Interview with Nurturing Art by Rita Loyd

Deborah Koff-Chapin BFA is an artist, vocalist, author and teacher. She has been developing Touch Drawing since she came upon it in revelatory play in 1974. Through her years of Touch Drawing, she has tapped into a universal level of the human soul. Deborah is founding director of The Center for Touch Drawing and has taught Touch Drawing at conferences and graduate programs internationally. She is author of Drawing Out Your Soul and the Touch Drawing Facilitator Workbook. Deborah is creator of the best selling decks, SoulCards 1&2, and Soul Touch Coloring Journals. She is currently at work on a new deck. 

Deborah has served as Interpretive Artist at numerous conferences. Sitting with her drawing board during presentations, she feels into the heart of the content and translates it into timeless imagery. She has done this at The Parliament of the World’s Religions, The Conference on World Affairs, Dawn of Interspirituality, Findhorn’s New Story Summit, Seeds of Compassion with the Dalai Lama, and more. Deborah has developed an archive of drawings inspired by over 800 different authors and wisdom keepers of our time. 

Were you encouraged or influenced in childhood to be creative?

Yes, I was. That is one of the greatest gifts my parents gave to me, particularly my mother. Though she had lost confidence in her own abilities, she valued creativity and supported me and my sisters to express ourselves in our own ways. She was also in touch with a simple wisdom that came forth at certain moments over the years.

What kind of art did you create as a child?

As a very young child, I liked to draw. I have a memory of drawing the face of my cousin. Family was watching as I drew. I remember saying “These are his BIG eyes and his BIG nose and his BIG mouth.” My mother says I was 28 months old. It was very unusual to draw a face at that age.  I also had a childhood friend that I liked to draw with. Even in kindergarten we would draw together. She would draw something and I would copy it. Then I would draw something and she would copy it. We would go back and forth and learn from each other. 

In high school during the late 60’s, I didn’t get into drugs because I had my art and other creative mediums. I did a lot of music; I played guitar and sang, and was in a vey active choir. I also did a lot theater. But painting provided a home space that I could turn to when I needed to find my truth and align with my soul. It was my survival mechanism in those culturally chaotic times. 

Did you have a formal art education?

I went to Cooper Union in New York City in the early 70’s. This art school was very contemporary. I took mostly abstract art classes. At that time in the art world, minimalism and conceptualism were the ‘happening’ approaches. You could put a line on a paper or paint a pure white canvas. If you had a concept and could verbalize it – it was valued. I was exploring in the void and trying to find my way. I was searching for a more natural way to make art. I tried doing things like pouring paint, moving panels of canvas in changing patterns, gazing at subtle interactions of colors.

With the perspective of time, I realize these imageless explorations were a vital part of my journey. Rather than filling myself with art techniques, I was emptying out. Letting go of form and image took me into a contemplative space. Everything fell away. This opened the way for Touch Drawing.

What inspired you to create Touch Drawing?

I wasn’t consciously trying to create a new process. But with hindsight, I have realized that there were precursors to Touch Drawing; experiences that highlighted the essence of what I was longing for.

Once I saw a willow tree making beautiful marks in the sand through the touch of its leaves moving in the breeze. It brought me into a state of ecstasy to witness nature creating a drawing.

Another time, I allowed myself to draw doodles of human faces. After all those years of abstract art, these scribbled images were actually embarrassing. Even in the figurative drawing classes, we weren’t drawing a soul. We were drawing a form; reflecting the surface rather than expressing the psyche. When I did these little doodles I also wrote, “What’s wrong with drawing faces?” I felt like I was doing a ‘dirty drawing’. But it was a moment of true freedom. It was such a small act. But I now see it as a ‘seed moment’ in which I gave myself permission to follow my own impulses. This opened a pinhole in my psyche. It wasn’t long before the floodgates burst open.

It came to me in a moment of play. It was 1974, on the last day of my last year in art school. I was helping a friend clean up in the print shop, about to wipe an inked glass plate with a paper towel. But instead of wiping, I placed the paper on the ink and moved my fingertips upon it. When I lifted it off, I could see the marks on the underside. They were made by the pressure of my touch; natural imprints emerging from my body onto the page. I laughed ecstatically and moved my fingertips on another paper towel, then another — each time lifting it to see the impressions of my touch on the page.

Amidst this joyful and childlike experience, I had an underlying sense that something profound was happening. It was as if this process already existed in a dimension ‘outside of time’ where human cultural evolution emerges from. I didn’t have a cosmology to understand this – just a sense of knowing. It had a larger purpose than my own personal use and had been waiting for the right conditions to emerge. This simple yet potent drawing process was for the future; for a time when humans would express themselves more directly and fluidly. I was being entrusted with it, and it was meant to be shared with others.

