Making a choice to live our lives in “another way”
By Deborah Koff-Chapin
WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, I held The Artist as my highest ideal. For me, to be an artist was to be a truth- seeker. In living close to the heart of creation, the artist lifted the veil between the world and its source. As I came to know the lives of the artists I revered most, however, I saw lives of hardship and tragedy. Vincent Van Gogh expressed his impassioned spirit so directly and beautifully in image, yet throughout his entire life sold only one painting. With no facility for human relationships, he became so isolated and frustrated that he eventually committed suicide. Rembrandt began his artistic career with enormous success and popularity. Yet his work progressed so far beyond the taste of his time that in mid-life he lost all commissions and went bankrupt. Having held to his ideals, he died rich in wisdom, yet lonely and destitute. Picasso managed to pursue his creative vision without compromise while maintaining the respect of his contemporaries throughout his life. Although idealized and romanticized in the public eye, in his personal life Picasso left behind him a trail of unresolved relationships, including complete estrangement from some of his own children. These artists and many others were so single-pointedly devoted to their artistic vision that many aspects of their lives were sacrificed. These were strange role models for a healthy American teenage girl. Yet, I remember saying to myself as an adolescent, “If I have to suffer like Van Gogh to be an artist, I’ll do it.”
In my actual experience, however, art was a stabilizing element during the tumultuous upheavals of the sixties. While friends were turning to drugs, politics or parties, painting was my alternative mode of “truth seeking.” It was a vehicle for turning inward and realizing the deep companionship of solitude, as well as a means of communication. My natural tendency was to reflect states of being through human images. Once, frustrated by the authoritarian attitudes at my public high school, I went home and painted a giant red face which filled the canvas and stared down at me with great power and authority. In releasing this image, I had found a way to transform my anger creatively and make a statement that communicated personal feelings on a more universal level. There were other times when I would go out into the woods, soak up the peaceful atmosphere and let an image surface into my mind. I would pour this out onto the canvas in one intense stream of effort, until the image had a life of its own. There was a magic in these moments, a feeling of having helped God in the act of creation.
Throughout my teenage years, involvement with theater, music and dance provided more keys into the mystery of being human. In humbling contrast to the independence of painting, I worked under the guidance of artistic directors; in balance to the solitude I had as a visual artist, it was here that I experienced being part of a larger whole.
I felt enriched by my involvement with all of these art forms, yet when time for college came along, I was expected to specialize. With some mixed feelings, I eventually decided my deepest connection was with painting. In the lifestyle of the painter, I also foresaw a certain freedom to explore the unknown in my own way, without the burden of either a large cast of people or great financial needs.
So off I went, leaping into the mystique of the New York art world. I attended Cooper Union in the heart of Manhattan, where I assumed that I would find comrades in the passionate search for truth through art. The canyon walls of the city echoed with my song as I walked its streets. Something in me opened as I strengthened through the independence of city life. Yet, something in me closed at the same time. During the first months of school, I can recall being asked by several fellow students, “Why do you smile so much? There must be something you’re hiding.” As I asked this of myself, I was drawn into a void.
Existential nausea set in as I questioned the meaning of art. Identifiable images disappeared from my paintings, and as brushes began to feel like obscure instruments, I turned to pouring and dripping paint. “Art talk” became the high craft, as I learned to read art journals and verbalize the concepts behind the work I saw in contemporary galleries and museums.
As I became familiar with the language of abstraction, the academia of the time, I found I could use this vocabulary to sharpen my perception to the finest degree. In my own work I began creating panels of near black. Staring into the darkness, I could perceive the subtlest variations in color, the emergence of light. As color was reborn from the darkness, my rectangular panels began to glow with light, becoming the keyboard in which I could play endless melodies and chords of color.
By my last year in school, I had become fluent in the language of abstraction. Essential, yes, but foreign to the eyes of all but those schooled in the knowledge of the art world. I was stunned into realizing this one day when a friend from home and years before came to my studio in the city and stared blankly at the work covering the walls. I used to share the depths of my soul with friends through imagery; where had I gone in those years to draw such a blank?
The seed of an answer came one day as I scribbled some words onto a page… “What’s wrong with drawing a face?” With a shudder of guilt, I tentatively doodled some raw, primitive little heads, as if I was drawing something “dirty.”
Certainly people in school had been drawing from models all these years, but I had felt repulsed by the atmosphere I sensed in these classes, where the human figure was usually seen as an empty, lifeless form. In my abstract explorations I had found a level of contemplative fulfillment. But the ancient and universal language of the soul as expressed by the human face and form – how could I have forgotten all these years?
