By Molly J. Anderson-Childers | Updated September 22, 2018
Chris Zydel, MA, founder of Creative Juices Arts and Painting From The Wild Heart has been leading groups her whole life (she is the eldest of eight children) and has been facilitating creativity workshops ever since she was eleven years old when she would organize the neighborhood kids and put on skits, plays and musical events! She has had no formal training as an artist but has led a wildly creative life and has never once regretted choices made by following her heart and her muse.
Chris has a background in counseling, hypnotherapy and bodywork and a current private practice as a creativity coach and an Evolutionary Astrologer. The guiding principle behind Creative Juices Arts is: "Creativity as a Path To Spirit, Joy, Healing and Transformation." She also runs women's groups, teaches weekly intuitive painting classes, facilitates expressive arts retreats in some of the most beautiful places on the planet, is writing a book, creating an expressive arts teacher training program and... takes a nap just about every afternoon! And she is thrilled to have this opportunity to share some of her experiences as a creative professional with us. Read on for an amazing and enlightening discussion of creativity, passion and spirit.
Q: What can you tell us about Wild Heart Painting as a spiritual path? As an artistic process?
A: Since creativity and spirituality come from the same source, if you open the channel to one, you automatically open the channel to the other. So the Painting from the Wild Heart process is about keeping that channel clear, and trying to stay conscious of when we are closing ourselves down to our creativity or our spirituality. As a spiritual practice, the painting process teaches you how to be present and to just be with what is, how to stay in beginner's mind, and how to listen to your intuition more and your judging mind less. It encourages you to let go of always trying to control yourself or your surroundings, and to practice the art of embracing the unknown and surrendering to a greater force. Because the focus of painting in this way is on the process, not the product, it teaches you about the practice of non-attachment to outcome. When you are painting as a spiritual practice, you are opening yourself to the experience of the creative trance which is an invitation into altered states, non-ordinary reality and the invisible world of formlessness that lies behind the world of form.
I experience creativity and spirituality as energy, what some people call the life force, prana or chi. All spiritual practices are about doing your best to stay connected to that endless, flowing river of aliveness. But we are constantly dealing with the human dilemma of being spiritual beings housed in a physical body, and that body is very vulnerable. We are always aware on some level that we live in a world full of many dangers. And so we have our busy, buzzing, fearful mind trying to do its best to protect us. Poor thing! What a difficult job it has! So it frets and worries and schemes and plans and tries to maintain a sense of control at all times. And it is very noisy. It is always talking and always telling you what you should and shouldn't do.
All the great spiritual teachings talk about how we suffer from a case of mistaken identity. Who we think we are is made up of stories. We are constantly talking ourselves into existence. That is why so many spiritual practices and meditation practices try to work with quieting the chattering mind. We forget that we are so much more than this beehive of anxious thoughts. So the purpose of painting as a spiritual practice is to start to pay attention to something other than the mental chatter. Painting is actually a great medium because it is by its very nature non-verbal; it allows us to have a more direct experience of who we really are.
In a certain way, the Wild Heart Painting process is not about painting at all. It's about using the process of painting as a way to learn how to maintain that open channel to your creativity and your deep essential self. The truth of it is that you are creating your life every day. But you need to ask yourself the question "Am I creating my life from the place of the fearful, judging mind or am I creating my life from my joyful, essential self?" This process is about learning how to live your life as a work of art. It's discovering what it means to create your own life and to let your creative wisdom guide you. We are all creative and we have access to that energy ALL THE TIME. It is the most natural thing in the world. Our creativity is just another form of the universal love that is constantly flowing through the universe. Like spirit, our creativity and intuition are always available to us. Out of fear we turn away from it, shut down, stop believing in it, forget how to access it, and stop trusting it. But as soon as we turn back towards it, as soon as we are ready to open back up to it, it is right there, as full and vibrant and clear as it always was. Painting from the Wild Heart is a process that allows you to open your heart again and again to your own creative juice which includes your sense of purpose, your uniqueness and your authenticity.
Q: What makes your workshops and retreats unique? Tell us about the scheduling and cost of the retreats.