At the time, I had no idea how this would play out. But the experience has fueled my life’s work: to offer workshops and encourage others to pass the process along. In following this calling, I had to devlop so many other skills; how to articulate in person and in writing, organize events, market, and track all the specific materials needed in far flung locations. On deeper levels, I developed the art of holding space for participants so they could have a safe, deep and authentic experience.

How has Touch Drawing been healing for your life?

In the beginning, when my life was opening and changing, I didn’t have much internal structure. Touch Drawing provided a safe outlet when I felt fear or overwhelm. I could go the drawing board, move my fingertips on the paper and honor whatever I was feeling by drawing it. I would lay one drawing aside, bring my awareness directly back to my felt sense, and do another drawing. It was an act of self-acceptance. Each drawing was an expression of the moment and the whole series was a transformative journey. I trusted it to carry me through to a place of stability. 

I soon recognized that I wasn’t just creating pictures on paper – I was actually creating my Self — transforming my inner shape as I shaped each drawing. I realized that the creative transformation going on within me was more important than the pictures on paper. Through Touch Drawing, I learned to trust the process.

I have been doing Touch Drawing since 1974. My relationship with the process has evolved as I have grown. I no longer have the need to use it on a personal emotional level as I did in the early days. What inspires me now is drawing in service to something larger than my personal self.

Can you give an example of this approach?

One thing that I love to do is immerse myself in events where there is a larger planetary or universal theme. I would never attend a conference to listen to people talk. But for me, to attend a conference is to have a Touch Drawing intensive. I sit on the floor near the stage with my drawing board on my lap. As I listen to the speakers, I interpret their content in images. As I go deeper into the process, it becomes more intuitive; following the impulse to draw in their presence. Sometimes I don’t know why I am creating a specific image but then the speaker says something that lines up with what I am already drawing. After every major conference, I work really hard to photograph and post all the drawings with information on the presentations during which they were created.

In the past few months I have drawn at several significant events. The Parliament of the World’s Religions was such a joy to be a part of. It hosted over 8,300 people from 81 counties and 118 spiritual and secular traditions to “pursue global understanding, reconciliation, and change”. I created 168 drawings. It was one of the happiest weeks of my life! Another conference I was honored to be a part of was the Co-Creative Spirituality Conference at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. I also drew at the Conference on World Affairs, which was a mix of cultural, scientific and political issues.

Most recently I immersed myself in the Global Earth Repair Conference. When I first heard about it, I was just glad to know it was happening. But then I realized that I wanted to be with people from all over the world who are doing such vital hands-on work for health of the planet.

I felt a call to put myself in that field of thought and energy, see what images would emerge, and make them available to the movement. I came away more inspired and hopeful than I even expected to be.

Were you invited to do this at the conference?

I know the person who organized it. So in this case, all I needed to do was contact him and say I would like to come and draw. Other times I submit a proposal or receive an invitation. It’s been a very long journey. I have drawn at many events where people didn’t quite comprehend what I was doing. There is rarely clear communication with participants to alert them that the drawings are posted online. I understand that it is hard for people to integrate so many images or make use of them to their fullest potential. I am still exploring how to share them. I remain committed and uphold the long-term value of this work. Personally, it always is a deep creative immersion no matter what the outcome or follow through. I feel like I have been developing an archive of images in association with the zeitgeist of our time.

The best vehicle for my images has been SoulCards 1&2. I have met so many people who have deep, ongoing relationships with my art in this form. Next year will be their 25th anniversary, and SoulCards are as alive as ever. I am in the early stages of producing a new deck. This one will probably focus on the ‘subtle realm’ faces I have always created but rarely shared. It feels risky to put them out, but I sense it might be the right time.

It sounds like you first started drawing for yourself and now you are drawing for the world!

In what ways has Touch Drawing been healing for your students?

Every workshop is a deep dive into the soul. I hold the whole experience as a sacred ceremonial space. Once we enter the drawing session, we stay with it for long periods of time; up to an hour and a half at the drawing board with no talking or looking at others’ work. I hold space with live music as each participant dives into the process. From my vantage point, as I walk around the room with my drum, it appears as if each person has let go of the outer world and is gazing into an inner mirror. The gentle sounds of rolling paint, lifting paper and hands moving upon the board mix with the heartbeat of the drum, and time seems to disappear.

