine, multi-sensory activities deeply inspire me. I can ponder sensory qualities for hours! Perhaps the observation of changes in subtle sensory nuances—watching mushrooms emerge, grow, and deteriorate for example—stems from my long-term meditation practice. The essence of such a miniature scene, including the smells, changes of color and light, tactile qualities, bugs that stop by, cannot be captured fully in a photograph. Alongside that, I really enjoy hanging out with animals, birds, reptiles (oh yes, and people), as they orient differently in the world and their varied sensory capacities are remarkable. Also… I love to smile.