A: What makes my retreats unique is that I draw on all of my experience and background as a bodyworker, psychotherapist, group leader, astrologer, expressive arts facilitator and artist when I am designing and running my workshops and retreats. Also, Painting from the Wild Heart is a deep creative process that invites people to open into places in their soul and psyche that need healing. And even though there are times when this process can evoke some very intense and difficult feelings, there is always a wonderful sense of fun, playfulness and lots of laughter at my retreats. A friend of mine says that attending one of my workshops is like "joyfully surfboarding through the underworld." And that, I think, is unique.
I have a pretty active retreat schedule in any given year and have what I call "non-residential" retreats here at my painting studio in the San Francisco Bay area in the city of Oakland, CA. These are weekend workshops that begin on Friday evening at 6 PM and end on Sunday evening at 5 PM. I call them non-residential because I don't have much in the way of sleeping accommodations available at the studio itself. The majority of people who attend these workshops are locals, but I am getting more and more people from out of town.
My studio is in a beautiful urban area, right across the street from Lake Merritt, the oldest bird sanctuary in the US, and there are lots of places to stay that are within a mile or two of my place. And if you don't mind less than luxury accommodations, (i.e. a futon on the floor) I can always put a couple people up at the studio for a nominal fee.
I like to hold my residential retreats in beautiful and inspirational natural environments that are off the beaten path and have a strong spiritual energy about them. These retreats are generally a week long beginning on Saturday evening and ending the following Saturday morning.
Previous retreats have been at The Burren Holistic Centre in County Clare, Ireland, which is located on the west coast of Ireland, northwest of the Shannon River, in the starkly beautiful, windswept Burren National Park. The energy of Ireland is so deeply creative. At one time it was the spiritual center of the world, and it still carries that mystical sense of mystery and magic.
Every September I have held a week long retreat at the Ghost Ranch Conference center in Abiquiu, New Mexico which is about 60 miles Northeast of Santa Fe. Ghost Ranch is located on 23,000 acres of the most incredible, jaw dropping, red rock desert imaginable. Abiquiu is the town that Georgia O'Keeffe lived and painted in the last 20 or so years of her life and there is a reason that she chose it. The whole area is a non-stop exercise in beauty and the sense of the sacredness of that land is palpable. You walk out of your Casita in the morning and are surrounded on all sides with gorgeous, endless vistas and wild, otherworldly landscapes. Whenever I am there I am in a constant state of wonder and gratitude. I experience Ghost Ranch itself as a prayer. And the energy of the place is intense. Being there is like putting spiritual rocket fuel in the engine of your creative process.
Q: What type of legwork goes into organizing and planning these fantastic retreats?
A: Organizing one of these workshops is quite a task. First you need to find a retreat center where you can create a painting studio. That means that it needs to be at least 600 square feet, have a sink and a non-carpeted floor and good natural light. It also helps to have the enthusiasm and support of the people who run the retreat centers. Painting is by its nature messy, and you can do certain things to protect walls and floors, but retreat managers need to be willing to be somewhat forgiving of things like paint spills! You'll need to purchase a wide variety of supplies which include paints, high quality paper, brushes, smocks, palettes, push pins, rubber bands, paper towels, tape, etc.
You will need to create upright easels for your students. I build mine out of large sheets of double ply cardboard. I create a few freestanding tripod easels out of cardboard and duct tape and a few easels that can be propped up against the surrounding walls. There will always be existing lighting in whatever room you are using, but it is never enough. I supplement the lights with cheap clip-on lights that can be found at any hardware store. You will also need a number of extension cords and surge protectors where you attach the lights.
Then there is the question of how do you get the supplies to the retreat site? Sometimes Ii ship things like paint and I will often buy certain supplies when I get there. Brushes are very expensive, so I always bring all of my brushes with me to each retreat and then take them home with me again. I tend to use the same retreat centers over and over again partly because I like to have established relationships with my site managers, but also because I can often store certain things like paint, cardboard, lights and paper on or near the site so that I only have to transport things once. Once you get all the logistical details worked out you need to market the workshops, but that is a whole other discussion!
