Thursday, September 30, 2010

Notes from a Ridiculous Retreat

Rickey Hoefnagel
as told to
Richard Buntin

The September 18th Fusionart retreat led by Rassouli at the Mayfair Hotel in downtown Los Angeles featured some remarkable guests and intriguing developments. New seeds are being planted, and older seeds are beginning to take root and spread out. Fusionart is about much more than painting. Fusionart is the process of bringing creativity to all aspects of living. It spans all art forms. Rassouli is continually looking for ways to transcend perceived limitations and broaden the scope of Fusionart by creating synergy with other forms of artistic expression, as we saw again last Saturday.

We arrived early to setup. The floor was already covered with plastic and the table near the registration desk was heaped with love offerings in the form of delicious goodies, thanks to our Fusionart angels – Kelly, Barbara, Nikki, and June. We greeted our fellow Fusionartists warmly as they arrived. We have built such a strong bond over the months and years by coming together and experiencing the joy of creating individually and as a group. Painting is a tool that we use to express what is inside us that wants to come out. In the end, however, not only do we develop as artists, we also learn together how to tap into the infinite pool of creative energy. The more we share the energy the more it expands. Each participant can both give and receive creative energy which benefits everyone.

The two dozen or so of us sat in a circle as Rassouli opened the retreat. He began talking about how we need to be aware of all the opportunities to bring more creativity into the world and share it with others. He introduced the word which would be the theme of the retreat: ridiculous. Overcoming the fear of being seen as ridiculous is essential for an artist. History is filled with examples of ideas and art works which were initially seen as ridiculous and are now regarded as brilliant. Instead of immediately rejecting the ridiculous, we should pay attention to our reaction.

As a specific recent example, Rassouli told us about an email he had received from Cathy Lee, which she wrote after attending the retreat last month. In it she discussed her concept of a contemporary cafĂ© for creative endeavors (, which would be online but also include the capability for meetings at physical locations. It would provide a broad network for a wide variety of creative people to interact with each other, as well as a forum to present and discuss their work. Rassouli’s first impulse was to dismiss the idea as ridiculous, but he quickly realized that his judgment was preventing him from seeing the positive potential. Cathy Lee then explained to us how this vision had suddenly come to her, and how the power and clarity of this vision had energized her to take action. She has found others who share her excitement, including financial backers, and now this “ridiculous” idea is moving forward rapidly.

Rassouli then introduced his artist friend, Jesh de Rox. Jesh spoke simply and beautifully from his heart about some of the insights that have guided him in his successful career as a photographer and in his life as a whole. He began by observing that “mine” is the favorite word of very small children – and most adults as well. Tragedy is the great remover, which forcibly reminds us through our suffering that we must let go. There is a much less painful alternative, which is to let go of attachment consciously and voluntarily. When we let go, we realize how much energy it takes to resist. Holding on chokes off the flow of life. From Jesh’s perspective, what we call greatness is actually the efficient use of energy.

As artists, we must learn to let go in order to create space within. We are most full when we are most empty because we make room for the continual flow of inspiration. Jesh offered us a marvelous metaphor: Be the scent not the hound. Rather than being a hound constantly running after a scent, be the scent that attracts the hound. Be what you seek. By flowing freely like a scent in the wind, your capacity to attract is infinite. Avoid unnecessary steps; only go where you need to go. Remove distance. What you are seeking is within you. Knowing who you are is being in the flow of life. Great art is about remembering who we are.

Rassouli then gave us our assignment for the day: to eliminate “what “and “how.” In other words, let go of the need to know what to do and how to do it. Instead, focus on allowing whatever comes forth from the creative, empty space within to express itself freely. Don’t think about what to sing or how to sing it, just let the song come out. Allow the excitement of exploration move you. Be ridiculous.

