My Life with Touch Drawing
by Deborah Koff-Chapin
While growing up, I held the artist as my highest ideal. In living close to the source of creation, the artist was close to the heart of God. During the tumultuous upheavals of the sixties, my involvement with art served as a stabilizing element. While other teens 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 companionship of solitude, as well as a means of communicating from the depths of my soul. My natural tendency was to reflect states of being through the human image. Once, frustrated by the authoritarian attitudes at high school, I went home and painted a giant red face that filled the canvas with great power and authority. It was a way to release my anger and make a statement that communicated my feelings in a universal form. Sometimes I would go 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. It felt as if the image had a life of its own. There was magic in these moments, a feeling of having helped God in the act of creation.
Upon graduating from high school, I attended art school in New York City. I enthusiastically leaped into the mystique of the art world, but existential nausea set in as I began to question the meaning of art. The human form disappeared from my paintings. As brushes began to feel like obscure instruments, I turned to pouring and dripping paint. I read art journals and learned to verbalize the concepts behind the work I saw in contemporary galleries and museums. “Art talk” became the high craft.
One day while on retreat in my school’s country campus, I came across a willow tree swaying gently in the breeze. The tips of its branches were etching lines in the sand below, creating ever-changing patterns on the beach. Ecstatic at the sight, I realized that I was witnessing the pure, unselfconscious act of nature drawing. I took a role of photographs and thought no more of it. In retrospect, I have come to recognize my joy in this experience as a sign of my underlying search for a more natural way to draw.
By my last year in art school, I had become fluent in the language of abstraction. It was pure and essential, but foreign to the eyes of all but those educated in the ‘esoteric knowledge’ of the art world. I was stunned into this realization one day when an old friend came to my studio and stared blankly at the paintings on the wall. 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 faces. Feeling as if I had drawn something ‘dirty’, I tucked the embarrassing doodle away.
Within a few weeks the seed that had been germinating in my being burst forth. On the very last day of my last year in school, I was helping a friend clean up in the print shop. As I placed a paper towel over an inked glass sheet, I felt an impulse to stop my intended motion. Instead of wiping, I playfully moved my hands on the paper towel. As my fingertips made contact with the paper, I felt as if I was blasted open. Thunderstruck, I lifted the towel off the ink and saw impressions that had been transferred to the underside by the pressure of my touch. Lines coming directly from my fingertips! I laughed ecstatically with this discovery. In a state of revelation, I moved my fingertips on one paper towel after another. The marks that were created through the pressure of my touch were so pure and natural. Like the willow in the sand, they were an extension of my being on the page, a record of each moment as it passed. Soon I realized I could draw faces – child like, simple faces. One after another, imprints of my ever-changing self poured through my fingertips and onto the paper. My soul was being reflected before me – raw, honest and direct.
Although this experience appeared to be one of childlike play, underneath I felt something profound. I sensed that this was an evolutionary creative process that was intended to emerge into the collective in the coming years. I had received a calling to share Touch Drawing with the world.
In the following weeks and months, I poured my soul into the process. It became my grounding point during a personally tumultuous time. Whenever I felt pain, fear or confusion, I would turn to the drawing board to express my feelings. In releasing an emotion onto the paper, I would be transformed into another state of being. I would then transfer the sensations of that moment onto another page. Each drawing was a stepping-stone deeper into myself. At the end of a drawing session I had created a series of images that externalized my process. I could then step back and witness my transformation. It was as if I had been sculpting my own psyche.
I was deeply alone in my newfound creative energy. My work was my only source of grounding and stability. One day, I was walking along the streets of New York City in the stimulated yet unstable state I had come to be identified with. This all fit in very well with the artistic myths I had learned during my years in school. Suddenly, gently, powerfully – a single word floated into my mind – “Health”. This one word melted my culturally formed images of the ‘lonely tragic artist’. The sense that came was that the natural world is essentially healthy, and it embodies truth in its very being. If I was to find a way of truth in my work and life, I had to align myself with the health and connectedness found in nature. I thought of artists from other times and cultures – indigenous artists and the artists of the orient. They were grounded in their communities, tapping their creativity without the cultural isolation and psychological imbalance of so many artists our society held in esteem.
