Artist Akiko Kotani’s “Soft Walls” installation, on display at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, is a force to be reckoned with. So, too, is Kotani, who is the center’s 2013 Artist of the Year.

Inspired by cup cozies created by Kotani’s sister-in-law’s mother, the installation is made from 1,000 white-plastic 45-gallon trash bags, cut and crocheted together so that they cover two massive, movable walls.

The piece took two-and-half years to make, and even Kotani says, “I did not realize the outcome until it was installed in this gallery.”

Kotani’s work fills much of the first floor of the center, though not at all in a weighty fashion. For example, her “Silk Clouds” hang from the ceiling of the first gallery visitors will come to, as if floating above the room. Dark threads are sewn throughout, making reference to swirling currents and the very silkworms that created the silk organza.

For Kotani, the humble techniques of crochet, weaving and stitching are more than just “women’s work.” The use of these techniques in combination with larger ideas can result in magnificent forms.

“I like using very simple methods to produce something of complexity,” Kotani says. “Using ‘women’s work’ techniques to bring life to the forms that I conjure up in my dream space is how I delight in creating my work. Upon reflection, these techniques constitute the core concepts that I have threaded throughout my journey in making art.”

Kotani was born and raised in Waipahu, Hawaii, and received her bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Hawaii, and her master of fine arts degree from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia.

Though she lives in Slippery Rock, where she has retired after more then 20 years as an art professor at Slippery Rock University, she has traveled extensively. She lived in Guatamala from 2007 to 2010, where she studied under a Mayan weaver, and most recently, in Istanbul, Turkey, where her husband was hired to start a philosophy department at Koc University.

Made of stitched silk on paper, “First Light” was created while the Kotanis lived in Istanbul. “It was a result of a small studio and a difficult transition to a new country,” Kotani says. “I started stitching with materials I brought with me while I searched out materials in Istanbul.”

Kotani says the work itself was “created by the stitching itself.”

“By this I mean that I simply started stitching dots of silk and had the image take me where it wanted,” she says.

The final result, Kotani says, is an impression of the first light of day upon awaking. “How the light creeps into one’s bedroom or one can say how we become enlightened as the sleep-state fades away to the wake-state,” she says.

After she returned to Western Pennsylvania, Kotani says she started to have a flood of memories of Istanbul. The “Views of the Bosphorus” series, which is four sheets of paper each stitched with bamboo thread, is the result of these memories.

“My memories have a life of (their) own,” Kotani says. “First is the event itself taking place. The recollection of the memory is then fed by all the events that take place between the event and the resulting image in a finished form as an art work. Being sensitive to these memory lines can produce powerful works of art.”

Also on display is the work of Lenka Clayton, the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts 2013 Emerging Artist of the Year. Originally from England, Clayton has lived in the Polish Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh for the past four years.

Her installation “One Brown Shoe” is unique, comprising 100 pairs of handmade shoes the artist received in response to asking 100 married couples in 12 countries to each make a single brown shoe using materials found around their homes.

“They were asked not to discuss the project with their partners and to make their shoe in secret,” Clayton says. “The shoes were revealed only once both were completed.”

Made from cat-food boxes, packing tape, knitting, childhood sneakers, stolen office supplies, plate steel, Cuban cigars, animal crackers, nut shells, and a thousand other odds and ends found in the house, each pair of shoes might be seen as a portrait, Clayton says, “of two individuals, of one couple, and of the difference between the two.”

The installation is part of a larger project titled “An Artist Residency in Motherhood,” an unusual artist residency that Clayton, a stay-at-home mom, created in her home that is funded by the Pittsburgh Foundation.

Clayton says “An Artist Residency in Motherhood” was created as a personal and political statement, as a way to publicly explore questions around parenthood and the professional art world and the intersection of the two.

“I founded the residency in order to have a structure, one that worked from two sides,” she says. “For me, it is a platform and a challenge, a place where new work adds up to become a body of work that speaks to something larger than the individual pieces, including sketches, failures and things I’m too busy to do.”

For the viewer, it is a lens that allows a glimpse of a usually private, specific situation, lived out in a public way, making for an altogether moving exhibition experience.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at