Creator of Touch Drawing, Deborah Koff-Chapin, A ’74 wanted to find another way to live her life as an artist – one that was more integrated with community and culture In its directness and simplicity. And in doing so she found that Touch Drawing opens a way for people to connect with their innate image-making capacities.
Can you tell us a little about your art career?
I don’t know if I would call it a career as much as a calling. One of the core realizations I had within the first few weeks of Touch Drawing was that I had to find another way to live my life as an artist; a way that was more integrated with community and culture than what I was seeing in the 70’s art world. So I left New York to forge my own path. It has been like working from the inside out. I listen for what wants to emerge and then do what is needed to make it happen. For instance, I haven’t focused on developing relationships with galleries, but my images have been seen all over the world in the form of SoulCards 1&2. I published them independently and have sold over 75,000 copies. I selected the images in SoulCards from my studio work, looking to encompass as broad a range of human feeling as I could find. In a sense SoulCards are simply portfolios of my work produced in an accessible, affordable form. People develop deep relationships with the images and use them in all sorts of ways.
When did you realize that you wanted to teach Touch Drawing?
I knew I had to share the process with others within the first few minutes of experiencing it. Touch Drawing came to me on the last day of my last year at Cooper Union in 1974. So you could say it was the fruit of my four years there. All through that time, I had felt an underlying urge to find a more natural way to create. I feel that this search was at the root of what appeared to be just a spontaneous act. On the last day that the studios were open, I was helping a friend clean up in the print shop. Before wiping the ink off the glass plate, I playfully moved my fingertips on the paper towel. Upon lifting it, I saw the marks that had been transferred to the underside by my touch. The impressions were a natural projection of my being onto paper, a record of my psyche in the moment. The experience caused me to burst into ecstatic laughter. I crawled around the floor looking for more paper towels to do more drawings. But beneath what appeared to be just a childlike act, I sensed something profoundly powerful. I know I am not the first person to ever create a drawing this way. But when I did, something enormous opened within me. It felt as if I was receiving a gift from a level beyond time, a source that seeds human cultural evolution. I had a sense that this mode of image making would meet the needs of a transforming human consciousness in the future. Along with the gift came a responsibility; Somehow, I would have to share this creative process with the world. This is the impulse behind all that I do to make the process available to others. In its directness and simplicity, Touch Drawing opens a way for people to connect with their innate image-making capacities. When I facilitate the process, I am always moved. I witness each person, hands dancing on the paper, gazing into their soul through the mirror of the drawing board. Touch Drawing is a creative practice that catalyzes a heightened state of consciousness. Each series of drawings is a record of a unique interior transformation.
How did you transition into being a speaker, writer and facilitator of workshops?
I knew I had to offer the process to others in those first moments, but I had no idea what that would entail. I did what was needed one step at a time – demonstrating the process, articulating about its qualities, developing a way for others to experience it for themselves, producing educational media, traveling to conferences and educational institutions. As I realized how vast the range of applications was, I began to encourage others to develop its use within their field of expertise: in therapy for in-depth exploration of the psyche, in healthcare for people who are unable to handle tools, for stress relief, as a catalyst for creativity, as an intuitive and spiritual practice. But on another level, no matter what the point of entry, it is always the same. Touch Drawing provides a direct and integrative vehicle for expression of the human soul.
Inner Portrait 4
What inspires you?
If we want to survive as a species, and if we care about life on earth continuing in its richness and diversity, we must access greater resources within our consciousness, and come into fuller relationship with all life. Touch Drawing is the contribution I have to offer towards this end. I am inspired to keep going every time I hold a Touch Drawing workshop. I witness such a transformation in people as they allow their souls to come more fully into being through direct creative expression. In these moments I know all the work to nurture this process and keep it growing is worth the effort.
How did your studies at Cooper Union influence your work?
I went to Cooper in the early 70’s. It was a strange time. The old curriculum had just been dissolved. There was a sense of openness but also formlessness during those years. In the art world, it was the heyday of minimalism, conceptualism and installation art. For me it was like clearing the slate. I let go of images and focused on process. I learned to trust the void. I gained sensibilities that were foundational for the emergence of Touch Drawing. I also learned enough about the art world to realize th
at I felt called to a different path.
Have you taken additional courses after Cooper?
I have not studied art but I have studied with many teachers of consciousness, creativity, ritual and spirituality.
What is your typical work day like?