Along with these seeds of realization about my art came the beginnings of realization in myself. What had I become in these years in the city? Strong, hardened, out for myself? My protective shell began to crack. A naked soul I became. The words that I had scribbled on the page were not only asking a question about art, but about myself: “What’s wrong with showing a human face?” And I began to see faces. The city was suddenly filled with them. Eyes looking out from all kinds of bodies; the same eyes, one human soul; something of myself in everyone.
Within several weeks the seed that had been planted by the doodle burst above ground. On the last day of my last year of school, I was helping a friend clean up an inked glass plate in the print shop. Before wiping the ink off the plate with a paper towel, I playfully moved my hands over the towel, and lifting it, saw lines which had been transferred to the underside of the towel by my touch. Lines coming directly from my fingertips – I laughed hysterically with this discovery! In a state of revelation, image after image began to pour from my hands. Childlike and primitive, they were a direct expression of my being, a record of each moment as it passed. My friend sat at the other end of the room and witnessed. He never even asked to see the drawings, saying later, “I saw the energy, that was enough.”
From that time on “touch drawing” became my lifeline. I had stumbled across it playfully, but took it very seriously. During the turbulent times, just out of school, in the following months, touch drawing became a vehicle for intense personal growth. I could acknowledge my present state of being, project it out onto the page, and reflect upon it for a moment. The very act of releasing this image would put me into a new state of being, which I would again pour out through my finger tips and onto the page. Each image served as a stepping stone for the next, and I found myself transforming literally before my own eyes.
Alone now in a new awareness I felt alienated from the reality of the art world all around me. “Well,” I would ask myself, “doesn’t this fit perfectly into the myth of the tragic artist?” So many of the examples of artists I admired before me had lived in some form of this raw, connected but isolated state. Was this not the source of deep creative inspiration?
One early autumn day I was wandering along the dirty streets of New York’s lower east side. I’d just made a small sculpture out of junk found in a lot. This raw life was keeping me right on my edges, awake and creating. As I walked, a single word floated quietly, clearly, into my mind. “Health.” “Health?”, I wondered in response. The sense that came with this word was that the natural world is basically healthy, and it embodies truth in its very being. If I was to find a way of truth in my life and art, I needed to align myself with the health found in nature.
Yet, none of the “Great Artists” whom I could think of had been really healthy. Would I lose the creative spark if my life was not isolated and unstable? Would I become merely academic, safe, habituated? Although I could find no validation from my myths, I took on the challenge. “There must be another way,” I thought. Eastern artists, tribal artists, were true creators, yet they were integrated within their community. Why couldn’t I find a way to be integrated with my community? Then again, who was my community?
From that moment on my course was changed. My work was not only to create images but to create another way to be an artist, to transform the myth. To begin this process, I had to find, or create if need be, a new community. My studio in the city had been a spiritual womb, nurturing me in my solitude. Now it was time to leave.
In the search for a new life I returned to my hometown and crossed paths with a couple of high school art room friends who shared my passion for image making. I felt from them a non-verbal understanding of what my primal “chicken scratch” touch drawings were about. We also shared a vision that we could be artists in “another way.”
Through them I came into contact with Jean Houston, a teacher whose work weaves together mythology, philosophy, creativity, modern physics, brain research, history and spirituality into one connected whole out of which emerges a new vision of culture. In these workshops, I witnessed so many people who would arrive encased in the trappings of their specific social milieu, and who within a few days would become unveiled to reveal their deep humanity. Here was the first experience of a community for whom I played the role of image-maker; not isolated from the whole or better than the rest, but able to play my part, pulling from the collective consciousness the images that could reflect and illumine our experience. I would cover the walls with touch drawings, sharing my response to our experiences in the ways I knew best; gleaning from others the wisdoms they had to share. These deeply healing and stimulating experiences validated that it was possible to find creative fulfillment in “another way.”
Through these workshops I came into contact with Elizabeth Cogburn, a woman involved in the creation of new ceremonies (see the interview with Elizabeth in this issue — also “Living With Ceremonial” in the Winter 1983 issue). During my first all-night winter solstice dance, I felt a new level of energy pouring through me as I danced, chanted and drew through the depths of the night. In the ceremony, the organic relationship between dancing, singing, acting and image-making was revealed. They sprang from one common source and were bound together through a higher purpose: purification of the personality, communion within the larger body of the group and with spirit, and the conscious evolution of the human species. Within the ceremony, the arts became a way of tapping our deep roots, a way of remembering who we are, and a way of discovering who we are becoming. Through trust in this unknown “other way” of being an artist, I felt I had been guided to both my primal roots and evolutionary edges.