Saturated with ideas, images and energy, we returned to the painting area to begin. The creative experience is different for everyone. For me there is a feeling of joy, peacefulness and complete relaxation. As I become more and more absorbed in the process, it seems at times like a conversation with the canvas without words. My muse is speaking through my brush or rag then. At other times I feel like I am dancing with the colors. Each painting is a new journey where anything is possible. The freedom is intoxicating and it feels ridiculously good.

As we shared lunch together at a long table, Rob applied his creativity in the culinary area. The hotel dining room ran out of vegetarian lunches, leaving Rob and several other vegetarians without an acceptable meal. When the waitress insisted that only meat dishes were available, Rob visited the kitchen himself. He immediately began taking whatever suitable ingredients he could find out of the refrigerator and supervised the chef in preparing a meal. He emerged a short time later carrying plates piled high with a pasta primavera, which was far more appealing and delicious than the unimaginative veggie burger provided by the hotel.

The retreat continued with the second painting session after lunch. I was able to complete my first painting and begin a second painting, which I finished later at home. As frequently happens, I looked at my paintings and wondered who had painted them. When we gathered for the discussion of our work in the late afternoon, I was amazed again by the incredible array of color, feeling and imagination on the canvasses. The “first timers” got things started, and their beautiful expressions were clear evidence that everyone has creative ability.

We were fortunate to have Mamak Khadem join us for the retreat. Mamak is an internationally recognized singer whose vocal art is rooted in the music and poetry of ancient Persian masters. Rassouli asked Mamak to express with her voice the feeling of each of the 3 paintings placed on easels in front of the group. Her voice carried such passion and beauty as she sang spontaneously that I knew the sounds were coming from the depths of her soul. Tears welled in my eyes at the purity of her brief impromptu performance. The discussion continued as we each took our turn and received comments on our work from the other participants and Rassouli. Representing the written word, Richard read a poem he had written that day titled “What Is Ridiculous.” When at last we had to depart, inspired and fulfilled, we floated home high above the freeway on a ridiculous cloud of creative energy.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Muse and I

I looked forward with great anticipation to the Fusionart One Day Painting Retreat led by Rassouli at the Mayfair Hotel August 14th. We arrived early at the Mayfair, where Richard and I were warmly greeted by Carole Burdick, the coordinator, and Rassouli. The workshop had taken over 3 rooms because a number of special guests were attending. They are working on a sequel to “The Secret” called “Tapping the Source.” This project aims to go beyond the philosophy of “The Secret” and focus on individuals who embody the principles of The Secret in their lives. They have interviewed Rassouli as an example of such a person, and Rassouli in turn invited them to come to the retreat and experience Fusionart for themselves. The special guests, some of whom are well known in the film industry, joined in enthusiastically even though many had never painted before in their lives.

I found a comfortable space near the door of one of the rooms and got set up, leaving part of the table for Richard to write. The workshop began shortly after 10am. With our chairs arranged in a circle, Rassouli began talking to us about the importance of bringing creativity to all aspects of our lives, and specifically the role of the Muse. The Muse within each of us is our connection to “the source,” God, or whatever name or title you attribute to the ultimate power and creative principle in the universe. Rassouli also refers to the Muse as “the friend,” that inner voice which is there to guide us on the path to the realization of our full, divine potential. We are successful when we listen and obey. To follow the Muse requires an act of faith, a total commitment. We also have a rational mind which has a limited perspective and is designed to help us navigate our physical existence. The rational mind cannot create, however it does act as “the editor” in refining creative work. It is essential that the creative process take form under the guidance of the Muse without interference from the editor. Our assignment for the morning was to be playful with the canvas, follow our Muse, and allow form to arise naturally without input from the editor. By this time, I was fully basted with creative energy and could not wait to start painting.

As we began painting, the magnificent music of Kitaro inspired me and I was filled with the joy of doing what I love. Painting with a wet cloth, I surrendered to my Muse as my hand moved across the canvas with sweeping stokes of purple and yellow. The feeling was one of grandeur and the painting below, “Illumination,” is the result.

