Drawn from creative loam

I was delighted when Naomi Rifkin from Brush Fire Painting accepted my challenge and fearlessly dipped her hands into rich creative soil. The questions and answers have bubbled and fermented and what you see now is an interview which sheds fresh light on the creative process.
Heather Blakey

"At Brush Fire there is a piece that looks like a tree, with ants and other bugs at the roots and swirling color behind it - this painting is about 6 feet tall & 3 feet wide and the experience of painting it was amazing. I never knew the depth of ecstatic joy available to me before doing that painting."
Naomi Rifkin

Naiomi Rifkin

HB You say that one of the things you love about process painting is that it lays you bare. Tell us about a numinous piece of your work and share what it taught you about yourself?

NR At Brush Fire there is a piece that looks like a tree, with ants and other bugs at the roots and swirling color behind it - this painting is about 6 feet tall & 3 feet wide and the experience of painting it was amazing. I never knew the depth of ecstatic joy available to me before doing that painting.

Really! I was a very serious child and a depressed adolescent. I've always done brooding, dark emotions very well. But I was consumed by a fire of a different kind when I was doing this painting. The experience is fresh in my heart even though it happened a number of years ago. Having said that, words to describe the appearance of this piece remain illusive.

For starters, I can say that while I was painting, I was completely unaware of anything other than what I was doing - there was no time passing, no studio, no me in the usual sense, just some essential part of myself responding to the invisible mystery with color and form. And oh! The energy with which I was responding! The feeling in my body was explosive, dynamic - like a field of wild flowers all blooming at the same time in ultra-fast motion! It was me experiencing the high energy vitality of being alive in a direct way - not as a concept but as an actual phenomenon - for the first time I understood in a visceral way the dynamic energy I have available to me.

Today I am very aware of where my energy is in most things I do. It is my most useful guide when I have to make choices. I pay special attention to situations when I have no energy at all because I really want to avoid those situations! This is perhaps the most dramatic story I have that relates to your question, but there are a million more. While process painting, I've had memories of things I had no idea I'd ever experienced, I've seen where I haven't been willing to take risks, where I've been overly concerned with what people would think about me, where I've been too hard on myself.

From all these experiences, I've seen that I wanted to expand my capacity for joy & that it is possible for me to feel deeply, profoundly happy in ways I never imagined.

HB Your art looks deliciously like finger paint gone mad! Do you ever feel that your art should 'grow up'?

NR Wow! This is actually a very complicated question for me. I have tremendous respect for the ways my paintings come out of me without my judging them and trying to make them more "grown up" than they want to be. My prime interest is in listening to the inner voice whose highest priority is expressing itself in the present moment. This impulse is not concerned with how a painting looks, only with the doing of it. I completely trust that in the pure act of painting in the moment, and that I will be carried to where ever I truly need to go, whether that place be one of joy or of sorrow, childlike wonder or adult responsibility. So in the framework of process art, the issue of my art 'growing up' is irrelevant.

The whole philosophy behind Brush Fire Painting Workshops is that it does not matter what form evolves. That is the base law that I teach from. Having said that, I can acknowledge that painting in this way has given me freer access to my creative impulse, which can now flourish in a way it didn't used to. So now I do art in addition to process painting and can still feel creative when, in the past, technical art instruction only shut off my creativity. Now, for example, I'm working on a series of mixed media / found object collages. These take a fair amount of planning (although even this planning is quite intuitive!)& a lot of the materials I use require technical proficiency.

Perhaps these pieces would strike you as being more sophisticated. I don't know. Ultimately, I guess I am not interested in making art that's anything other than what it is. Whether it's too childish or not grown up enough is neither here nor there. I'm interested in following the creative impulse where ever it leads.

HB. I made a pilgrimage to Delphi and plunged into the waters of Castalia because they are purported to induce creativity. I bottled some Castalian water and bought it home as an insurance against the creative force deserting me. Then I discovered that the creative spirit never evaporates. It may ebb and wane but it is always present. Talk to us about the ebb and flow and tell us how you respond when the creative force feels like it is having a bad hair day.

NR. Another winning questions from Heather! Let's see. When I get stuck, as it were, when there doesn't seem to be any inspiration or my work is flat and emotionless, there is really always one question I ask first: Am I responding from my authentic impulse in that very moment? If I'm not inspired, the answer is usually no! I'm either trying to work on an old idea whose time has passed, trying to imitate someone else's work, or trying to manipulate the out come in some way. For me this usually means I'm trying to be precise when being completely out of control is what's called for.

Sometimes the creative energy gets blocked if I'm too conceptual, too in my head rather than in my body. If there's the slightest inkling that I'm getting in my own way, I'll give myself permission to do a piece that "doesn't count". I let myself try anything and everything that comes to mind without thinking of how it will turn out. This permission really gets me out of the way & lets that creative juice come to the forefront. So, in this way, I don't have to feel inspired to sit down and paint ~ as long as I can get my sense of self ( and that self with a small's) out of the way, the flow takes over.

Of course, those times when it is effortless ~ those rare moments when I'm already plugged into the creative source, and I have the time, and I have all the materials a piece is calling for. Those times are magical and I wouldn't trade them for anything! I'm grateful that I don't have to wait for the rare moment when the planets to align in just that particular way before I make art, though, or I'd almost never have the opportunity to make stuff!