Q: In looking at your website, I noticed that you are open to a work exchange program, or bartering. Can you talk a little about that piece of it? What does a work-exchange entail? What are some of the things people have offered to barter in exchange for tuition at your retreats and classes?
A: These workshops and retreats actually involve a great deal of physical work to set up because most retreat centers don't have an art and painting studio as part of their accommodations. They usually have large meeting rooms that are used primarily for conferences or lectures and they will often have a room that is set up for yoga or dance. But I have yet to find a retreat center that has an existing painting studio so I have to create one! And I need help with that.
What I offer as a work exchange involves a student taking on the role as my studio assistant (and I generally have more than one person filling that role). That means getting to the retreat early and helping me to build the studio. I usually have between 12 and 14 participants at my retreats so I need to have easels for everyone plus plenty of paint, paper, brushes, palettes and smocks. I also put up lights, so that the studio is extremely well lit. I mix paints, pack up all the supplies and then transport everything to the site. There's a lot of packing, unpacking and arranging that needs to happen.
A studio assistant helps me with all of these tasks. During the week of the actual retreat I also might ask an assistant to mix some paints, repair an easel or run a supply errand. At the end of the retreat, I need people to help me break down, clean up, repack supplies and then store my supplies until next time. It's definitely work, but it is very gratifying to stand in an ordinary room that has been transformed into a bona fide painting studio.
Q: How does your knowledge of astrology effect or impact a coaching session, retreat, or painting class? Are certain astrological signs more inclined towards one medium or mode of expression? Do you look at the charts of people you're planning to work with as you schedule classes and activities?
A: Whenever I work with someone, either individually or in a group setting, I always ask for their birth data so that I can have access to their natal astrology chart. I find the information invaluable in being able to understand my students more deeply and to work with them more effectively, to not only encourage their gifts but also to help them understand any challenges and potential pitfalls represented in their chart.
I practice a type of astrology known as Evolutionary Astrology that has been developed by the well-known husband and wife astrology team, Steven and Jodie Forrest. Your astrology chart is essentially a blueprint of the soul's lesson plan for how to achieve your optimal growth in this life. Your natal chart paints a picture of your inner world that can help you understand your needs, desires and motivations. But it also helps you understand why you are here, and what specific tasks you need to undertake to fulfill your unique destiny, what lessons you're here to learn, and the challenges that you need to embrace that will allow you to live your life with purpose and meaning.
When I am working with a client or a student, those questions about life purpose are uppermost in my mind. Since I work with a lot of creative types, I'm always particularly interested in how their creativity supports their life purpose.
Q: I'm a Pisces-Aquarius cusp baby, with a Scorpio moon sign. I was born in the Chinese year of the Dragon. What can you tell me about my creative work, passions and pitfalls, and my future as a writer and artist? Could you give me a general "capsule forecast" for the next 5-10 years based on that information? I'm trying to tease out the ways that an astrological counseling session can benefit artists and other creative professionals.
A: When I looked at your chart from the Evolutionary Astrology perspective, I asked myself certain questions, like: "What does Molly need to do in order to grow into her full creative potential?" As a Pisces Sun you are a natural mystic, which means that you need to spend plenty of time going into altered states where you are connected to the invisible worlds of soul and spirit. You need regular doses of immersing yourself in the realms of pure energy and consciousness (which can look like formal meditation or it can look like staring out the window at the passing clouds! It can also look like allowing yourself to go into a creative trance state, where you are visiting other dimensions and simply channeling creative ideas without analysis, assessment or judgment. It's practicing being in surrender to your creative muse. Pisces gets in trouble when they don't give themselves enough of this inner world time. When that happens you could find yourself getting lost in fantasy or other types of escapist behavior which serves as a distraction from your true creative work.