Everyone’s experience is unique. It is not always easy or comfortable to face ones’ self anew each time they lay a new sheet of paper on the drawing board. Most people go through a range of feelings and states within a drawing session. After a time of private reflection with their drawings and writing, we gather in circle again. It is a workout – but generally people are more vibrant, open and present when we close the circle.

A participant had quite a healing experience in a recent workshop. She arrived using a walker, seeming tentative and frail. In the closing circle she told us that she had recently been hospitalized with an anxiety attack. She had still been feeling the repercussions and had almost canceled. But she said she now felt entirely different after the day of Touch Drawing. She described feeling much more at ease in her self. She even had more sensation in her feet. So that was pretty wonderful.

How do you teach your students to silence the inner-critic?

I don’t tell them to silence the inner critic. I acknowledge that it is something we all have to contend with. I suggest that they don’t take it so seriously; don’t give it so much authority or let it stop them. We often do a very simple writing practice after the drawing series is complete; simply writing a title for every drawing in the series. If someone thinks that nothing much had happened while drawing, that changes when they write. As they reflect on the images, they realize something significant was happening as they drew. I always suggest they look through their drawings again later. More insights and appreciation emerge over time.

A man was in a workshop that I offered as part of a weekend retreat. He probably would not have signed up to do Touch Drawing but it came with the package. He told me later that he had crumbled up his drawings and thrown them away when he got home. He hadn’t valued his drawings or the experience. But the next time he wrote, his words flowed in a new way. Touch Drawing had opened something in his being that revealed itself when he returned to his familiar form of expression. So you really don’t know how the experience will impact you.

I try to make this clear when I give workshops. Sometimes participants get frustrated because they can’t immediately draw a meaningful or beautiful image. The most essential advice I can offer is to just let yourself be present in the moment with whatever you feel, and move your hands on the paper. You have to start from this place in order to anchor yourself in the core of your being. Authentic images are more likely to arise if you are not trying so hard to make them. I emphasize, “YOU are so much more important the marks on paper. As you express your feelings through the touch of your fingertips on paper, you are sculpting your inner being. YOU are the eternal art form.”

When I introduce people to Touch Drawing, we start with the self. We express our own feelings and inner sensations. But often, even in the course of a one-day workshop, I will offer this suggestion: “You don’t always have to draw for yourself, you don’t always have to work on your own personal issues. Try turning your attention to someone you care about and draw for them.” When we open ourselves to create from a place of love and service, another level of energy can come in. I have experienced this myself, so I like to share this approach with others.

When I offer a multi-day workshop we sometimes do a deeper version of this. I call it an Inner Portrait. We sit with a partner and do a meditation to connect with each other. Then we do a drawing session in which each person’s images are dedicated to their partner. So they are simultaneously drawing for each other. When they look through the drawings after the session, it is mind blowing. Often there are specific images that their partner recognizes as related to their life. It is a process that I had developed in my own work.

In teaching this practice to others, I have learned that we all have access to a field of knowing that is beyond our personal conscious mind.

Is your creative focus only on teaching and creating Touch Drawings?

My major focus and commitment has been and continues to be Touch Drawing — making it available to others and deepening my own work with it. But I am currently stepping out more with my music. I have always done live improvisational singing along with drumming, chimes and singing bowls during my workshops. But in the last few years I have begun to do music in other settings. I have made a commitment to offer a ‘song bath’ twice a month in my community. People come in and lay down. I play crystal bowls and sing for about an hour. It is different from holding space for a workshop; more my vocals are more focused and potent. It is my greatest fulfillment and my strongest prayer to open to the presence through music. People are invited to receive the sound and energy in their own way, and depart in silence. I ask for a voluntary ‘love offering’, which goes to the two spiritual healing centers where we meet. I am beginning to offer song bath when I travel.

I have also been involved with movement, ritual and ceremony since the late 70’s. I draw upon this experience in my workshops. They have a ceremonial structure and intention that helps to create a deep, safe space for inner work and transformation. I occasionally help craft ceremonial space for other gatherings. The creation of ceremony and ritual is an art form it itself. As a matter of fact, ritual is the birthplace of all art forms. So it’s a very unified experience.

There are times when I feel like I am putting more energy into supporting other people’s creativity than my own. But that brings a different kind of creative fulfillment and sense of service. More challenging are the endless organizational details that need to be attended to. But these are a necessary a part of any creative life. I am truly grateful to be doing work that cultivates the soul of life. This is more needed than ever. I believe the survival of human civilization requires that we tap into a deeper source of wisdom and come into a fuller relationship with all life. 

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