There is no typical work day. There is more a rhythm of preparing, going out and returning. I can describe the past week to give a sense. Last Wednesday I arrived home from Santa Fe, New Mexico where I had given an evening talk, a daylong workshop and created a couple of Inner Portraits. Upon arriving home I had 2 ½ days to prepare for the next event I was involved with, the 40th Anniversary of Whidbey Institute. I had several different roles at this weekend event. I gave a five-minute ‘Ignite Talk’ (like a short TED Talk) about my work and its roots at the Institute where I have held an annual 6-day retreat since 1997. I did ‘Interpretive Touch Drawing’ during the three major speeches by visionary ecological leaders Joanna Macy, David Spangler and Drew Dellinger. I created musical accompaniment for a Saturday evening Butoh dance, and collaborated in designing and leading a 90-minute closing ceremony. At home on Monday, I photographed all the drawings I had created and sent them to the Institute to be used with follow through materials. By the way, in the 2 1/2 days between my New Mexico trip and the 40th anniversary, I did manage to go to the old growth forest near my home and draw for a couple of hours. Now I am catching up, writing this interview, looking into plane tickets for my trip to New York in November, and preparing for two conferences in October where I will draw and do music. One of them is a five-day event called ‘The Dawn of Interspirituality’. It is a gathering of people representing a range of world religions, to explore common elements and ways of interrelating.
What advice would you give to young artists?
Trust your core impulse and let the form of your career and life path emerge from that. There are more possibilities than you can imagine right now.
Have you stayed connected to any friends from Cooper?
Yes, one in particular. If so, who? Gloria Simoneaux and I have had a really special connection over the years. Though we seemed so different during our time at Cooper, both of us have developed lives that incorporate the use art in service. I have such deep respect for her work in the US doing ‘person centered’ art with cancer patients and homeless children; in Kenya with children in inner city slums, at a school for autism and with women in prison. Most recently she has been working in Nepal with women survivors of sexual trafficking. I am in awe of her ability to just make things happen. We are beyond-lifetime friends and are always there for each other, even if we may see each other for a couple of years.
Inner Portrait 11
When creating art for yourself, what is your favorite media?
Touch Drawing, what else? I keep thinking that I should paint, but Touch Drawing is so ‘close to the bone’ that it just has more essential reality for me. I like to put myself into situations where I can draw in dynamic and relational ways. Attending conference to draw is like an intensive creative retreat for me. The inspirational content of respected authors and leaders keeps me on my creative edge, as I translate it into images. I can work all day and never tire. I have drawn for over 450 different presenters over the years, including the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Jane Goodall, the great theologian Father Thomas Berry. The list goes on and on. I am in the early stages of putting together a book with selections from this large body of work. I also love to draw in natural settings such as the beach and forest, and at sacred sites. I have done drawing retreats in Chartres Cathedral in France, in Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland and in the ancient stone circles of Callenais on Scotland’s Outer Hebrides islands. On that same trip, I stayed up late into the night and drew during a gale storm with 95 mile-an-hour winds. That was one of the most exciting drawing sessions I have had! I have also had the honor of drawing in a Zen Monastery in Japan, with the Roshi then doing his calligraphy on the images.
I also love to work with individuals to create ‘Inner Portraits’. Sitting in their presence, I create a series of drawings from an intuitional ‘felt sense’. This is some of the deepest work that I do. It brings subtle dimensions of the soul into visible form.
What would you like people to know about your work?
That there is way more of it than anyone has ever seen. I am currently exploring how I can tap into my archives in a meaningful way.
How did you find your way to Washington, State?
My husband and I moved to Whidbey Island, Washington in 1982, attracted by Whidbey Institute, an educational center dedicated to supporting the development of an integrative eco-spiritual culture. We sensed the potential here to engage with a rich network of friends and colleagues who lived in close proximity to one another. The community continues to develop and grow. Living within a few minutes drive of hundreds of people with unique yet related interests, makes for great conversations in the post office and grocery store!
Do you have any workshops or exhibitions planned for the NYC area?
Yes. I will give a one-day master class at the Expressive Therapies Summit on November 8. I will also teach five afternoons at Wisdom University’s History of Western Civilization intensive November 10-15. The nice thing about that event is that I will also draw during Jim Garrison’s far-reaching morning lectures. And on the final day everyone in the class will draw during his lecture. I return to NY in the spring to give a workshop at the New York Open Center on March 29. My schedule is available at http://touchdrawing.com/schedule/
. Find out more about Touch Drawing and my art at http://www.touchdrawing.com