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.