Naomi Rifkin: 2012 AHN Awardee

“Since nothing is off the table during process painting, and the authentic experience is celebrated and held and witnessed, we are able to express our deepest longings, our biggest joys, and our most terrible wounds. We get compassionate witnessing and unconditional support. Since there are no words necessary, we can get to the heart of these emotions, memories, and experiences without having to run them past the mental sensor that can keep us stuck in the familiar, often wounded ways of being.”

– Naomi Rifkin

Arts & Healing Network is delighted to present one of our 2012 AHN Awards to Naomi Rifkin, artist, teacher and founder of Brush Fire Painting Workshops. We are very moved by how skillfully and with such heart, she brings expressive painting to children in Hunter's Point, incarcerated youth, and other underserved communities. We applaud her immense dedication and creative spirit.


To learn more about Naomi’s outstanding work, please visit And click here to watch a video documentary about Brush Fire Painting Workshops produced by the Art of Living.

Below is an interview by Arts & Healing Network Director Mary Daniel Hobson with Naomi Rifkin from June 2012:

Mary Daniel Hobson: When and how did you first encounter the magic of process painting, and how has it helped you in your own journey?


Naomi Rifkin: I found process painting completely by accident. I received a catalog for San Francisco State’s college of extended learning in the mail. I’m a curious person at heart, so I leafed through the class offerings thinking that if something caught my eye, I’d give it a go. I was immediately attracted to an art class that promised an experience of creativity evocative of being in kindergarten and my interest was piqued. My parents actively encouraged me to stifle any creative tendencies, yet my natural self is only whole when I am making things, so an art class that promised that no talent was necessary spoke to my deepest unexplored desires.


I knew that I would be a process painting facilitator about ten minutes into that first painting workshop; that’s just how right it was for me. About an hour after that, I had a series of memories of childhood sexual abuse that I had suppressed until that moment. The thousands of hours I’ve spend painting since then have helped me process PTSD, repressed memories, dissociation, depression and agoraphobia related to that trauma. I never stop being amazed at how much painting has allowed me to regain possession of myself.  If I come to painting without an agenda, it is the most perfect mirror of myself. It always gives me what I need (but not always what I want); it’s the best medicine there is.


Mary Daniel: Tell me how you began to share this technique with others and what inspired the creation of Brush Fire Painting Workshops?


Naomi: In the mid-1990s, I was on the fast track for a glamorous career in the publishing world. My first love was books, and I was busily building a resume working for a variety of book and magazine publishers that no publishing company in New York City could possibly resist. I was well on my way to fulfilling my life-long dream, when I was asked to participate as a mentor for an organization that provides one-on-one playwriting with youth in the juvenile justice system. The pay was pretty good and the project sounded interesting, so I figured I would give it a go.


My first trip to the maximum-security facility for San Francisco’s most violent juvenile offenders was terrifying. As soon as we walked through the metal detectors at the front door I began to hold my breath. We were escorted down a long hall toward the unit, stopping every hundred feet or so for some unseen guard to unlock yet another door, a system designed to discourage escape. Who would be waiting on the other side of that final door? I imagined that whoever he was, he’d be disinterested at best, violent at worst. I’d been a self-defense instructor for a few years and I imagined my response to all manner of harassment by my mentee. I was trying to convince myself that I could handle what ever might happen.


In fact, nothing that I imagined prepared me for my two weeks as Andre’s playwriting mentor. He was genuinely surprised and delighted that we cared enough to show up. As I helped him form his play out of nightly writing exercises, I watched Andre become enthralled by his new found ability to speak the truth he held in his heart through the characters he created.  It was gratifying to arrive every evening to witness Andre write the dialogue he’d imagined the night before while in his cell. I watched him transform into a confident writer, able to give shape to his characters and reflect his experience as a young black man in San Francisco.


Even more compelling, though, was how those two weeks changed me. Prior to this experience, I thought I was able to understand and accept a wide variety of people. Sitting next to Andre for two weeks, I realized that I came to the mentoring experience with a host of preconceived ideas about incarcerated youth – especially youth of color  – as scary, violent, and out of control. I was just not aware of how I had absorbed the cultural norm that sees African-American youth as public enemy number one. Perhaps Andre really was dangerous – I found out that he was transferred to the California Youth Authority, a sentence reserved for youth who commit the most heinous crimes – but engaging with him over creative pursuits reminded me of his humanity. After all, how many people are really born bad? I became aware of how circumstances may have shaped the choices Andre made and how struggling with the challenges inherent in creative expression could help him to make different choices in the future.