How, one may ask, did I manage to “earn a living” all this time? This philosophical artist stuff doesn’t pay the rent. Creative thinking and simple living provided helpful keys. I earned enough money to get by through teaching art in a senior nutrition center, film- making with children, sign painting, and so forth. When looking for a place to live, I would scout out empty, unwanted lofts or cabins and resurrect them. I did not separate “earning my living” from “living my life,” but rather saw each experience as an opportunity to learn and grow. With few possessions and financial concerns, I’ve felt truly wealthy. I’ve always had faith that my needs would be met if I was following my call.
I gave no thought to trying to sell my artwork for a number of years after finding touch drawing. This did not seem to be my issue at the time. I would share drawings in gatherings, workshops and ceremonies, and give them away when it felt appropriate. One experience that I especially remember was the first summer solstice dance I attended on the beach at Montauk, Long Island. I placed a series of touch drawing “soul faces” in two rows at the east, creating a pathway to reflect upon as we entered and exited the ceremonial circle. At the closing of the dance, the rains began to fall, and I offered the drawings to anyone who felt called to them. They scattered to their new lives like seeds on the wind.
At one point, after about seven years of sharing my work in this manner, I began to feel “ripe” to begin offering my work for sale. It was frightening at first. I wondered whether there would be a loss of purity, but I approached it naturally as an extension of what I was already doing, making them available for sale through the workshops and conferences I was attending. I have since appreciated the gift of earning my living from the work that I feel most deeply called to. It is so moving to witness someone search through a group of drawings and find one that comes particularly alive for them. I often hear their story of the image’s meaning in their life. As I receive payment directly from their hand to mine, and we acknowledge each other eye to eye, I realize that we’ve exchanged something more than money and goods. Each sale is also an exchange of love, a new relationship. I know that the drawing is going off to live a life greater that I could ever give it. These people are not collectors, buying for decoration, investment, or prestige, they are people creatively involved with the process of living and growing, carrying the images along as a living force in their lives.
My relationship to this touch drawing has evolved gradually. I used to sit for a few minutes and explode with drawings; now I may sit for hours, giving more attention to the space between the drawings, entering a stillness from which drawings emerge. As each new sheet of paper is placed on the drawing board, I am again faced with the void. In fear and expectation I listen. As subtle impulses begin to appear inside, my fingers respond with movement on the page, drawing out these impulses and giving them form. Each session is a painful yet beautiful journey into the unknown, from which I return with new gifts to share.
Although a certain amount of solitude is necessary for my work, I feel far from isolated. During the hours in my studio, I feel a deep link with my community as well as with a larger guiding force.
As an outgrowth of this work in solitude, I have begun to develop a collaborative relationship with a poet friend. We begin each of our sessions with a time of silence in which we attune to the vision that is emerging through our union. A poem may come to her, and as she reads it aloud, I draw an image. The drawing then acts as a take-off point for a new poem, and we continue in an on-going dialogue. We are now developing a presentation of this work in which the drawings are projected as slides and the poems have become songs. Several friends have joined us in this project, and it continues to grow beyond our initial expectations.
More and more I have been sharing the process of touch drawing. I have always felt that this technique was not for me only. In its directness and simplicity it can open a way for others to reconnect with their innate image-making capacities. It is very moving to see a group of people touch drawing together in silence, with their hands dancing on the paper, delving into themselves through the mirror of the drawing board. As we reflect upon our completed drawings together, we witness them as a record of each other’s internal processes, and share many insights.
At times I think back to the moment when I first questioned the myth of the tragic artist and began to envision “another way.” What clues did I have to go by other than an inner call for health and wholeness? I can no longer live in the old myth that sacrifices all other aspects of life for one creative act. Paradoxically, this commitment to something more than just art has taken me to deeper sources in my artwork.
It seems as though the realizations that have come to me through the years are part of a broad shift in consciousness happening in all aspects of our culture. One by one, in the privacy of our own hearts, many of us are making a choice to live our lives in “another way.” Central to this “other way” is the realization that humanity comes first; particular identity (professional, national, etc.) has its place only insofar as it serves and enhances this basic identity common to us all. In seeing life itself as the primary creative medium, all aspects are taken into consideration, just as an artist would search out the most harmonious relationships of color, form and texture within a picture. As we find new sources of inspiration in our personal lives, we may be discovering keys to renewal on a planetary level as well.
Our myths can imprison as well as inspire us. When they no longer reflect our deepest sense of who we are and who we can be, it is up to us to transform them by living our new vision, and sharing it with others. In doing this, we cleanse the obstructions to the flow of the life force within us, tapping deep roots which nourish the whole in ways we may never even know.
Deborah is the guest co-editor of this issue. If you would like more specific information on how to do touch drawing, please visit www.touchdrawing.com.