Your Pisces sun is in the 6th house which means that your work is a huge part of your identity and you need some form of creative work where you feel like you are of service to the world. Being of service doesn't mean that you are supposed to hide in the shadows. It's difficult for you to shine and take up space around your creativity. With a 6th house Pisces sun and Virgo rising you have a horror of being considered "egocentric." You need to find mentors and role models, people who you admire, who shine brightly with the radiance of their gift, not their ego. You also labor under the illusion that your own creative work is never quite good enough.
Your Scorpio moon means that the mood of your soul is one of deep, passionate psychological intensity. You are drawn to what is hidden, buried and taboo. You are fascinated by emotional complexity, and by issues that pertain to death, rebirth, and spiritual and emotional transformation. You need to spend regular time visiting the underworld of your psyche if you don't go there intentionally, you can find yourself dragged there by irrational feelings and mysterious "bad moods." Your ultimate evolutionary goal is to learn to creatively communicate from the depth of your unconscious and your authentic emotional experience. But you don't always trust your feelings or your intensity. You can be overly cautious when it comes to fully expressing what you know to be true. Your emotions sometimes seem weird or strange to you and you can often feel like an outsider or that you don't fit in because of your emotional perceptions.
Your cosmic job description is to learn to express yourself from your own direct experience. You need to develop the courage to express your own voice, and your own unique perspective on things, but part of what is unique about you is your willingness to creatively communicate about what is painful, scary and disturbing. Express what you think, believe and know even if it seems weird. Your goal is to become willing to speak the truth even at the risk of making people uncomfortable with the power of your perceptions. What you know, what you see, what you express and what you communicate will not always be pretty or pleasing. Take more risks with your depth, with your truth, and with your intensity. Your greatest edge of growth is to communicate from your heart and to use your creative gifts of language and perception to make people feel!
What you know doesn't always come from rational and logical places. What you know sometimes comes in dreams, flashes of intuition or insight and psychic hits. What you know doesn't always make logical, rational sense but you need to develop faith in this alternate way of perception, and practice trust in your unique way of knowing.
Q: Tell us about your women's groups. They sound absolutely wonderful, inspiring, and incredibly sustaining. What were your guiding principles in creating these groups? How do they benefit the women involved?
A: I have two women's groups going right now and they meet weekly for three hours. We spend at least a third of each group session engaged in creative work. Sometimes we paint, sometimes we write, and other times we use bodywork that is geared towards self-expression, like bio-energetics, authentic movement or drama therapy exercises. Just recently, everyone spent a few weeks working on self-portraits using photos of themselves combined with collage materials. The second half of the group we spend in a circle and each person gets time to talk about some aspect of her life where she needs encouragement, insight or celebration. The level of attention and feedback is very compassionate and skillful. There is a high level of commitment in these groups and people tend to remain involved for long periods of time. I have one group that has stayed together as a group for over 9 years!
I created these groups because I wanted a place where women could feel nurtured and supported to be fully themselves. My intention was to create a safe space and a sacred container where women would be both challenged and championed to express all of who they are without fear of judgment or criticism. And it works! All of the women in my groups develop great confidence in their intuition and internal guidance from regularly accessing their own creative source. And the unconditional love that they receive by being part of this creative sisterhood gives them the courage and the inspiration to grow into their full potential and take the necessary steps that allow them to make lasting changes in their lives.
Q: Describe a project in one of your Wild Heart Painting classes that we could do at home, or with friends.
A: One of the exercises that I give my students is something that I call "Trusting the Brush." Often when someone is working on a painting they will get to a place where they have a strong sense that something needs to happen but they don't know exactly what. At this point, I encourage them to identify where on the canvas they are drawn and what color comes to mind. Then I encourage them to pick up the brush, dip it into the chosen color and just start moving it on the paper without knowing what will happen next. In essence, they are practicing trusting the brush to create something. Sometimes they will paint a swath or swirl of color or a distinct shape will emerge like a spiral or square, but I have also seen complex images being spontaneously born out this exercise. Fantastic creatures sometimes materialize without any conscious awareness or plan almost as if the brush has a mind of it's own. So next time you don't know where to go in a painting remember that you only need to know two things what color, and where. The brush will do the rest.
Q: What has been the most challenging aspect of this path you have chosen to walk?