In those moments my vision expanded beyond the paper to include the creation of my life as a whole. I realized that I would have to find another way to be an artist. I left the city and began to find kindred souls who, each in their own way had outgrown the cultural norms. Over the years I found ways to share my images in settings where they were seen not as commodities for sale, but as integral components of deep collective experiences and sacred processes. I have been blessed to feel embedded in the simple beauty of loving friendship and community. Even in my most private moments, I now know I am part of the web of life.
The primal and therapeutic experience of those early days of Touch Drawing gradually evolved. I found myself drawing more from a sense of stillness and interior attention. The images began to feel like they were coming through me rather than from me. They developed an archetypal, transpersonal quality. Moving my fingertips on the page, I translate this subtle kinesthetic awareness into the language of human form. When I rise to leave the drawing board, I recognize that I am disengaging from a deep communion. Silently, I offer my thanks.
By the early ‘90s, my drawings had blossomed into fullness with color and refinement of form. The seed had grown into a tree and it was now weighed down with over-ripe fruit. It was time for the images to find their way out to a greater audience. How could I make them more broadly accessible and yet maintain their purity? Upon the suggestion of a friend, I decided to see what my images would look like as a deck. I photographed about 150 of them. Through a series of synchronous events, the first person I shared them with was Will McGreal, whom I had just met. As he perused the photos, his jaw dropped. “This is just what I’ve been looking for!” he exclaimed. He told me he was a Tarot reader but had given away his deck that morning with the intention of never doing readings again. I gave him the stack of prints and asked him to let me know if they worked as a deck.
Will did about 1,200 readings with the photos that year. Upon seeing the images, his clients began to access their own insight, no longer waiting passively for him to reveal what the cards meant. Will was also able to tap his own wisdom more directly, and engage his clients in empowering dialogue. On fire with inspiration, Will kept saying, “You’ve got to do the deck. It doesn’t matter what you call it. Just do the deck!”
Finally, the energy around the cards became so strong that I felt compelled to publish them independently. SoulCards have become a sacred vessel through which my images enter the lives of others. The depth with which people respond to them confirms the power and universality of images that are drawn directly from the soul. Their simplicity allows them to be used in a multitude of ways. This is the kind of feedback I have received:
“In a session with my therapist, I chose my first SoulCard. I was both attracted to and repulsed by the image I saw. I felt compelled to write about the image. And write I did; pages and pages. It was as if a door had been unlocked in me. I had access to parts of my self I had no understanding of nor compassion for. The more I wrote and allowed those unheard parts of myself to emerge, the more the image showed me itself as a source of strength and a springboard to my own power. The image transformed for me what I understood and held at my center. Your art has helped me to merge my personal angst with the archetypes and give meaning to the life of spirit on the physical plane.”
One of the most powerful and mysterious aspects of the cards is the sense they are being used by the greater universal intelligence. The synchronicity of a particular image being chosen, and even recurring to emphasize its message, is humbling and awe inspiring. Here is one such story:
“Two years a go I met my soul partner. We found a harmony and joy I never thought I could have with another person. Two months after we married he had a grand mal seizure. The doctors discovered a malignant tumor deep in his brain, saying he had at most five years to live. Our joy and exuberance was paralyzed and we spent a year fighting the cancer and the agony of lost dreams. Recently, I realized we have been handed a very unusual gift. We are now learning to slow down, listen to the inner voice, get back that joyfulness and feel our connection.
Two weeks ago, I attended a seminar with Christina Baldwin. She asked each of us to select a card (face down) and write the inner dialog. I selected this card. When I went home, I purchased a deck for myself, shuffled them and drew the same card once again. Sometimes the negative energy from the tumor consumes us. It’s then that I look at my SoulCard. I see my message so strong and clear and I know why I drew this card twice. I will continue to use my SoulCards as a conduit for those inner and external voices.” SoulCards have entered the collective psyche and are living a life of their own. It feels as if they are no longer my personal images.
Many of the images in SoulCards were created very slowly, by rubbing layers of color onto a single page. Recently, I have returned to a more spontaneous approach once again. I also find myself more energized when working in relation to others. When attending a lecture or concert, I bring my materials and set them up in an out-of-the way corner. As I listen, I translate what I hear and feel into images. The speed of Touch Drawing allows me to create multiple drawings concurrent with the presentation, reflecting the flow of its content and mood. When I go for a walk in the forest or on a beach, I often bring my drawing materials. Inner and outer images merge to reflect the psyche as integral with the natural world.