We sat together at a single long table and got to know each other better over lunch. The participants came from all walks of life – filmmakers, writers, attorneys, photographers coming together to discover their unique creativity. When we returned to our easels, I began a second painting. I could my Muse guiding me as I was filled with a feeling of light pouring down abundantly with great love on humanity. We only need to open ourselves to it. I titled this painting, “Influx of Light.”

The workshop concluded with the display and comments on the work done, an amazing outpouring of color and feeling on canvas in a few short hours. I so enjoy being part of this loving community and sharing in the transforming creative energy we experience together. This is what the world needs.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Impressions of a Fusionart/Rachana Retreat

I felt like a little girl who finally gets to go to the playground. The weekend I had been awaiting eagerly for months had finally arrived. I felt so excited because I knew somehow that it would be an amazing weekend of painting, dancing, talking and laughing. Early on Friday afternoon I arrived at Pali Mountain Retreat and Conference Center, nestled high in the heart of the San Bernardino Mountains on the Rim of the World highway between Lake Arrowhead and Running Springs. The endless natural beauty of the mountains and forest provided an atmosphere of serenity and wonder, which was the ideal setting for this journey into our individual and collective creativity.

The weather was chilly and the sky alternated between cloudy and sunny, which made us appreciate even more the glorious sunshine which graced the rest of our weekend. I was the first to arrive except for Carole and John Burdick, who put in long hours lovingly coordinating all the logistics of the retreat. John and I were the first to set up our easels and begin to paint. The large wooden conference room where we would be painting was light and spacious with adjoining decks outdoors overlooking the forest. Fully taped with plastic to protect the carpet, this would be our sacred play area for the weekend. Since the spot where I had chosen to paint was near the door, John encouraged me to add some colorful strokes to my black canvas so everyone could see that this was a Fusionart retreat. My energy was already flying; perhaps that is why my strokes resembled a bright-feathered bird. Throughout the afternoon fellow artists arrived, settling into their rooms and then arranging their painting areas.

Rassouli soon came through the door, beaming with happiness, accompanied by his delightful wife Gitty. What a joy it was to be with them in person again. It is always such fun. One of his recordings of beautiful improvised music, which would accompany all of our painting sessions, was soon reverberating throughout the room, raising the energy and baptizing the space with its spirit of free expression. As we began painting together, we started to get to know each other. I hadn’t met almost half of the participants before. Participants came from as far away as New Mexico. Our group of two dozen included all levels of development. There were accomplished artists with many years of experience. There were also those who were strongly drawn to be there, even though they had never painted before.

We shared all of our meals together at a single table in the dining hall, formed by combining smaller tables. As we sat down to dinner, there was a feeling of eagerness for the adventure to come. I realized that I was far from the only one who had been looking forward to this weekend. That evening we celebrated the 80th birthday of my dear friend Felix de Quesada, a very talented and seemingly tireless painter and poet. The whole dining room joined us in singing “Happy Birthday. “

Over dinner Rassouli began explaining the theme and purpose of the retreat. As I understood it, the painting sessions would focus on exploring the moods of the heart using various approaches. We were each to develop our own inner heart connection, and then allow the heart to express itself through our arm, our hand, and our brush as it placed color on the canvas. This can only be done when we are fully involved in the present. Letting go of the judgments, expectations and emotional baggage of the past is necessary in order to free ourselves to create from our inner truth. When we overcome resistance and our hearts are open, we receive all the help we require. We are free to love, and creativity springs from love. Loving ourselves for who we are, loving each other, and loving what we are doing. When our hearts open in this way, we feel an explosion of energy and joy. Creating from authentic experience heals us and we become whole again. This applies collectively as well as individually. The open heart is a fertile field, capable of the love which is necessary to heal and unite the planet.