HB: The voices of writers past and present echo within the corridors of my writing. Tell us about some of the people who have left the largest footprint in the sands of your art. Whose brush strokes should we watch for?

NR Two artists that come to mind are Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'keefe. Not that I think my work looks like theirs ~ I don't. But they were both trying to capture a very personal, very specific way of seeing themselves in the world that is ~ I don't know quite how to say it.

Let me try this story: I was just at the Museum of Modern Art a few weeks ago. They have one of Georgia's paintings that I'd never seen before and as I stood in front of it, I could feel her presence as if she was in the act of painting on that particular canvas at the same time I was looking at it. I know this sounds like a drug-induced experience, but it wasn't. All I know is that she was so present in the art that I could feel here there with me. I feel the same way with Frida, and not just because most of her work is self-portrait. She includes details in her paintings that bring the essence of who she was right to me as I look at her paintings. It sounds rather lofty to compare my work to these amazing artists but I do hope that my essential self is visible in my creations.

Writers are actually a big influence on my paintings - I am a sponge for the poems of Walt Whitman (read Song of Myself!), Mary Oliver, Diane di Prima, and Rumi. I love the magical realism of Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende & I love fairy tales of all sorts ~ at the moment I'm reading a wonderful version of a folk tale from Bali called The Painted Alphabet. I've internalized all of this and so much more & it all serves as compost in the creative greenhouse!

HB. Mentally design the doorway that leads to the kingdom of your imagination. Tell us about it and what the world beyond looks like.

NR As soon as I closed my eyes after reading this question, the scene presented itself. There are 2 doorways and both of them lead to the same place, although the places themselves look very different.

The first door is about 12 feet tall. It's a mirror in a heavy gold frame with a huge golden doorknob at about shoulder height. The reflection in the mirror-door is unmistakably mine, yet my transformation is already beginning. Once I look and see myself with the eyes & mane of a lion. I look again and see myself with beautiful white bird wings sprouting out of my back. I look once more andI am greeted by an elephant's trunk where my nose used to be.

With this trunk I reach up to the doorknob and when I touch it, the mirror springs open to reveal a beautiful field of lavender that stretches as far as I can see. There is just a slight breeze - enough to bring the spicy sweet fragrance to my nose, which is a human nose again, and create the whispery talk among the stalks of lavender itself.The golden pink light of sunset gives the air its magical texture and I have the feeling as I enter that among the underending lavender enchantment is waiting for me.

The second door is old, unpainted wood that has been stripped of all color, since it's been out in the elements for eternity. It is cracked & smells as if rot is beginning to take over and the knob is cold to the touch.

The whole thing is much smaller than the first door - I am 5'1" and I have to duck my head to pass through the weather-warn doorframe. I must stay crouched as I enter the chamber on the other side of the door, which is nothing more than a narrow hallway with earthen walls. As I proceed down the dark chute, I feel spider web stick to my face and smell the damp rotting odor I first detected at the doorway. Just ahead of me, I head the scrabbling of small rodents.

This is not necessarily a place I want to be, but I know intuitively that turning back is impossible, so I forge ahead tentatively, internally braced for what unknown thing might come at me in the darkness.

Shortly, I hear rushing water, which I realize, approaches and recedes in the rhythm of the ocean. Faintly in the distance I see a speck of light. I quicken my steps until I am standing at the mouth of the tunnel, on a cliff overlooking the turbulent ocean. The well-worn path to my right is evidence that I am not the first person to travel through the narrow hallway and the apprehension I've felt since entering the door gives way to a curiosity about the place. I take off on the path high above the rocky beach, open to what ever I may find.

HB Which of the archetypes that live in the private world of Naomi Rifkin is the driving force behind Brush Fire Painting? Tell us about the archetype that propels this work and share a special moment with that archetype.

NR. I think the archetype behind Brush Fire must be the Trickster - the shape shifter, the one who challenges what you think is true with play. She's the court jester, able to say the truth that no one else can get away with saying because she does it in a playful way. However, just because she is playful it does't mean she's not doing completely meaningful work, either! I think we lose sight of that as adults in our culture.

I had moment with this glorious shape shifter in the last workshop I taught. As background, I keep my materials very simple - paper rather than canvas, tempera paints, rather than oil - so people don't get the sense that what they are doing is too dear to take chances with. Even with this, a woman in my last workshop was bent on making her statement. She was doing a Very Important Painting, depicting her struggle to separate from her family. She told me all about it before she even started painting - Mom goes here, Dad stands in front of mom, & she, the painter, takes up the smallest space in the right bottom corner. There was no room for surprises because she had the whole thing figured out. She told me she would start with he mother's black hair.

The greatest thing was when she went to the paint table, she dipped her brush into the green paint. She didn't't even notice until she got back to her paper and put the brush to the page - she was horrified! She wanted to start over. She wanted the painting to turn out the way she planned. But then we talked about the Trickster's ability to make us think about what we want in a completely new way. She decided she could be open to the Trickster's message and continued painting her mother's hair green.

In the end, the painting didn't look at all like what she planned, but she was so engaged with the doing of the painting, she wound up loving the experience! Times like these, when we surrender to the Trickster, are really powerful because we are naturally lead to something way more magical and ultimately more healing than anything we could imagine on our own!