Presence & Absence

In the Fall of 2010, students from California College of the Arts collaborated with Zen Hospice Project in a course entitled “Presence and Absence”. For this class, nine undergraduate art, design and writing students focused their studies on end-of-life care as they worked to create pillows for the Zen Hospice’s newly renovated Guest House.

The form of the pillow itself is an interactive object that embodies the qualities of touch, memory, intimacy and comfort. Each student created a pillow design that reflected on one aspect of his/her experience with the course material and of being in the Guest House. The imagery was created using a “freeform knit and crochet” technique in which small handmade pieces are brought together to form larger designs. All of the students made pieces that were contributed to each pillow design. The creation of the pillows lead us to seek help from the Zen Hospice Project Volunteers and staff who, when they had time, sat with us for knitting, crocheting and conversation.

The image for the first pillow was one offered to us by Zen Hospice Project’s Director Carlyle Coash, and Education Director Jennifer Block, who served both as partners in our collaboration and as experts in the area of end-of-life care. It is the shape of the calligraphic brush circle called the Enso. Among its many symbolic meanings is the idea of wholeness. Next, the student’s pillow designs came in stages beginning with thoughts generated by the readings, workshops and class discussions leading up to our first visit to the Guest House. These included reflections on the beauty of all of life’s phases, the uniqueness of each life while still being connected to others and how a life grows and develops outward from its core. As we spent more time in the house on Page Street, a wide range of new insights and observations came into the pillow designs. These included such themes as: external and internal environments, the tension between chaos and calm in daily life, trying to meditate, light and sound from outside the windows, non-visual “seeing” and feeling rooted in one’s home.

The Zen Hospice approach is centered around 5 Precepts that we found could be applied not only to end-of-life care, but also to many aspects of living. These are:

  • Welcome everything. Push away nothing.
  • Bring your whole self to the experience.
  • Don’t Wait.
  • Find a place of rest in the middle of things.
  • Cultivate Don’t-Know mind

About Zen Hospice Project

Zen Hospice Project began during the AIDS pandemic with a commitment to fearless compassion. Its volunteers cared for the most vulnerable members of our society, and no matter how much suffering they encountered, they did not turn away. Their mission is forged from that experience. Today they continue to meet that need, serving the community by bearing witness and providing care for people with loving kindness. 

Visit the Zen Hospice Project.