After dinner we gathered in chairs around a roaring fire pit near the dining hall, prepared for us by the attentive Retreat Center staff. We drank in the breathtaking beauty of the sunset over the mountains, with the lights of Lake Arrowhead village twinkling in the distance. I felt very close to Nature in all its magnificence and mystery. The discussion, led by Rassouli continued with a natural ebb and flow from profound to mundane, seasoned with Sufi humor and wisdom. The fire’s warm flames and the soft Persian music in the background conspired with the stillness of the forest to cast a spell over us, loosening any tight knots or burdens our psyches had been holding. We sensed that this was a safe space to be playful and vulnerable, and to speak from our hearts without fear of judgment. The energy of the group became light and soft. The alchemy had begun.

The mountain air was cold as we walked in the dark back to our painting studio from the fire pit. It didn’t matter because we were glowing. With residual resistance removed, our energy was free to expand. Rassouli put on some music and encouraged us to dance as we painted. The room was filled with happiness. Everyone was drunk without a drop of alcohol. Some of us were doing the Sufi turn, and I could feel the energy spiraling through the ceiling, and the roof about to come off. I kept on playing with the “bird of paradise” on my canvas. The creative partying lasted until midnight, but some of us turned in earlier so we would be ready for Saturday. I realized again how wonderful this energy is. It was so natural and effortless, even with people I had never met before. I wondered why we don’t experience it more often, and why some people never feel it all. I chose “Soul Flight” as the name for this painting (see below).

That night I slept soundly with my window open to take in the fresh mountain air. I was awakened by the sound of birds and hikers returning from their morning walk. After breakfast we gathered on the outdoor deck of the conference room where Rassouli gave us a practical demonstration of letting go of the past in order to create something new in the present. Amber, a fellow artist, offered to let go of one of her paintings for the demonstration. With masterful brushstrokes, Rassouli transformed her painting into a new one, both in mood and appearance. He also made the point before our eyes that we are not to become attached to any particular a painting, because we always have the power within us to create a better one. Our deep desire is to be in love with creativity itself rather than any particular work.

I felt inspired by the demonstration, and I couldn’t wait to get to my easel. In my eagerness to begin, I accidentally tipped over my jar of red paint, spilling it over part of my canvas and onto the floor. I immediately saved as much of the jar as I could, then surveyed the situation in dismay. It looked like a crime scene where a bloody murder had taken place. This was definitely the death of any expectations I had about what I would paint. Fortunately the universe had a better plan. Since I refused to let the canvas go to waste, the only question was how to resurrect it. The “accident” actually increased my concentration as I was determined to meet the challenge. I began by adding yellow to soften the red into orange, then played with the color until a figure gradually began to emerge. I asked Rassouli for help with the profile, which he gladly gave.

There was a magical synergy in the studio. I felt that the creative energy of the other artists was feeding me as I was feeding them. The more we shared, the greater the energy became. This is a tremendous benefit of painting in groups. In addition to circulating and helping all of us, Rassouli added even more to the energy of the group by painting along with us himself. My focus did not waver for the rest of the day even while I was dancing. I maintained my inner connection with the painting until it was finished at the end of the afternoon. Spilling the red paint was actually a great blessing. Rather than bemoaning the accident, I decided to “go with the flow” literally and in the end a wonderful painting emerged. This is what happens when we let go of resistance to the present moment. I titled this painting “Tara,” the Hindu goddess of peace and protection (see below).

After dinner we returned to the fire pit. While seated in our chairs, we were led in gentle, relaxing yoga movement by Felicia Tomasko, editor of LA Yoga magazine. We also used pressure points on the body to release each other’s tight, knotted muscles. The retreat, described as a Rachana Retreat, was a combined venture of Fusionart International and LA Yoga. Yoga includes many different paths to liberation. Rachana Yoga is the yoga of creativity. Fusionart, in the broad sense, would be considered a form of Rachana Yoga. After centering our bodies with Yoga, we went into silent meditation as we listened to music which transported me upward as it echoed gently through the mountains. Although the day had been long and I had felt a satisfied tiredness at dinner, the yoga and meditation completely recharged my battery and I was ready to return to painting for our final session of the day. As we began painting again, the music and dancing continued. The energy in the studio became simultaneously more playful and powerful than ever. Everyone was riding on it. There was such a feeling of unity in the studio. I began covering my third canvas with bright yellows, blues and greens to express the elation I was feeling. By 10:30 I was ready for bed. When my head hit the pillow, I quickly fell into a sound sleep.