Sharing Andre’s creative process was an electric experience – witnessing how creative expression had given both of us a new way of thinking about ourselves woke up a passion in me that I didn’t know I had. By the end of the final performance of Andre’s play, I knew that I wanted to be that witness again, facilitating connections between youth and their creativity. Given my personal experience with painting as medicine, using process painting was a natural choice of medium. So Brush Fire Painting Workshops was born.

Mary Daniel: Is there a story you could share of a participant who was transformed or healed by process painting?


Naomi: I painted for 5 years in a row with students at Malcolm X Academy’s (MXA) afterschool program. MXA is in the heart of Hunter’s Point, surrounded on all sides by a community disproportionately affected by violence, poverty & incarceration. It shocked me to have students as young as five have no connection to their creativity. They were completely in survival mode, and I suspect most of them could have been diagnosed with PTSD. I have so much respect for their pain as well as their resilience.


About three weeks in to my first year of working with MXA, a second grader named Yosh joined the workshop for the first time. She could not remember ever painting before, so I took special care to review the class agreements with her, brainstorm ideas, and give her the container she would need to feel comfortable. Still, she was unable to start. She was immune to my facilitation, finding it impossible to touch the paintbrush to the paper. Finally, after a few minutes of attentive questions from me, she collapsed in heap under her desk in a total and complete melt down. I was relatively new to facilitation at that time, and I had no idea what to do; I had never heard such deep, desperate sobbing before. All I knew was to get under the desk with this inconsolable child and sit there with her until she calmed down. She eventually did calm down and left the room.


I figured she was done with painting after that, so you can imagine how surprised I was to see her the following week. She still was not able to paint, and she still spent time in a melt down under her desk. I spent some time under the desk with her and noticed this melt down was maybe a little less intense than the first one. When she left after the second class, I was so appreciative of her trying to come back. I figured it must have taken a huge amount of courage for her to try again and I made a mental note to myself to check in with her the following week.


You can imagine how surprised I was to see her in my class again the next time I was at the school. This time there were no more tears, no time under the desk. Yosh painted like she had been holding a brush her whole life. Not only did she paint a butterfly over the ocean, but her butterfly’s shadow was visible in the undulating waves at the bottom of her page. She never missed a painting class after that.


I’ve painting with a thousand young people since then, and I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such a rapid shift in anybody. I’d like to think Yosh’s breakthrough was the result of a healing that her psyche desperately craved; perhaps she needed to trust me; perhaps she just needed to know she was seen. I am not sure what shifted for her, but I hope she will have access to that healing for the rest of her life.


Mary Daniel:  Do you believe art making can be a catalyst for healing and positive change and if so, how?


Naomi: I am sure art making can be a catalyst for healing & positive change. Our psyches are amazingly smart. I honestly think that we are seeking the path of our highest good at all times. Being witnessed and honored and supported the way that it possible with process painting allows those healing impulses to direct us to what ever material we need to process for healing to take place. Really, we learn to honor ourselves as painters and as people. Since nothing is off the table during process painting, and the authentic experience is celebrated and held and witnessed, we are able to express our deepest longings, our biggest joys, and our most terrible wounds. We get compassionate witnessing and unconditional support. Since there are no words necessary, we can get to the heart of these emotions, memories, and experiences without having to run them passed the mental sensor that can keep us stuck in the familiar, often wounded ways of being.


Mary Daniel: How has your experience with process painting changed and evolved overtime, having worked with so many diverse groups? What insights have you gained?


Naomi: My understanding is constantly evolving. I am shown something new in every workshop. Most recently, I am growing a deeper appreciation for how our individual traumas occur due to a larger context of racism, sexism, and classism. I also understand that the only way to change these systems is to heal ourselves as individuals. When we know ourselves as the creative, intuitive resilient creatures that we are, we just demand changes in people and systems that do not honor that.

Mary Daniel: What excites you most about your work right now?


Naomi: I am developing a series of painting prompts especially for girls and young women with eating disorders. I am excited to form a partnership with an eating disorder clinic in the SF Bay Area to start piloting this new curriculum.


Mary Daniel: What advice do you have for other artists who would like to use their creativity for healing and transformation?


Naomi: Follow your passion. I really think we are hardwired to heal and to share our healing with others. Talk with everyone you know and everyone they know about what you want to do. Then don’t be scared to try it. I did my first Brush Fire Painting Workshop with a bunch of kids at the local Boys & Girls Club. That blossomed into having our program at 14 schools, community centers, and locked facilities. If you are passionate, create a clear vision and make it real!


Mary Daniel: Is there anything else you would like to share?


I have so much gratitude for the Arts & Healing Network. Thank you so so much for this recognition.


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