A: We live in a culture that has two diametrically opposed attitudes towards artists, art and creativity, neither of which is very helpful. On the one hand creativity is considered to be frivolous and non-essential. Art is denigrated and artists are not taken seriously. Art programs are the least important programs in any school curriculum and are always the first things to be cut when money gets tight. On the other hand, artists are looked upon as godlike beings. The capacity to be creative is seen as a rare gift that is only bestowed upon special individuals.
What is challenging for me is getting people to understand how destructive to their creativity both of these attitudes are and that neither of them is even close to the truth. It's difficult, however, for people to recognize these beliefs as problematic. They are just so deeply entrenched in our cultural mindset that people accept them unquestioningly. I sometimes feel like I'm pushing boulders uphill as I try to encourage people to have a healthier, more accepting attitude around their creative process.
Q: What is your greatest source of joy?
A: All of the wonderful people who are in my life. My sweet husband (who is absolutely the MOST fabulously creative person that I know) is really at the top of that list, and I am also blessed with an amazing circle of friends and family. But one of my deepest joys is standing in the middle of a painting studio at one of my workshops, surrounded by my courageous students as they pour their wild creative hearts out onto their canvases. It really doesn't get much better than that!
Q: What is your greatest source of inspiration?
A: My greatest source of inspiration is being outdoors immersed in the beauty of the natural world. I live on the Pacific coast, and I do love the ocean, but I feel the closest to spirit when I am out hiking on the east side of the Sierras, the high country of Yosemite, or the red rock splendor of the southwest desert regions.
Q: What do you suggest to those out there who are creatively cast adrift, lost, or just in search of their true passion?
A: A good place to start is to pay attention to what makes you happy. What are you naturally drawn to, what gives you pleasure, what makes your heart sing? However, if you are feeling lost and adrift and disconnected from your true passion it is likely that the inner demons of fear and shame have got you in their grip, effectively obscuring your clear vision of your heart, so you need to approach this question through the back door. What are you forbidden to want? What do you consider completely impossible, what's the thing that you tell yourself you could never do or be? What do you envy in other people? What is it that always seems to be just out of your reach? What scares the bejesus out of you? What are you ashamed of wanting? Pay attention to your daydreams. What do you find your self fantasizing about? Who do you admire? Who do you want to be like when you grow up? What is the thing that you could be or do that would make your family really uncomfortable?
It's also OK to get help. Sometimes a friend, spouse, family member, therapist, coach or a good astrologer can give you valuable insight. This thing that we find so elusive can often be glaringly obvious to those around us, so don't be afraid to ask. And be open to what you hear. If you categorically reject what someone is telling you, if you have a vehement negative reaction to the insight or suggestion, if you find your self groaning and saying things like "Oh, no. Anything but that!", congratulations! You have just hit pay dirt!
And finally, pray. Spend some quiet time asking spirit for guidance and the courage to accept the answers you are given.
Q: What scares you?
A: Trying to organize my files! But seriously... writing my book scares me, developing my teacher training scares me, putting myself out there around my work scares me, doing this interview scares me. Every time I challenge myself to grow creatively I am scared, which means that I am pretty much scared all the time! And I wouldn't have it any other way. Being on that creative edge is what allows me to feel a continual, daily sense of meaning, aliveness and joy and for that, I am eternally grateful.
I love this quote from Georgia O'Keeffe "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."
Q: How does the lunar cycle effect the artist's cycle of creativity?
A: The only thing that I've noticed is that if I have a retreat during a full moon more of my participants are likely to stay up all night painting.
Q: What was your favorite toy when you were seven years old?
A: I'm sorry! Menopause seems to have wiped that slate clean. I have very little memory of those early years, and frankly, of what I did yesterday. My students are always asking me if I ever get tired of dealing with the same issues and blocks that come up for people in their creative process. What I tell them is that I have been blessed with a tremendous reservoir of patience, but it is also true that since I have no memory everything is always a new experience. And being seven? I do remember something to do with kitties.
Q: What is the best advice you ever received?
