How Silence Will Improve Your Creative Practice: Interview with Jessica Kung Dreyfus and Stéphane Dreyfus

Jessica Kung Dreyfus, Machine of the Body, 2010, Ink on paper, 5’ x 5’. Courtesy of the artist. A cosmic diagram depicting both the personal and the universal as tiny figures perform exercises specific to the particular region of the body/universe in which they reside.

“In the incessant hum of contemporary life, silence supports the emergence of the voice of the artist.”-Jessica Kung Dreyfus

This week MD asks artist Jessica Kung Dreyfus and yoga and meditation instructor Stéphane Dreyfus about silent retreats and how it deepens the creative process. Primarily through the medium of drawing, Jessica explores how the Eastern tradition of the energetic body informs our experience of body, building, and urban environments. Through her work, she brings together her training in western art and architecture and eastern philosophy and methodology. Stéphane is a writer, yogi, meditator, sanskrit enthusiast, and teacher. He has recently emerged from a year and a half long silent retreat with his partner, Jessica. Before the long retreat, Stéphane worked in television as an assistant editor. Big thank you to Stéphane and Jessica for sharing all their knowledge with us before beginning their two-week “maintenance” retreat!

How did you first discover silence? 

Stéphane: I discovered silence when I first started meditating. It was elusive for a long time, as the mind makes great efforts to fill up the space of a usually busy 10, 20, 30, 40 minutes with whatever mental noise it can drum up. But during my very first retreat I finally forced myself to deal with that mental turbulence non-stop for five days. Even though the experience was harrowing, it was a breakthrough. Not unlike drinking cool water after being thirsty for hours, the battle for silence had refreshed some part of me.

Jessica: I started meditating, and got very excited by the results. I met two teachers that had recently completed a three year silent retreat and began studies with them and their long-time students. They trained me on how to do short retreats, and then longer retreats.

When are you silent?

Stéphane: Ideally I would spend at least two months a year in consistent silence. Once upon a time I thought more would be ideal, but things have shifted. We also stay silent every morning until after we have done our daily meditation practice, even out of retreat.

Why is silence important?

Stéphane: Very generally speaking I am being silent in order to deepen my meditation practice.

Jessica: It is a process of re-sensitizing oneself to the world and a tool to unmask yourself. We are so busy all the time–we define ourselves constantly by what input we bring in. In the incessant hum of contemporary life, silence supports the emergence of the voice of the artist. It is an extraordinary tool no matter what medium you work in. Silence is not the absence of language, but another language.

Jessica Kung Dreyfus, Potala Palace, 2005, Ink on vellum, 7’ x 9’. Courtesy of the artist. A sequence of postures of the body morphing into the architectural forms of Potala Palace, creating a landscape of memory and pilgrimage.

How do “we define ourselves constantly by what input we bring in”?

Jessica: After a conversation with mom, you think, my mom is pleased with me or my mom is disappointed in me. I should be doing this, or I should be doing that. You are constantly engaged in creating “you” relative to other people and things.

What is the other language that emerges when we are silent?

Jessica: I would call it the language of signs. Facial expressions, changes in breath, motions, gestures–there are endless ways to communicate without English.Stéphane: My experience is that because of the extended silence, Jessica and I were able to communicate a great deal of information with a minimum of sound, gesture, and effort. We paid more attention to each other’s faces, to our postures, and to how we looked around at things. A person’s moods and desires became much easier to guess. Hand gestures refined themselves and carried a great deal of meaning. Whole conversations could be had with simple gestures.

How long have you used silence in relation to your creative practice? 

Jessica: I started formally using silence as part of my art making process around 2006. At first, I didn’t bring my art practice into them [silent retreats]. I kept the two practices separate. Then, I found myself constantly “distracted” by amazing art projects in these retreats. So, then I tried an art retreat, where I applied the same rules of silence, meditation, etc. but brought in the practice and processes of making work.

What is the relationship between silence and creativity? 

Jessica:  Silence recontextualizes the urgency to create. When you are cut off from major sources of sensory input such as other people, devices that connect you to other people, devices that connect you to current events and social media, the sound of your own voice, etc. you are in a zone where you can no longer escape that giant elephant in the room – your own mind. At first you may not know how to interact with this. However, for those with a creative impulse, there is now an urgency to express this self. You disconnect to reconnect to you and all of a sudden you have to create. You have to create yourself. In our year and a half silent retreat, art became an existential necessity for me. With indescribable urgency, I used drawing to help me make sense of my body and mind. I would feel something shift or change, and then the blank page became a place for me to process that. It was a way for me to make visible and make physical something that I could not otherwise record.

Jessica Kung Dreyfus, Sublimation, 2004, Ink on paper, 40” x 77”. Courtesy of the artist. Inspired by five sequences of yoga movements where each figure counts for a single breath.

What does your art practice gain from using silence? 

Jessica: It’s another place to see and another place to be. In a world where it is so easy to get from one side of the globe to another, silence is the most foreign place on the planet. I was thinking about the tradition of en plein air painting. Artists once put themselves in the landscape to paint directly from nature. It gives a certain kind of exhilaration and immediacy. Silence is something like “en plein vide”. You are putting yourself in direct contact with your mind, and painting directly with it. In a society that tends towards nihilism, it’s an actual entry into an empty space with a resulting affirmation.  For me, this departure creates a similar exhilaration and immediacy to being en plein air.

One of the things you remove during a silent retreat is physical mirrors. Why is this important?

Stéphane: Thoughts are not bound by the physical or the verbal. We could literally think anything thinkable. So why don’t we? Obstacles to such a thing (perhaps we could call it omniscience?) are many, but the two most relevant to this discussion are words and our image of ourselves. Every time we speak we are locking down certain thoughts and hoping that others will receive them with some kind of crystalline clarity. There is a rigidity to words that silence helps to loosen. Every time we see ourselves we accept and reaffirm all the limits we have come to define as “me” or “my limits.” While embodied we will necessarily have to work in a way that affirms our body, appearance and identity, but the more chances we can give ourselves to break unnecessary and harmful beliefs about ourselves and our relation to the world, the better.

Jessica: In the context of silence, and the removal of outside mirrors, I have two mirrors from which I work, my muse/husband and my paper/canvas.

Jessica Kung Dreyfus, Study for Space Itself Is Empty, 2011-2012, Goache on watercolor paper, 22” x 30”. Courtesy of the artist. Portrait  of Stéphane’s energetic body.

How are your husband and paper like mirrors?

Jessica: In a deep space of meditation, you are no longer isolated. A wall drops between you and the world around you. Objects lose their objectness, subjects lose their subjectness. You recognize yourself in others. You put this “self” down on paper, and these blank surfaces now reflect you.

What are you working on now?

Stéphane: I’m currently working with Jessica to prepare workshops and teachings on the myriad philosophical ideas and practices that I learned before and during retreat. I’m always working on improving my meditation, my asana, and my ability to practice what I teach.

Jessica: I’m in the process or writing a lengthy piece about my creative process which I call the “Two Mirrors”. It’s a dream of mine to be able to structure and lead silent retreats for artists with my husband and teach how to use this as a powerful tool for creativity.

To learn more about Jessica Kung Dreyfus’s work check out

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2 thoughts on “How Silence Will Improve Your Creative Practice: Interview with Jessica Kung Dreyfus and Stéphane Dreyfus

  1. […] silence and not just the kind where you don’t hear noise, but where you can’t even hear the thoughts running through your head at a million miles per […]

  2. If you liked this post you should definitely stop by our party/workshop on Dec 8 at Dumbo Sky to meet Jessica and Stephane in person, plus purchase their new book about silence and creativity.

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