One of the most powerful ways to apply Touch Drawing is to create an ‘Inner Portrait’. This is a series of drawings done for another person in a single sitting. They bring into form many subtle dimensions of the soul. Here, someone shares his experience of the session. “The whole process was conducted with a sense of profound reverence and meditative poise. The attunement before starting the touch drawing was instrumental in creating a space of openness and heart. My inner senses were greatly heightened with a serene quietude maintained throughout the hour-long session. The work itself had a profound impact on my sense of self, with a deeper realization of the marvelous, loving and complex nature of my Higher Self. I received a renewed appreciation of the spiritual guidance that is always there. I left the session with a feeling of deep inner peace and of having been fully met. This is soul-centered drawing with high levels of spiritual connectedness.“
I have done this work for people when they are in life transitions or healing crisis. When a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, my way to support her during surgery was to draw. During her recovery the walls of her room were covered were with the drawings. She describes how they “were an inner mirror that helped me stay in touch with my interior process when I had no energy or strength to do so on my own. In our medical system, there is such an overwhelmingly huge emphasis on outer process – test results, statistics, treatment options – it was exhausting. I felt traumatized with no resources for the inner work that I normally do for myself. The drawings surrounding me were a manifestation of my dreams and created a bridge between the inner and outer worlds.”
It has been particularly powerful to attune to someone who is in the process of dying, or has just made the transition. Images from unseen levels can be a deep comfort to the loved ones left behind. A friend shares this story. “One day tragedy struck our family when our oldest child, Adam, drowned at the age of 22. Reeling with grief, disbelief, and the anguish of being so far away from him when it happened, we struggled to cope with this terrible loss. Deborah, unbeknownst to us, upon learning of the news, responded by meditating and tuning in to Adam. She received from him the progression of experiences of his death through direct images. It was an incredible blessing for us to receive these. The last one took our breath away – a transformation into his all-seeing, all-loving eye, dancing within a cosmic swirl.”
Images can serve the sacred life of the community. A beloved friend had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. She used it as a catalyst for awakening. After three years, she slipped into a coma. Remaining in her home, she was cared for by the community through the process of dying and beyond. Her husband shared that “the resonant and sensitive presence bubbling through the drawings added a tender, healing dimension to the whole community. The vivid images of heart-and-soul-opening perspectives brought all who saw them into an awe-full place of receptivity. That’s a very community-coalescing gift of Art, and the more so for being a spontaneous, immediate process.” This is the pure and original role of art. It is a great blessing to serve in this way.
Although the focus of this writing is on my own work with Touch Drawing, much of my life has been committed to spreading the seeds of Touch Drawing to others. My original sense of its great potential is confirmed each time I see people diving inward through the mirror of the drawing board. Their hands dance on the page, unleashing natural healing forces. Over and over I am touched by the transformation people feel as they open the creative portals of their souls. A sense of deep fulfillment takes hold when they recognize the beauty, power and authenticity in their drawings, and recognize this as a reflection of themselves.
I can’t possibly reach all those who might benefit from Touch Drawing on my own. Because of this, I encourage people to pass it along to others in their own way. In recent years, Touch Drawing has sprouted up in a broad range of settings. It is used with at-risk youth, people with AIDS, depression, cancer, sexual abuse, and stroke. I recently had the honor of introducing it to Palestinian therapists who work with children in the refugee camps in Gaza. Touch Drawing helps experienced artists to draw from a deeper source, and ‘non-artists’ find their way to authentic creative expression. Touch Drawing is so simple and natural. It is accessible to all.
In opening a way for people to give birth to images directly from within their bodies and souls, Touch Drawing is aligned with the rising of the feminine principle. It also is a counterbalance to the technological forces that are overtaking so much of contemporary life. Touch Drawing evokes our ancient roots in the handprints on the cave walls, and looks ahead to our evolution as multi-dimensional beings. May it serve the healing of the soul and the growth of a vibrant humane culture on the planet, in ways as yet to be imagined.