Having lived in this timeless dimension for the past two days, it came as a bit of a shock Sunday morning that the final day of the retreat was already here. However, I was cheered by a surprise visit by my husband, Richard, who joined us for breakfast. After breakfast we gathered in the studio for a guided meditation on the rainbow led by Gitty Rassouli. With my eyes closed, I listened to Gitty‘s melodious voice describing each color. As they floated before me - sometimes as clouds and sometimes as transparent fabric – I saw them melting together into pathways and bridges to infinity. We used the meditation experience as inspiration for our creative expression that morning. I continued to play with the painting I had begun the previous evening incorporating the meditation feeling. The atmosphere was still and peaceful in the studio. We were focused within, savoring every moment of our last painting session before the evaluation session which would conclude of the retreat. My third painting (below) is Pathways.

The chairs were arranged in a semi-circle with 4 easels placed in front of the group. We each presented our work with the paintings arranged in the order in which they had been painted. Each artist spoke of his or her work first, encouraged to discuss the feeling that motivated each painting. Then the group offered the artist their reactions to the work, particularly how it affected them. Finally Rassouli added his comments. The overall experience was very positive and supportive. What stood out for me was the growth in emotional freedom I saw in the final painting compared to the initial piece. As much as we had bonded as a group, we had each taken our own unique inner journey as well. Many of us had artistic breakthroughs. Some had personal breakthroughs as well, which were reflected in their painting and gave new perspective to their lives. The quality, particularly the use of rhythm in the work, was remarkably high even from those who had never painted before. There were some truly amazing works. Finally, we embraced and said our fond farewells to each other and the mountains, with gratitude deep in our hearts for all we had experienced and learned together over the past three days.

Ultimately a Fusionart retreat is about much more than painting. It gives us a practical experience of the power of the heart and love to transform individuals and groups. It focuses our attention on what is most essential and valuable to us as human beings. It demonstrates our creative power to go beyond our self-imposed limitations and to discover that we are more than we ever thought or imagined. It teaches us that our lives can be beautiful and joyous.

Eisenhower Medical Center Exhibit

2009 ended on a high note with the solo exhibit at the Lucy Curci Cancer Center in the Eisenhower Medical Center in nearby Rancho Mirage. I was honored to be selected for the Inaugural Exhibit of the Eisenhower Arts in Healthcare Program. We had been in contact with Jeannette De Bonne, Art Director at EMC, for some time and our preparations came to fruition on November 12th with the opening of the exhibit. Jeannette had to overcome scepticism from some of her colleagues, however the scepticism turned to enthusiasm once the sceptics actually saw the exhibit. The place chosen for the exhibit was a long wall of ribbed concrete just off the main lobby, which provided the perfect backdrop for the bright colors of the 7 works hung with transparent wire from the ceiling.

EMC hosted a lovely reception on Friday, December 11th from 5:30-7:30pm. The event was publicized in The Desert Sun and well attended. Jeannette is an accomplished artist herself, and her harp music was the perfect live entertainment for the occasion. I admired her determination that the exhibit would take place, and it has been a joy to get to know another kindred spirit. The exhibit was very well received, and was extended until the end of January. Below are pictures of me at the reception with Jeannette and also my husband Richard.

I returned to the Lucy Curci Cancer Center again in February to be the guest leader of a painting workshop for some of the patients. The participants were accustomed to trying to paint realistic objects in these workshops. As a fusionartist, I told them to forget about realistic objects and simply use the colors to express whatever they were feeling. The class became very excited by this freedom, and we had a wonderful session together.