A: I think the best advice I have ever received can be summed up by this quote from actress Ruth Gordon: "Never give up, and never, under any circumstances, no matter what, ever face the facts." I see people get themselves into trouble around their creativity when they don't realize how much blood, sweat and tears it takes to manifest a creative vision and they give up too soon. All creative endeavors, whether it's writing a song or putting on a Wild Heart Painting workshop, encounter obstacles and difficulties somewhere along the way. At some point the voice of fear will come in and try to tell you that whatever you are trying to accomplish is impossible or not worth it. Don't ever believe it! Your job as the steward of your creative gifts is to hang in there, persevere, and never stop having faith in yourself. Surround yourself with people who love and support you and your gifts unconditionally!!
Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: I tend to worry the most about logistical type things. Did the paint I shipped arrive on time? Will I be able to make the lighting work in a new studio space ? Is the studio going to be big enough? Did my cardboard get trashed in the last huge rainstorm? My husband jokes with me that all my worrying does serve a very useful purpose because nothing that I worry about EVER REALLY HAPPENS! It's sort of an insurance policy. But, seriously, even though I have put together over 50 retreats at this point ( I started running workshops in 1982), I STILL get performance anxiety before every one. I think it's an unavoidable aspect of the creative process. Each retreat I have ever offered has gone fabulously well, and everyone always loves them and I am usually high for weeks afterwards, I am still facing the unknown with every workshop and putting myself on the line creatively and that's always scary. It actually made me feel much better and less like I was totally nuts when I learned that the famous singer Barbara Streisand used to throw up before each of her concert performances!
Q: What is your deepest, sweetest, most ridiculous dream?
A: My impossible dream is having my own expressive arts retreat center. Well, if I just go for broke, what I REALLY want are two expressive arts centers. Right now, my studio in Oakland is located in a charming old Victorian house. In many ways, it's great, but it is a rental so I can't always do exactly what I want with it. I would love to own a loft or studio in Oakland or Berkeley.
I also want to have an actual retreat center devoted to the expressive arts out in the country somewhere, maybe in the Sierras or in the Napa Valley or Sonoma County. I want a place that has a big barn that I can convert into a 1,000 square foot painting studio built to my own specifications, a large room with a great sound system for movement exercises, yoga and dance, and a group room that can comfortably seat 20-30 people. I'd want to have some charming and cozy cottages where people can stay, a main house with a great kitchen... and somebody else to run the day-to-day operations of the place!
Q: What does the future hold for Creative Juices Arts? As you look into the mists of the future, what do you see in store for you in the next 10 years?
A: I am involved in two very large, long-term projects that should keep me and Creative Juices Arts pretty busy for at least the next 5 years! One of the most exciting things that I am doing right now is that I am putting together a Teacher Training Program in the Expressive Arts with a focus on teaching others how to facilitate the Wild Heart Painting process. I am getting a lot of interest, primarily from women who are attracted to the idea of bringing these healing circles of creativity into their own communities and existing work environments. The training begins in July and will be a year-long immersion program where participants will be supported and encouraged to dive into their own creative painting process as well as gaining skills as teachers and as group leaders. I regularly get emails from people from all over the world asking me if I know of anyone who is offering this expressive arts approach in their area. There is a growing hunger for this kind of work and I have a vision that one day expressive, intuitive painting studios will be as common as yoga studios are now. This teacher training is one small step towards making that vision a reality.
The second project I am working on is a book about intuitive painting as a spiritual and creative practice. One challenge that I am constantly dealing with is that many people don't understand what this process is and how it could be helpful to them even if they don't consider themselves to be an artist. I am writing this book with the intention of educating and inspiring folks about how this approach to art and creativity can benefit them as healing tool and support them in living a more fulfilled, satisfying and authentic creative life.
Learn more about Chris Zydel and Creative Juices Arts at www.creativejuicesarts.com.
©2008 Molly J. Anderson-Childers. All rights reserved.
Using counseling and the expressive arts, Chris Zydel, MA, has worked with hundreds of people to help them joyfully grow and expand into their full creative potential. ...